Republican congressmen blasted the Bureau of Land Management last week for their handling of the April standoff with Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy over unpaid grazing fees.
“Whether Bundy was right or wrong, was the BLM’s response reasonable?” said Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA). “Anyone watching that unfolding fiasco can answer it was completely insane.”
Federal courts have ruled that Bundy owes more than $1 million in fees and penalties for grazing cattle on federal land for more than 20 years without a permit, but the rancher refuses to acknowledge federal authority over public lands.
A Utah county official who recently voted to withdraw recognition of federal authority said the scofflaw rancher was supported by “everyday citizens” who were also frustrated by their treatment by BLM officials.
“Right or wrong, some equate BLM’s law enforcement operations to the Gestapo of the World War II era,” said Garfield County (Utah) Commissioner Leland Pollock.
A recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that militia members coordinated efforts that eventually led to the backing down of BLM and other federal agents to avoid a violent confrontation.
The civil rights group said the armed standoff had energized right-wing extremist groups and highlighted the need for better training of law enforcement officials to respond to a movement that increasingly targets them.
Another lawmaker said at the House subcommittee hearing Thursday in Washington that photos of heavily armed BLM agents reminded him of scenes from Afghanistan or Iraq.
“I have observed more and more the level of militarization occurring within many federal agencies, and I mean almost every federal agency,” said Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT). “I’m not sure having these teams scattered across dozens of agencies is the most efficient use of resources. It’s heavy-handed and intimidating to the American people.”
Bundy has repeatedly voiced the “posse comitatus” belief that elected county sheriffs are the highest legitimate U.S. law enforcement officials, and McClintock said the matter should have been turned over to the Clark County sheriff.
“Local law enforcement knew the circumstances, knew the people involved and would exercise much better judgment nine times out of 10,” McClintock said. “So I ask once again, why are we arming land managers?”
The only Democrat who took part in the hearing described it as “an echo chamber of complaints” and pointed out that no BLM officials had been invited to attend or testify.
“We saw some isolated pictures of heavy-handed law enforcement, but there were also very graphic pictures of militia folks supporting Bundy on the highway, pointing weapons at U.S. marshals,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ). “If that’s the level of rhetoric … I think both sides should be very cautious.”
A BLM spokesman said in a statement that the agency “disagrees with the many vague and inaccurate claims that were made at (Thursday)’s hearing regarding the BLM’s collaboration with local entities. Cooperation with all stakeholders is critical to carrying out the BLM’s mission and finding common ground in balancing the many uses of the public lands.”
But a Utah sheriff who attended the hearing said the BLM’s actions showed how badly relations had deteriorated between local authorities and land managers they increasingly mistrust.
“There have been so many bridges burned I don’t know if they can be repaired,” said Sheriff James Perkins, of Garfield County.