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Know the West

Standing up to bullies


Remember Guy Pence? Pence — as Jeff Ruch, director of the nonprofit group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, reminded me during a recent phone interview with four public-lands veterans — was a district ranger on Nevada’s Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest in 1995 when someone firebombed his office in Carson City and then dynamited his van in the driveway of his home. For his family’s safety, the Forest Service transferred Pence to the regional office in Boise, Idaho, “which was immediately closed due to a bomb threat,” Ruch said. “We likened it to moving a burn victim into a match factory.”

Writer Jon Christensen did a cover story for HCN that year, focusing on Pence and the rising anti-federal sentiment in Nevada. Then, as now, ranchers resented grazing regulations, and Western rural counties wanted more control of federal lands. The 19-year-old story reminded me that serious hostility toward federal employees is nothing new. In fact, it has been around since the late 1800s, when the federal government’s determination to develop the West’s water resources and manage its badly overused rangelands and forests clashed headlong with the corporations and settlers who wanted those resources for themselves.

The participants in our public-lands forum acknowledged that federal agencies can, at times, be their own worst enemy. Both Ruch, whose group advocates for environmental regulation, and Utah’s San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, who led a protest ATV ride earlier this year on a road closed by the Bureau of Land Management, said the agency is mired in bureaucracy and often seems incapable of decision-making. Former BLM Director Bob Abbey noted that some of the agency’s problems stem from having to fend off hundreds of lawsuits, even as certain lawmakers, for political reasons, seek to starve it of funds in order to guarantee its failure.

The agencies have genuine problems, as anyone who reads HCN knows, and there are legitimate complaints to be made. But, as senior editor Ray Ring writes in this issue,  assaults — in words or deeds — against employees for doing their jobs are simply unacceptable. Ragtag armed “militia” should not be encouraged or supported when they point guns at BLM employees, as they did this summer in Bunkerville, Nevada, in a face-off over enforcing grazing regulations on rancher Cliven Bundy. As Bob Abbey put it: “There were laws that were broken, there were lives that were threatened, and there have to be consequences for that.”

His message echoes what Pence’s boss, Forest Supervisor Jim Nelson, told HCN back in 1995: “As long as people are breaking the law and getting away with it — until those kinds of folks are dealt with — it’s going to be tough. ... You have to stand up to bullies or they will take over.”