Former BLM chief: Bundys ‘pursuing an agenda’ on public land

 

Bob Abbey was Bureau of Land Management chief from 2009 to 2012 and Nevada state director from 1997 to 2005. In a recent interview with High Country News, he discusses the BLM’s response to ranchers, including Cliven Bundy in Nevada, who broke federal laws, as well as the importance of collaborating with local law enforcement when it comes to confrontation. The Bundy standoff in 2014 in Nevada is repeatedly cited by self-described militiamen and other ranchers with similar anti-federal views as a galvanizing moment for their cause. (Text was edited for length and clarity.)

High Country News: What did you learn about the Bundys during your interactions with them while you were at BLM?

Bob Abbey: I met with Cliven a couple times… about my desire for him to remove his livestock (which he was illegally grazing on public lands in Southern Nevada)… At the end of the day he refused to do so… He was adamant in his belief there is no role for the U.S. government to manage public lands. He articulated that to me. His actions are driven by that belief.… At the end of the day, most people have a common respect for the law… Mr. Bundy, he just believes differently; that he’s above the law. The fact that their trespass hasn’t been dealt with in a timely matter reinforced those beliefs.

People like Cliven Bundy and sons are using the ruse of public land grazing as an excuse for pursuing an agenda, which is anti-federal government, and has very little to do with grazing on public lands… One thing that offends me is the fact that they continue to say they are supporting ranchers that have permits. My experience is that over 90 percent of ranchers I’ve worked with in the past are good stewards that fully comply and have cooperative relationship with land managers. 

HCN: What’s the connection between the 2014 standoff and the occupation of the wildlife refuge in Oregon?

Abbey: I think the delay in bringing them [Cliven Bundy] to justice has empowered other extremists to pursue radical tactics and I think that’s what we’re seeing in Oregon. If someone doesn’t think there will be any repercussions for breaking the law, they will continue to act. There have to be repercussions… I believe there will be. There are better mechanisms for pursing disagreements than picking up arms and occupying federal facilities and threatening people’s lives.

HCN: How did you deal with Bundy’s illegal grazing when you were the BLM’s state director in Nevada from 1997 to 2005?

Abbey: My own experience with Mr. Bundy was to seek voluntary compliance because of the potential threat for violence, which he had advocated. We were not able to get him to voluntarily remove his livestock… It was a constant, ongoing… It should have been dealt with many, many years ago.

The potential for violence was there. By ignoring it, it could have led to a sense of empowerment and more open opposition to federal laws and that’s what we’re seeing today.

Could it and should it have been handled differently? Yes.

(The failure of government to crack down) emboldened Mr. Bundy’s sons and others.

HCN: What prevented government from stopping the Bundys’ illegal grazing?

Abbey: You have to have consensus. There’s not a lot of appetite on the part of senior leadership for putting people in jeopardy that could result in a loss of life on their watch. There were legitimate concerns about violence. Someone could get hurt or killed.

HCN: Why didn’t you impound Bundy’s cattle when you were state director?

Abbey: When I was Nevada state director there were a number of trespasses we took action against. His situation was not the highest priority … (other ranchers were illegally grazing livestock in areas that had) higher resource value and less of a chance for a violence against employees. 

Impoundment requires a number of people to round up the livestock. You have to deal with livestock while they’re in you possession… and pay high prices for wranglers and helicopters. It’s a costly operation. That’s why last resort.

HCN: How did Bundy differ from other ranchers who illegally grazed livestock?

Abbey: Mr. Bundy has been more vocal with rhetoric. Based on our own analysis, we felt there was a high degree he would act upon those threats…

Where there’s going to be a confrontation, where people are armed, you mitigate for situations where there’s a high degree of risk. But just because someone makes threats doesn’t take away the need to comply with the law.

HCN: What did you do about Bundy’s illegal grazing when you became BLM chief in 2009?

Abbey: At that point in time the situation with Mr. Bundy was managed by the BLM office in Nevada. In late 2011, early 2012, there was a plan developed to take action against Mr. Bundy and remove his livestock… (Abbey was involved in planning it.)

(The local sheriff had concerns that the court order from the 1990s would be perceived as out of date, so they went back to Clark County court to get a new order, which they got in late 2012 about the time Abbey left the BLM.)

It directed the Bureau of Land Management to take the actions necessary to end the trespass.

HCN: Why didn’t something happen then, in late 2012 or early 2013?

AbbeyYou had presidential election, changes in senior personnel, an acting director before Neil Kornze was appointed (director). Everybody had to be briefed and comfortable with the proposed plan.

HCN: Why did the 2014 effort to seize Bundy’s cattle fail?

Abbey:  That impoundment led to total chaos that could have been avoided if different tactics had been employed.

It’s a matter of working with the local law enforcement agencies and trying to use the court order as the action to obtain voluntary compliance from Mr. Bundy to remove livestock. If that was not going to occur, (BLM should have) worked with the sheriff to enforce the court order, and if (Bundy) refused to comply he would have been arrested…I’m not sure bringing in a large number of (federal) law enforcement was the right approach… I do know that Mr Bundy had always indicated that he respected the authority the sheriff… (in hindsight, a better approach would have been to) allow the sheriff to take the lead.

Elizabeth Shogren is HCN's Washington, DC, correspondent.  

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The BLM has armed up since 1978, but it’s still outgunned