WASHINGTON — GOP lawmakers, the Trump administration and Democrats were sharply divided over public land use and a Nevada standoff between federal law enforcement and a militia led by Cliven Bundy before he was freed from jail.
A federal judge’s decision last week to dismiss conspiracy and assault charges against Nevada rancher Bundy because of misconduct by prosecutors in the U.S. attorney’s office hardened those positions and moved the battle to Congress.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Republicans have accused the Obama administration of mishandling the 2014 standoff between Bureau of Land Management officials and a large group of militia that prevented them from rounding up Bundy’s cattle illegally grazing on what is now Gold Butte National Monument.
Although the court case against Bundy was dismissed because prosecutors withheld evidence, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, has ordered the acting director of the BLM, Brian Steed, to deliver a report on the incident by Jan. 24.
It is expected that a congressional hearing will follow.
“The failures in the Bundy case and previous cases display serious misconduct by BLM law enforcement officials, and strongly suggest that there are systemic issues within BLM’s law enforcement operations,” Bishop said.
Meanwhile, Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., the ranking Democrat on the committee, has ordered a Government Accountability Office study on the scale of recent threats and attacks against BLM officials and property. The study is underway.
Although mistakes were made by the BLM, Grijalva said, using the committee to “beat up” the agency sets a bad precedent and ignores the larger issue of illegal acts by armed men who openly threatened law enforcement officials.
In any other context, Grijalva said, an armed occupation on federal land would be “tantamount to domestic terrorism.” The Arizona lawmaker said the implicit support of Bundy by the Trump administration and Republicans sets a dangerous precedent.
He said Republicans in the House are misguided in their laser focus on BLM mistakes over the incident that prompted the standoff in the first place: Bundy’s failure to get a permit, grazing cattle illegally on federal land and threatening violent resistance to law enforcement.
“You’ve emboldened people like Bundy and the way they think — that it’s OK to threaten federal marshals with weapons, to occupy an area, armed, and talk about violence and foment that,” Grijalva said in an interview. “The extremists are not just the Bundys, they are in Congress.”
Zinke traveled to Bunkerville, near the site of the standoff, in July as part of a listening tour about the newly created Gold Butte National Monument, which now includes land where the tense standoff played out.
Asked then if the Interior Department would round up Bundy’s cattle, Zinke said he would not address that issue. But Zinke expressed sympathy for ranchers as he proposed rolling back recent presidential declarations that established national monument to protect land, wildlife and artifacts
“As we look at the rancher, that’s as much a part of the culture of a lot of these monuments as some of the objects,” Zinke said.
The secretary did not comment after the judge dismissed the Bundy case. The Department of Interior referred questions about the case to the Justice Department.
But Zinke’s spokeswoman, Heather Swift, said the secretary grew up in Montana and believed a lot of rural Americans felt like the department under the Obama administration “was no longer a good neighbor.”
“One of the secretary’s top priorities when entering office was to restore trust in the federal government and be a better neighbor with states and communities in which we work and own land,” Swift said.
Environmental groups, such as the Center for Biological Diversity, said the administration’s position threatens the public and fails to protect resources.
“The Trump administration is coddling violent zealots and preventing the public from feeling safe to enjoy our new national monument,” said Patrick Donnelly, the Center for Biological Diversity’s Nevada state director.
Rep. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., said, “The Bundy situation isn’t going to go away. I think that we have to have real discussions on how people are using federal lands and how we make those public-private partnerships work for everyone.”
“How the Bundys protested may not have been appropriate,” she said, “but it’s a problem that will continue and needs to be addressed, because we do have people living on our federal lands.”
Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., said he was still reviewing the judge’s decision to dismiss the case against Bundy.
He said he wants to understand the decision-making role of Obama administration officials at the time, Interior Secretary Sally Jewel, BLM Director Neil Kornze and state BLM Director Amy Lueders.
If mistakes were made at the top, Amodei said, lawmakers need to know “not for the purposes of me to go off on some political Jihad, but to make sure that for the people that are there now, we can go to them in an oversight context and say, ‘We trust this will never happen again in terms of mistakes that were made.’”
Amodei is a co-sponsor of legislation that would terminate the law enforcement functions of BLM and the Forest Service and make grants available to states, based on percentage of federal land, to maintain law and order and enforce federal law.
That bill is waiting action by the House Natural Resources subcommittee on federal lands.
Amodei said that after talking with federal, state and local law enforcement after the standoff, “what was painted for me was not a picture of seamless cooperation.
“It doesn’t sound like it was a proud day for federal law enforcement in the context of BLM,” Amodei said. So from an oversight position, “we want to make sure that whatever the lessons learned — however embarrassing they may well be — that we don’t repeat those.”