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for people who care about the West

Defuse the West

Public-land employees are easy targets for a violent, government-hating fringe.

On June 5, 2010, Mark Brunk and Tim Rinehart were on a routine afternoon patrol, driving two federal pickup trucks down a dirt road through Happy Camp Canyon in southeastern Arizona. The two Bureau of Land Management law enforcement rangers were scouting for signs of illegal activity related to the Mexican border, among other things. Suddenly, a man in a civilian pickup roared past them, leaning out the window and angrily flipping them off.

The BLM rangers pulled over and got out their binoculars to watch the man for any further indications of trouble. The man stopped as well, climbed out of his truck –– and then opened fire with a high-power rifle.

 

One bullet smacked the hood of Brunk’s truck close to where he was sitting in the cab. Another shattered Rinehart’s windshield, temporarily blinding him with fragments of glass. As the shooter drove away, Brunk raced after him. Rinehart followed as soon as he cleared his eyes, and later squeezed off a dozen shots with his AR-15 rifle, putting holes in the shooter’s truck. But the man escaped.

Five days later, 69-year-old Tracy Levi Thibodeaux, a former building inspector, was arrested at a rural post office while picking up his Social Security check. Investigators sifted through his history to determine why he’d shot at the rangers. Apparently, the economic recession had pushed him over the edge; he blamed the federal government for some of his problems and thought that it was harassing him, even trying to kill him. He’d frequently expressed anti-government views, calling talk-radio shows and writing letters to newspapers. Initially, he was found mentally unfit for trial, but that decision was later reversed, and in 2013, he was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to prison.

Thibodeaux’s eruption, though remarkable for its violence, was by no means rare. In recent years, other angry Westerners have fired guns at federal employees and even hurled firebombs at campground hosts. Verbal threats and ugly altercations have occurred with disturbing regularity, as government folks were hit with these insults and worse: “You stupid whore!” ... “You better not write me a ticket! I’ll kick your fucking ass!” ... “There is a bullet with your name on it.” ... “Fuck you, you fucking faggots.”

We know about these incidents, and more, because High Country News has launched a sweeping investigation to unearth the official reports, using the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. We’ve focused on threats and violence against employees of two key federal agencies — the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management — both on- and off-duty, from 2010 to early 2014. The agencies have not yet provided HCN with all of the information we’ve requested, but what they’ve divulged so far reveals an ominous pattern of hostility toward government employees.

Of course, such sentiments have smoldered in the West for a long time. History and geography conspired to endow our region with most of the nation’s federal land, and Westerners have responded to the federal presence with both appreciation and hatred. For the thousands of workers tasked with managing the federal lands, enforcing laws and regulations can be dangerous. A few years before Thibodeaux shot at the BLM rangers, for instance, a ranching patriarch in the same area, Luther Wallace “Wally” Klump, refused to obey BLM regulations on cattle on federal land and was jailed for contempt of court. Klump warned The New York Times in 2004 that he might pick up a gun to battle the feds: “The Second Amendment is my ace, and they know it’s my ace. The founding fathers gave the individual a gun to fight the tyranny of the government. What’s that mean? The bearer can kill someone in government if the reason is justified. But it’s never been tested. I told them, you take those cows, I’ll kill you as mandated by the Second Amendment.”

The most extreme anti-federal flare-ups — like the one earlier this year in Nevada, when rancher Cliven Bundy and his gun-toting supporters faced off with armed BLM employees over grazing regulations — garner national headlines. When the BLM tried to round up Bundy’s cattle for trespassing on federal land, some of Bundy’s crew took up sniper positions and threatened to shoot it out, so the BLM temporarily backed off to avoid bloodshed. Right-wing talk shows instantly jumped to Bundy’s defense, lauding him as a hero fighting federal oppressors. HCN’s own investigation began well before Bundy made headlines, because we’d already observed the rising tension and suspected that similar incidents occur pretty much daily without ever making the news.

Paul Lachine

In December 2012, HCN’s then-online editor, Stephanie Paige Ogburn, filed a single Freedom of Information request for reports of harassment of BLM employees in southern Utah. She turned up several incidents, including one in which an all-terrain-vehicle driver, apparently angry over the BLM banning motors on some trails, used his machine to tear up the yard of a BLM employee’s home. This January, we expanded our investigation, seeking reports from more than a hundred BLM and Forest Service offices from Alaska to New Mexico. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, in the Washington, D.C., area, offered guidance on tracking down public records, and Marshall Swearingen, HCN’s Freedom of Information project manager, handled most of our communication with the agencies.

From thousands of pages of official reports, we’ve culled dozens of the worst incidents and summarized each one. We passed over the ordinary rowdy encounters with inebriated civilians, focusing on the serious confrontations with anti-government overtones.

We’re letting the official reports do most of the talking. Though they’re prone to bureaucratic language and censored to preserve the privacy of individuals who were involved, they provide vivid, and often frightening, snapshots from the West’s front lines.

We’ve also created a map locating the worst incidents and links to PDFs of the official reports.

From conversations with Forest Service, BLM, National Park Service and other federal employees, we know that many incidents go unreported. So we invite anyone who has information to contact us, using a special tipster form on the web page. We’ll consider investigating any tips we receive, and we promise not to reveal the tipster’s identity.

By highlighting the danger that federal employees face, we hope to put those who foment the hostility on notice: It’s time to rein it in before more people get hurt. Range magazine editors and writers covering the Bundy standoff, for instance, didn’t help matters by describing the BLM as a communist and “eco-jihad” force that uses “potentially murderous aggression” to drive ranchers off federal land. They also praised “the everyday Americans showing up from all around the West ... bearing semiautomatic .223 rifles” to resist the BLM’s “jihad.”

Other irresponsible pundits include some of the talking heads on Fox News, who embraced Bundy’s armed rebellion and his claims that federal land and related regulations are an illegal imposition on Westerners. Sean Hannity, a Fox celebrity who also hosts a nationwide radio show, compared Bundy’s rebellion to our nation’s 1776 war for independence from British rule: “We would never (have) won any of these wars from the Revolutionary War on up if we didn’t have faith and courage and fighting for something.”

Those who should rein it in also include Utah’s Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock, who told a congressional hearing in July that, “Right or wrong, some equate BLM’s law enforcement operations to the Gestapo of the World War II era.” That comparison basically encourages Westerners to take up arms against BLM employees the same way that heroes resisted Nazi genocide of European Jews.

The vast majority of Westerners respect the role of government and are willing to work with federal employees to solve our region’s problems. We hope to encourage them to speak out for civility and reasonableness. There’s more than enough violence and extremism in the world today. Let’s do our part to try to defuse the West.

This coverage is supported by contributors to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund. Map created by Brian Calvert and Marshall Swearingen. 

Ray Ring is an HCN senior editor based in Bozeman, Montana. Marshall Swearingen is a former HCN intern, now serving as HCN’s FOIA project manager and freelancing; he’s also based in Bozeman.