THERMOPOLIS, WYOMING — Tip to toe, Harvey Frank Robbins Jr. looks every inch a Wyoming rancher. He’s tall and whipcord slender, with flecks of gray in his moustache and the deep sunburn that comes from years spent outside.
His work-toughened hands fidget with a shovel when he’s interrupted in his task of spilling water from an irrigation ditch into a verdant field. He’s hesitant to talk to a reporter. But as he chops stray weeds into compost, his words start to flow — words that tear into the federal Bureau of Land Management.
Many ranchers complain about federal agencies. Robbins, however, is way beyond anger. His is a cold, bitter rage, focused on the BLM’s Worland field office, which manages public-lands grazing in the area. “No one is going to tell me what to do with my property,” Robbins says.
His definition of his personal property seems to include the public lands he leases. He has been charged with breaking many grazing regulations, and he’s clashed head-on with the federal regulators. It’s gotten so ugly that he bypassed the local BLM staffers and brokered a unique deal with top officials in the Bush administration’s Department of Interior, forcing the locals to back off.
Robbins sees the D.C. deal as relief from the tyranny of a rogue BLM field office. “This is a good settlement,” he says. “I think it should be a model of agreements between the BLM and ranchers all over the country.”
And that’s the larger worry. “This undermines sane range management throughout the West,” says Jeff Ruch, director of PEER, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. “Once it is known these kinds of deals can be gotten, there’s going to be a long line at the door to get them.”
A cowboy with connections
Scion of a wealthy Alabama family with solid Republican Party connections, Robbins moved to Wyoming in 1994, to “to hunt and ranch,” as he puts it. He’s purchased three ranches — the High Island Ranch, the HD Ranch and the Owl Creek Land Co., totaling about 55,000 acres of private land and 55,000 acres leased from the BLM. He runs a cow/calf operation, and sells the cattle-drive experience to tourists.
As soon as Robbins moved in, his notions of an independent ranching life quickly collided with BLM regulations. He reportedly balked at requirements that he cooperate in the monitoring of grazing impacts and allow BLM staffers access to BLM land.
BLM files are filled with complaints about Robbins’ operation: cattle trespassing on the private property of neighbors and on the neighbors’ BLM grazing allotments; grazing too early, too late, and putting too many cattle on his allotments; blocking a neighbor’s use of a cattle-drive trail; claiming his cattle were on private pasture when they were on BLM pastures; refusing to obtain recreation permits for his dude ranch trail drives over BLM lands; and refusing to modify his grazing practices during drought.
As the struggle developed, the local BLM staffers tried to deny grazing permits to his ranches, and even contemplated seizing his herd. For years, lawsuits and counter-lawsuits volleyed back and forth. At one point, Robbins was charged with interfering with the work of federal officers; he was acquitted in a jury trial in 1998.
“Mr. Robbins has shown a complete disregard for the terms and conditions of the permits and of the authority of the BLM to manage public lands,” Darrell Barnes, manager of the Worland office, said in a memo to the director of BLM’s Wyoming operations in March 2002. “His conduct was so lacking in reasonableness or responsibility that it became reckless or negligent and placed significant undue stress/damage on the public land resources.”
Robbins contested many of the charges, claiming harassment, and found a receptive audience when he traveled to Washington in 2002, to complain to higher officials in the BLM and Interior Department. By January 2003, he’d secured the settlement agreement. The 17-page document is remarkable in numerous ways. Nine years of Robbins’ alleged violations were essentially forgiven, Robbins can continue to graze his cattle on BLM allotments, he gains considerable flexibility in grazing management, and grazing levels are set without conducting an environmental assessment. In turn, Robbins agrees to allow the BLM access to BLM lands that he leases.
The settlement will be in effect until January 2005. While it lasts, only two people can cite Robbins for violations of BLM regulations: BLM Director Kathleen Clarke and the Wyoming director, Bob Bennett.
The struggle between Robbins and the Worland staffers “wasn’t going anywhere positive,” says Fran Cherry, assistant director of the BLM. “Cooler heads prevailed and we sought an alternative path.” He confirms that the BLM has made no similar deals with anyone else.
The Worland staffers are keeping their heads down and not talking, but privately, they remain angry — as are environmentalists. “The only thing that the United States government got out of this agreement, was out of the way,” Ruch says.
Robbins’ lawyer, Karen Budd-Falen, who specializes in property-rights lawsuits against the government, says he is committed to living up to the settlement. But the Worland BLM office reports that Robbins has violated it by continuing to trample grazing regulations.
Meanwhile, the Inspector General of the Interior Department is investigating the legality of the settlement. Several environmental groups are threatening to sue to overturn it. And Robbins has one remaining active lawsuit, alleging that eight current or former BLM staffers conspired against him in violation of a federal racketeering law. That case is schedule for trial in federal court in Cheyenne Dec. 8.
The author is a staff reporter for the Casper Star-Tribune.
Bureau of Land Management Wyoming headquarters in Cheyenne, state Director Bob Bennett, 307-775-6256,
Worland field office, 307-347-5100
PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) in Washington, D.C., 202-265-7337