Scanning the Sunday New York Times during the summer of 1990, President George Herbert Walker Bush read how an Idaho rancher had threatened to slit the throat of Forest Service ranger Don Oman, who had decided to reduce the number of cattle grazing on several allotments in the Twin Falls District of the Sawtooth National Forest. Bush ordered a Justice Department investigation. A White House aide called Oman and said the president wanted the ranger to know he wouldn’t tolerate harassment of federal workers.
Five years later times had changed drastically. At the half-way mark of Bill Clinton’s term in office, threats against federal employees working in the rural west had become commonplace. Many Forest Service and BLM workers had to travel in pairs, maintaining constant radio contact with ranger offices. Their families routinely received death threats aimed not just at the workers, but also at their children.
In the face of these rising tensions, President Clinton reacted in a markedly different way than his predecessor. His administration placed a gag order on Forest Service employees talking about their harassment, ordered line officers on the public range to quit complaining and retreated from legal confrontation with violent anti-government vigilantes.
After the Oklahoma City bombings, the situation across the whole of the West became more tense. “There’s more people now kind of watching their backs,” said Doug Zimmer, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officer. “You pull into a rest stop driving from Spokane to Seattle and you park away from the other vehicles. That kind of thing.”
At public meeting in December 2004, one man told Zimmer he was going back to his truck to get a gun. Another threatened to rope him to his pickup and drag him through town. The situation got so bad that the Washington state Department of Ecology removed state logos from many of its trucks and cars.
In the mountains outside of Las Vegas, Nevada, a rancher by the name of Cliveden Bundy decided to excavate a gravel quarry on public lands. When BLM rangers came out to the site to halt the unauthorized mining, Bundy threatened to “blow [their] fucking heads off.” Bundy wasn’t arrested. Indeed, he continued to mine gravel and threaten BLM officials.
“The BLM and Forest Service managers pushed the Department of Justice to act, but the Clinton administration was loath to respond in an aggressive manner,” said Jeff DeBonis, a former Forest Service worker who founded Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
“The most they were willing to do was to belatedly file civil suits,” said Andy Stahl of the Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. “The problems seemed to lie with top-level managers in the Forest Service and in the office of general counsel of the Department of Agriculture, some of whom were sympathetic with the claims of many of these ranchers and county leaders.”
Even more damaging, while the Clinton administration’s weak civil suits reasserted federal control over the public domain rangelands, everyone knew that Clinton’s own public lands administrators had floated a plan to turn millions of acres of federal land back to the states—a position that only encouraged ranchers and other dissidents to up the ante and increase the tension with federal employees working to enforce environmental regulations on the public estate.
At a community meeting in Billings, Montana in the summer of 1995, the 12-year-old daughter of an Interior Department worker in the West told Clinton that she was frightened. “What can you do to protect my dad?” she asked. Clinton delivered his classic, noncommittal response. “The most important thing we can do to make your father safer is to have everybody in this room, whatever their political party or views, stand up and say it is wrong to condemn people who are out there doing their job and wrong to threaten them.”
The heightened animosity toward the federal government in the West stemmed, in part, from the increasingly powerful property-rights movement, sometimes generically referred to as the “Wise Use” movement, consisting of a commingling of corporations, small businesses and landowners who argued that businesses should be compensated for any reductions in the commercial uses of public lands caused by the enforcement of environmental regulations.
On the further fringe of the property rights fight resides a much smaller but vocal group of people who think that the federal system of public lands (national forests and grasslands, national parks and wildlife refuges and BLM lands) are a constitutional fraud and rightly belong to the states and counties. These people tend to view federal workers who oversee public land policy as trespassers on their property.
All told, the public domain occupies an enormous part of America—up to one-third of the nation—and contains virtually all of the old-growth forest, salmon habitat, wolves, grizzlies and free-flowing rivers. It also harbors most of the unexplored oil and mineral reserves. The property-rights and county supremacy movements have powerful allies among the conservatives in Congress and in western statehouses, who strongly argue for a return of federal powers to states and local governments.
While property rights arguments are often couched in the name of returning decision-making power to local governments, in fact, this strategy plays directly into the hands of big transnational corporations, anxious to obtain unfettered access to federal timber, minerals, oil and rangeland.
For the most part, the federal workers in the rural West are unarmed and traditionally rely on cooperative argrements with local law enforcement officials and on other armed personnel within their own agencies. Harassment of a federal employee is a felony carrying a maximum fine of $250,000 and three to ten years in federal prison.
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The epicenter of the range rebellion of the 1990s was in sparsely populated southwestern Nevada. Almost all the land in Nevada is owned by the federal government and outside the mining town of Tonopah, in addition to ranching and mining, the main source of livelihood is the nearby bombing test range.
The BLM office in Tonopah was located in a Quonset hut near an old mining site south of town. Here in the summer of 1995 we met Theodore J. Angle, the agency’s area administrator, who was responsible for overseeing 6.1 million acres of public lands in two vast Nevada counties. Angle had worked in Tonopah for eight years, most of the time “enjoying pretty amiable” relations with county governments. Much of his time had been consumed with developing the comprehensive land use plan for rangelands, keeping detailed counts of cattle that graze there and the environmental effects of livestock grazing on fish, wildlife and the desert’s varied plant life.
In the early 1990s, federal officials finally began to readjust the number of cows permitted on each grazing allotment in order to begin rehabilitating battered rangelands. Cows were to be fenced out of riparian areas. In some cases, reductions of as much as 40 percent of the permitted cattle were recommended.
It was at this point that anti-government tensions came to the boil, as local ranchers resisted the planned reductions on their grazing allotments. In an act of defiance, some ranchers actually increased the number of cattle they were running and allowed them to graze in prohibited areas. In response, the feds seized cattle belonging to one big rancher, Wayne Hage. Hage, in turn, shut down all operations on his ranch and sued the government in federal claims court, asserting that it “had badgered him right out of business.”
Relations deteriorated further when Nye County commissioners, who were at the forefront of the county power movement, sent county workers out to reroute an old road across federal lands. Forest Service agents attempted unsuccessfully to block the county’s bulldozers. Driving one of the Cats that day was Richard “Dickie” Carver, a Nye County commissioner and long-time friend of Bruce Babbitt, Clinton’s Interior Secretary. Carver and Babbitt spoke affectionately of one another, especially about their years in fighting off the Central Utah water project.
Shortly after the bulldozer confrontation, Nye County officials sued the Forest Service rangers who tried to block their illegal road-building project. The suit also lodged an outright challenge to the federal government’s control over public land in the county.
Despite repeated requests for criminal investigations by Forest Service officials, no harassment charges were filed against Carver, who threatened to use force if ever challenged by federal law enforcement officers in the future. Instead, six months after the encounter the Department of Justice had only responded with a meek civil suit against the county.
“I can’t speak for the Department of Justice,” Jim Nelson told us. At the time, Nelson was the outspoken supervisor of the Toiyabe National Forest. “They make their decisions and we have to live with them. Six months passed after the Nye County incident before anything was filed. And that was just a civil suit. Dick Carver sure seemed empowered by that. And the rest of those county supremacy folks did, too. This was all happening in an extremely tense situation. These county supremacists have taken advantage of people. They fed them a line that has no legal merit. They’ve incited violence.”
Imagine, if you will, how quickly and with what force the feds would have responded had an Earth First!er made similar threats against, say, Glen Canyon Dam and workers at the Bureau of Reclamation.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Village Voice.