The BLM’s arms race on the range

The agency has armed up since 1978, but it’s still outgunned without local backup.

 

Bureau of Land Management rangers stand guard as protesters gather at the gate of the BLM’s Bunkerville base camp after the roundup of some of Cliven Bundy’s cattle from public land in April 2014.
Jim Urquhart/Reuters

In 2012, Steve Martin, an Arizona-based special agent for the federal Bureau of Land Management, sat in a briefing room at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, New Mexico, listening to the details of a clandestine operation his agency was planning in the Nevada desert. The goal seemed commendable — to round up rancher Cliven Bundy’s cattle, which had been grazing illegally on public land for decades — but he thought the approach seemed off. The plan was full of unduly optimistic bravado, and it lacked a key ingredient: cooperation with the county sheriff. Says Martin: “I remember thinking, ‘Is this still the BLM?’ ”

Two years later, in April 2014, when BLM law enforcement officers finally descended on Bundy’s ranch at Bunkerville, Nevada, Martin, by then retired, wasn’t surprised by the outcome. Wielding tasers and police dogs, the agency’s officers were confronted by protesters who had gathered in defense of Bundy. A video of the incident, showing a BLM ranger tasing one of Bundy’s sons, went viral, and dozens of Oath Keepers and other militia types from around the country flocked to Bunkerville to take on the federal “jack-booted thugs.” Two days later, a small line of flak-jacketed BLM rangers with assault rifles, backed up by similarly armed Park Service rangers, were strategically surrounded by the protesters, some pointing guns of their own. Local law enforcement was conspicuously absent until the standoff’s final moments, when the sheriff helped negotiate a truce and the agency backed down.

Today, Bundy’s cattle remain on the range, and the federal government has not brought charges against him. The defeat illustrates what Martin says he learned in his 24-year career with the BLM: Though the agency has given its rangers more modern equipment to handle the increasingly complex conflicts on public lands, it still has a surprisingly small and politically vulnerable presence on the Western range.

About 200 rangers — the term the BLM has always used to describe its field officers — enforce the agency’s regulations across the more than a quarter billion acres it manages in the West. That’s one ranger per an area larger than the state of Delaware. Veterans say that without significant backup support from local, state and other federal law enforcement, the BLM can’t possibly handle volatile conflicts like the one at Bunkerville, or the current standoff with armed protesters in eastern Oregon.

Before the Bundy showdown, the BLM asked the local sheriff for support, but decided to go it alone after failing to receive it. “That’s an attitude that just can’t work at BLM,” Martin says.

Clark County Sheriff Douglas Gillespie, right, shown with Cliven Bundy, helped negotiate a nonviolent ending to the Bunkerville, Nevada, standoff.
Jim Urquhart/Reuters

The BLM badged its first 13 rangers in 1978 for a specific purpose: To rein in illegal off-road vehicles in the California desert. They modeled themselves after Park Service rangers — brown wool trousers, khaki shirts and all — and carried only pistols. When the program expanded beyond California in the late ’80s, “everybody thought the rangers were about recreation management,” says Dennis McLane, who joined in 1979 and became the BLM’s first chief ranger in 1989. As the rangers trickled across the West, he says, they quickly confronted other crimes: archaeological looting, timber theft, illegal dumping.

But the agency rarely acted alone. Following the guidance of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, which granted the agency law enforcement authority, but emphasized “maximum feasible reliance upon local law enforcement,” BLM rangers routinely cooperated with county sheriffs, says Ed Patrovsky, who in the early ’90s was the first ranger sent to patrol 3.2 million acres of BLM land in northwest Colorado. “Without that,” he says, “doing much of any work would have been very difficult,” because of how thinly spread the new force was. In the BLM’s first major standoff with protestors, the 1990 shutdown of the notorious off-road race between Barstow, California, and Las Vegas, Nevada, the county sheriff played a key role, pursuing violators by helicopter.

Read more of our Sagebrush Rebellion coverage here.

As the West changed, so did the rangers. Bulging cities like Los Angeles and Las Vegas pushed urban crime onto the public land. Off-roading in the desert sometimes degenerated into drug- and alcohol-fueled riots with stabbings and other violent crime. “We were seeing more and more automatic weaponry,” says Cris Hartman, hired as a ranger in 1984. She recalls a series of controversial equipment upgrades: shotguns in the ’80s; semi-automatic rifles in 1992; and high-powered assault rifles in the early 2000s, after she’d left the BLM for the Forest Service, where she observed a similar pattern. Still, “the sheriffs were always ahead of us,” in terms of weaponry, she says.

The agency began hiring rangers who thought of themselves more as police officers. “We brought in people who told their buddies in Border Patrol or wherever else, ‘Hey, come to the BLM, there’s a lot of kick-ass stuff going on here,’ ” says Martin.

The shift on the ground reflected changes at the top. In the wake of 9/11, the agency peeled away its special agents — who specialize in long-term investigations — from civilian field managers and put them under the command of a newly created director position, filled by Bill Woody, who had never worked for the BLM. The number of agents increased, sometimes drawn from the ranks of the FBI and other traditional law enforcement agencies. Today, the agency has 75 agents, up nearly 50 percent from a decade ago, while the number of rangers has remained relatively steady.

The restructuring created “a faction within the agency,” says former BLM Director Bob Abbey. “I think, in many respects, they have become a separate organization.”

It also magnified certain personalities, by giving more autonomy to the “special agents in charge” who oversee consolidated regions. Martin is hesitant to name names, but like others critical of the direction that BLM law enforcement has taken, he clearly means Dan Love, the special agent for Utah and Nevada. Love spearheaded a series of busts of illegal artifact trading in southeast Utah in 2009. Locals denounced it as federal overreach, especially after an informant and two of the alleged traders committed suicide. Love also presided over the unexplained cancellation of cooperative agreements with sheriffs in several Utah counties. And he was the agent who briefed Martin and others in 2012, about the upcoming Bunkerville raid.

Has the BLM’s current leadership learned any lessons from Bunkerville? It’s hard to know because the agency has demonstrated a nearly complete unwillingness to discuss it with High Country News, or any other news organization. But retirees like Martin and Patrovsky hope the incident will help spur the agency to restrengthen its partnerships with local sheriffs and reconsider its own limits.

“We know there are a lot of people out there who don’t like us,” says Martin. That’s why he speculates that the local sheriff, whom Sagebrush Rebel-types tend to regard as the legitimate law of the land, may have been able to defuse the Bunkerville protest, had he been given the lead.

Rangers still have a simple, everyday mission to protect the public’s lands, and the BLM needs to promote that image, he says. In the past, “we weren’t marshals, we weren’t the FBI, ATF or DEA,” Martin says. “The public looked at us as rangers.”

Marshall Swearingen is a freelance reporter based in Livingston, Montana.