Sunday, January 10, 2016

The BLM's inconsistent approach toward rule breakers

by Jonathan Thompson

One of the reasons Ammon and Ryan Bundy and their armed friends are holed up at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, deep in the frigid sage plains of Oregon, is to protest what they see as an unjust punishment of a father-son pair of local ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond.

In October, a judge ordered each of the Hammonds to finish a five year required minimum sentence for lighting fires on public land back in 2001 and 2006. Critics say that’s far too harsh. And, indeed, it is a much greater punishment than the Bundys’ father, Cliven, has so far received for grazing his cattle illegally and without paying fees on a Bureau of Land Management allotment for decades. In fact, Bundy has yet to be punished at all, either for that or for his role in inciting supporters to threaten federal agents at gunpoint back in May of 2014.

Former federal officials blame the Bureau of Land Management's inaction in the Bundy case for the debacle that’s unfolding in Oregon today. “At the end of the day, most people have a common respect for the law, and with Mr. Bundy, he just believes differently, that he’s above the law,” Bob Abbey, former director of the BLM, told High Country News recently. “The fact that their trespass hasn’t been dealt with in a timely matter reinforced beliefs.”

HCN took a look at a handful of similar cases involving BLM land, and at the punishment for whatever transgressions might have occurred in order to see how consistent, or otherwise, the agency has been.

Thompson lays all this on the BLM. But as you read his examples, keep in mind there is not the typical lawyer-client relationship between an agency and the DOJ. The BLM can make recommendations, but the ultimate decision on whether on not to prosecute, and if so, under what statute, is solely that of the DOJ. The same is true on appealing decisions and accepting a proposed settlement. 

I sincerely doubt, for instance, that it was the BLM who came up with the idea to prosecute the Hammonds under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.

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