The Wild West Backlash Against The Federal Government
TONOPAH, NEVADA--Scanning the Sunday Times during the summer of 1990, President George Bush read how an Idaho rancher had threatened to slit the throat of a U.S. Forest Service ranger in charge of regulating his cows on the public range. Bush ordered a Justice Department investigation. The White House aide who called the ranger said the president wanted him to know he wouldn't tolerate harassment of federal workers. Five years later times have changed drastically. Threats against federal employees working in the rural West have become almost commonplace with workers having to travel in pairs, maintaining constant radio contact with home offices. Their families routinely receive threats aimed not just at the workers but also at their children. In the face of rising tensions, President Bill Clinton has reacted in a markedly different way than his predecessor. His administration has placed a gag order on U.S. Forest Service employees talking about their harassment, ordered line officers on the public range to quit complaining, and retreated from legal confrontations. Ever since the Oklahoma City bombing, the situation across the whole of the West has become more tense. "There's more people now kind of watching their backs," Doug Zimmer, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesman told the Spokane News Tribune in May. "You pull into a rest stop driving from Spokane to Seattle and you park away from the other vehicles, that kind of thing." At a public meeting last December, one man told Zimmer he was going to his truck for a gun. Another threatened to rope him to his pickup and drag him through town. The situation is so bad that the Washington State Department of Ecology has removed state logos from most of its cars. "The (Bureau of Land Management) BLM and Forest Service managers have been pushing on the Department of Justice to act, but the Clinton administration has been loath to respond in an aggressive fashion," says Jeff DeBonis, who heads Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a group that represents government workers on the public domain. "The most they have been willing to do is belatedly file civil suits." Andy Stahl of The Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, another government group, says, "The problem lies with top-level managers in the Forest Service and in the office of the general counsel of the Department of Agriculture who are largely holdovers from the Reagan and Bush years and who are sympathetic with the claims of many of these ranchers and county leaders." Most damaging, while the Clinton administration's weak civil suits reassert federal control over the public domain rangelands, everyone knows Clinton has floated a plan to turn millions of federal acres back to the states--a position that only encourages ranchers and other dissidents to up the ante and increase the tension with the federal employees. At a community meeting in Billings, Montana, earlier this month the 12-year-old daughter of an Interior Department worker in the West told the president she was frightened. "What can you do, to protect my dad?" she asked. Clinton's response was noncommittal. "The most important thing we can do to make your father safer is to have everybody in this room, whatever their political party or views, stand up and say it is wrong to condemn people who are out there doing their job and wrong to threaten them." The rising animosity toward the federal government, in part, stems from the powerful property-rights movement, sometimes called the "wise use" movement, often consisting of small business and landholders, who argue that businesses should be compensated for any reductions in the commercial use of public lands because of environmental regulations. On the further fringes of the property rights fight is a much smaller but vocal group of people who think that the massive federal public domain is a constitutional fraud and rightly belongs to the states and counties. These people view federal workers who oversee public lands as trespassers on their property. All told, the public domain makes up an enormous part of America--up to one third of the nation--and contains virtually all the potential oil and mining wealth left unexplored. These movements have powerful allies among the conservative Republicans who now control Congress and who strongly argue for a return of federal powers to the states and local government. This argument is often made in the name of local government, but in fact, it also greatly benefits the big corporations, anxious to obtain leaseholds to valuable mineral resources. For the most part the federal employees in the rural West are unarmed and traditionally rely on cooperative agreements with local officials and on other armed personnel within their own agencies. Harassment of a federal employee is a felony carrying a maximum fine of $250,000 and three to 10 years in prison. The center of the range rebellion lies here in sparsely populated southwestern Nevada. Almost all the land in Nevada is owned by the federal government, and here in the southwestern part of the state, in addition to ranching and mining, the main source of a livelihood is the nearby test range. Here, Theodore J. Angle, area manager of the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) administers 6.1 million acres of public lands in two vast Nevada counties. He has worked here for eight years, most of the time enjoying "pretty amiable" relations with the county governments. Much of his time has been taken up making a land-use plant for the range, keeping careful counts of the cattle that graze there and the growth of the ranges' varied plant life. A couple of years ago, federal officials began to re-adjust the number of cows permitted on each allotment, reducing that number in some cases by as much as 40 per cent, or imposing a set of restrictions on the land to improve its use. It was at this point that antigovernmental tension came to the boil. Feds seized the cattle belonging to one big rancher, Wayne Hage. Hage, in turn, sued the government for $28 million, claiming that it had "badgered him right out of business." The case is still pending. Relations further deteriorated when the Nye County commissioners, who are at the forefront of the so-called county supremacy movement, moved onto federal lands to repair a road. The federal government attempted unsuccessfully to block the county's bulldozers and were nearly run down in the process. The county officials proceeded to sue the federal officials and challenged the feds control over the land. The government has recently responded with a suit against the county. Angle is the key government employee on the receiving end of the county movement's attempt to push the federal government off the public range. On August 2, 1994, the Nye County board of commissioners wrote to Angle: "Our Board decided that, since you have yet to provide proof that the BLM has ownership of the public lands, or that the BLM has constitutionally-granted jurisdiction, or that you have been delegated the proper authority over grazing allotments in Nye County your decisions are of no consequence. Should anyone make any attempt to enforce your final decisions this Board will take action to see that charges are brought against those persons as individuals for acting outside of their authority." On January 13, Richard Carver, the vice-chair of the board again asked for "proof" that the government owned the public lands, and warned, "Should you follow through with further economic devastation to this grazing right, this Board will take action to see that charges are filed against the person or persons involved for acting outside of their delegated authority." Beginning in March, Angle has received a flurry of letters from ranchers who claim, citing the Constitution, that the federal government has no authority over public lands. The writers insist whatever claim the federal government might have had to the public lands ended in 1864 when Nevada became a state, and that jurisdiction today lies with the state government. Therefore, the ranchers say they are not in violation of any federal law and that any federal employee attempting to enforce the law is operating "outside the scope of his or her written delegation of authority" and has therefore "lost his or her federal immunity to prosecution." Finally one letter said, "Should such an act occur I may take proper legal action, both criminal and civil, against the individual or individuals involved." The government has been slow to react to the growing tension. Angle has alerted his superiors to what's going on, but he says, "It took a while for them to decide what type of strategy to develop in response. They basically said we would take an indirect approach insofar as trying to implement the decisions." At the moment, at least five ranchers are "intentionally trespassing" on land, and the government has avoided a confrontation. In Nevada the government is involved in confrontations with ranchers not only in Nye County around Tonopah, but also to the west along the California border where ranchers have been openly stealing gravel and to the south where one rancher has threatened to kill Interior Department officials. In the northeast around Elko in the Ruby Mountains, range conservationists of the Forest Service are reported to have been facing daily intimidation. In this heavily Mormon country, officials are ostracized by the local communities. People won't sit next to them at church. Their children are shunned at school, and daily life has become increasingly difficult. The federal government recently brought a trespass suit against Cliff Gardner, a rancher in the Elko area, and it may turn out to be the model for similar suits in the cases Angle has been trying to fend off to the south. Angle isn't sure what's going to happen next. One rancher, accompanied by the head of a property--rights group, came to visit him not long ago. "He gave me a letter that said basically these are Nevada state lands. The regulations I cited were of no consequence, and that if I proceeded to try to enforce my decisions charges would be pressed against me....He asked me if I read the letter, and I said yes. I read it, and he said well, that's good because we can take your house and your boat and your car." Unsure of what's going to happen next and sitting on the receiving end of threats from the ranchers, Angle has purchased a $2 million liability-insurance policy from a private company in Washington, D.C. "Just to put it on a real personal level, the whole approach is to intimidate the local folks on the ground so they'll stay in the office and they won't go out there and we won't count livestock and make decisions to change what's happening." Six hundred miles north of Tonopah lies Harney County in eastern Oregon, the site of another ongoing confrontation. Here federal Fish and Wildlife agents sought to fence off a water hole that had been used by a rancher's cows on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge about 30 miles south of Burns. In an affidavit, Earl M. Kisler, a Fish and Wildlife enforcement agent, said that rancher Dwight Hammond had repeatedly threatened refuge officials several times over the last eight years, on one occasion telling one wildlife refuge manager "he was going to tear Constantino's head off and shit down his neck." He threatened to kill refuge manager Forrest Cameron and assistant manager Dan Walsworth, and said he was ready to die over a fence line the refuge wanted to construct to keep his cattle out of a water hole. The tension between the Hammond family and the government grew when the refuge refused to renew a grazing permit for the Hammonds' cattle. On August 3, the fish and wildlife crew turned up to build the fence and found a monkey-wrenched earthmover parked in the middle of the fence area. While they were waiting for a towing service to remove it, Hammond's son Steve showed up and began calling the government men "worthless cocksuckers" and "assholes." Hammond then appeared on the scene, according to the government, and tried to disrupt the removal of the equipment, and was arrested. Susan Hammond said nine federal officials, five of them armed, took her husband into custody. "There were five guns there, at least five guns there, and none of them belonged to us," she told the Oregonian. "We have been sitting and stewing and trying to figure out how something like this can happen in America." After Hammond's arrest, Chuck Cushman of the American Land Rights Association, and a key organizer for the property-rights movement in the West, said he helped organize a demonstration in Hammond's support at Burns. Refuge manager Cameron's daughter attended the meeting. "She got up at our meeting," he said recently. "She was tired of people vilifying her father. I thought it was wonderful. I got up and applauded her. She had the guts to do it. Too bad he did not have the guts to do it." It was after that meeting, while Cameron himself was in Portland, that the family received more threats, including one call to the agent's wife promising to throw her 12-year-old boy down a well. Other calls warned her that if she didn't like life in the area, she ought to move out. Families of three other employees of the wildlife refuge also received telephone threats after the meeting. Terrified, Mrs. Cameron packed up her four children, one of them confined to a wheelchair, and fled to Bend, a town 100 miles away. Cushman now acknowledges he may unintentionally have been a cause of the threats. Angered at the way he believes the feds arrested Hammond, the property-rights organizer remembers, "I went to the phone book and I picked out the names of all these guys and I wrote their phone numbers down. And I printed a sheet which I handed out to all the ranchers. `Here are the names of the guys who went on that property. What I want you to do is everywhere these guys go in the community, when they go to the grocery store when they go to the barber shop, look 'em right in the eye and tell them, You're not being a good neighbor. You're not operating friendly."' But, Cushman says, he told Hammond's supporters, "Do not harass these people. I said it at the meeting and I said it in the document. If Cameron's right, some people used that and phoned them and made threats. I am sorry that happened." Cushman nevertheless remains committed to keeping the pressure on federal agents. "I will make them responsible. Their names--no matter where they go or where they work--those people will know when they get there who they have to deal with. They will be a pariah for the rest of their lives. So the next time they will go to the sheriff, if they want to arrest a man, they will take him to a local jail. They will not put him in leg irons. They will not treat them like vicious criminals." It's been nearly a year since Hammond was arrested. Both he and his son have denied the government charges. No trial has taken place, and the government has reduced its original felony charge to a misdemeanor. Cameron, and the three other employees at the wildlife refuge continue to receive threats. Shops in Burns now display signs saying "This establishment doesn't serve federal employees." There is a movement to recall two county commissioners by voters who are angry that the county did not intervene against the wildlife refuge on behalf of the Hammonds and for not putting up the county supremacy ordinance to a vote. "You really worry about the safety of your kids," Cameron said in an interview last week. "We're seen as outsiders, as somebody that's going to make them change their way of life. But we've really tried to fit into the community. I'm the head of the Cub Scouts in town. My wife works closely with the schools and Lions Club. So it's hard to face this kind of ostracism, especially in such a small community." The population of the whole county runs to no more than 4500. As for being a federal employee in the rural West these days, Cameron says, "Well, it's about learning to keep your head down."