WASHINGTON – Republican lawmakers on Thursday criticized the Bureau of Land Management’s handling of the April standoff with Clark County rancher Cliven Bundy, saying tensions could have been eased by local authorities rather than the BLM’s use of heavily armed agents.
“Whether Bundy was right or wrong, was the BLM’s response reasonable? Anyone watching that unfolding fiasco can answer it was completely insane,” said Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., who added that guns should be taken out of the hands of federal land managers.
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said photos of combat-uniformed and heavily armed agents crouched behind utility vehicles looked like they were taken in Afghanistan or Iraq rather than the American West. He said it was part of a troubling pattern of non-law enforcement agencies having SWAT-like units armed like “the tip of the spear.”
“I have observed more and more the level of militarization occurring within many federal agencies, and I mean almost every federal agency,” Stewart said. “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.”
Perhaps inevitably, a hearing of the House public lands subcommittee about tensions between the BLM and local counties turned to a debate on the Bundy operation. A BLM roundup seeking to enforce a court order and remove the rancher’s cattle from public land for nonpayment of fees turned into a tense standoff with armed Bundy supporters. The roundup ultimately was abandoned.
McClintock said the BLM should have turned the matter over to the county sheriff, Doug Gillespie. Gillespie himself has been critical of the BLM’s operation.
“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?”
James Perkins, a Utah county sheriff at the hearing, told McClintock he was “absolutely 100 percent right. If that had been turned over to the county, we wouldn’t even be talking about it today.”
At the hearing, officials from Elko County in Nevada and Garfield County in Utah said the BLM’s handling of the roundup was symptomatic of deteriorating relations between locals and land managers who they described as imperious and abusive.
“There have been so many bridges burned I don’t know if they can be repaired,” said Perkins, sheriff of Garfield County, where the relationship has become so strained the county passed a resolution withdrawing recognition of federal authority.
Elko County Commissioner Grant Gerber came armed with a series of complaints against the BLM manager of the Battle Mountain District, whom he said threatens and bullies ranchers by cutting back on their grazing rights and acted in an intimidating manner when confronted with a petition that he be removed.
“And the BLM is very reluctant to investigate stories of abuse,” Gerber said.
Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, the only Democrat to participate in the hearing, called it “an echo chamber of complaints.” He said it was difficult to determine the truth because the BLM was not invited to testify and defend itself.
Grijalva said, for instance, there were two sides to the Bundy roundup story.
“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,” he said. “If that’s the level of rhetoric … I think both sides should be very cautious.”
In a statement, BLM spokesman Jeff Krauss said the agency “disagrees with the many vague and inaccurate claims that were made at today’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.”
Contact Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760. Find him on Twitter: @STetreaultDC.