Friday, February 05, 2016

How the Bundy Gang Won

One consequence of the Bundy Gang take-over of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in central Oregon has been the abundant media attention to their assertions of government “overreach” and “aggressive enforcement“ of environmental regulations that according to Bundy and Gang has driven ranchers, miners, and loggers from the land. Unfortunately, the media have been slow to counter such assertions.

The reality on the ground is much different from the delusional version put forth by Ammon Bundy and militant associates. Most federal and state agencies are lax in their enforcement of environmental regulations. Though many local people in Harney County, where the Malheur Refuge is located, decry the use of armed intimidation and threats, a sizeable minority or perhaps even majority agrees with the Bundy gang assertions that local people should control management of these public lands.

The irony of such claims is that local people already have a disproportional control and influence on national public lands. They can attend meetings, go on field trips, communicate their views through local media and use their connections with local and higher level politicians to promote their economic and other interests.

If they disapprove of federal management activities, local people often exercise social manipulation against federal administrators. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Forest Service (FS) managers and staff that live in rural areas. Federal employees, like people everywhere, want to be accepted in their local communities. Any manager or staff who initiates management action that upsets the local people or local business interests like ranchers, miners, or loggers, will quickly find themselves socially isolated, their kids mocked or verbally abused in local schools, and at times employees and/or their families are even subject to physical violence or death threats.

I fear that in the aftermath of the Malheur event, no matter how it is resolved, we will see federal administers even more “cowed” by local hostility to national interests. What BLM or FS manager will be willing to restrict or otherwise control activities that damage public resources if he/she knows that local communities like Burns, Oregon, as well as county, state and sometimes even Congressional members are opposed to the laws or regulations these agencies are supposed to uphold?

Several years ago a friend of mine, who is high up in the BLM, attended a meeting of BLM state directors and district managers convened by Department of Interior lawyers. The purpose of the meeting was to inform the managers that Department of Interior legal teams were losing law suits over and over because they, the people on the ground, were continuously violating the law. The lawyers were young and naïve. They thought, according to my friend, that they were telling these managers something they did not know. The BLM field staff sat stoically, with arms crossed, and listened.

Finally one of them quipped, “Yes, I know I am violating the laws. I do it all the time. You know why? Because if I followed the law I’d have every county commissioner, state legislator, the governor and the state Congressional delegation on my ass–and you know what? You’re not paying me enough to take that kind of abuse.”

Then another BLM manager followed up and said, “I don’t follow the law either. I count on being sued by the environmentalists, so that I can tell the delegation or the loggers or the ranchers that I had no choice in the matter. The court is telling me I must do this.” He went on to acknowledge that unless he was sued and had that political cover, he would not enforce the law.

According to my friend, there were a lot of other people in the room nodding their heads in agreement.

With the recent empowerment of militant groups around the West, particularly militants with guns and other weapons, what rational field manager, especially one living in a small rural community is going to challenge the local “custom and culture?” As one of the field managers said, “You’re not paying me enough.” And indeed, we are not.

Most of the article discusses the intimidation of federal employees.  No mention is made of the west-wide impact on ranchers of the Hammonds being labeled and convicted as terrorists by the feds. 

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