Washington • The level of vitriol aimed at the federal government from residents of eastern Utah surprised even Rep. Rob Bishop, a Republican who is one of the stronger critics of Washington’s dominance over the West’s vast, arid lands.
During a listening tour last year, Bishop and Rep. Jason Chaffetz met with residents whose families had grazed cattle or otherwise used public lands for generations, and their anger was close to erupting.
“I clearly understand the outrage people have and why,” Bishop recalled Thursday, arguing the Obama administration hasn’t been kind to rural Westerners. But, he added, “I was taken aback by a lot of the comments that people who ... are grazing on public lands were giving me. I was taken aback by the kind of anger that they had.”
That anger is now spilling out in Nevada and Utah and could possibly extend further as the long-simmering debate over public-land use has flared into armed conflicts and ultimatums — including the tense standoff between Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, backed by militia members, and Bureau of Land Management officers.
Western leaders are afraid Bundy could become the image in Americans’ minds symbolizing the fight over public lands.
“Cliven Bundy should not be the face for public lands issues in Utah,” Herbert said Thursday at the governor’s monthly news conference at KUED-TV. “Anytime you’ve got Americans lined up on one side and other Americans on the other side with guns pointed at each other, you’ve got a problem.”
The governor said attention on Bundy comes just as Utah has some momentum in its move for control over more federal lands, as neighboring states are joining it and as he says the state has made progress with the Obama administration.
“We’ve been working very diligently, this Republican governor with a Democrat president, to see if we can in fact find that appropriate, balanced approach to utilization of our public lands,” Herbert said, adding their relationship is better than some may think.
Herbert said what Bundy has demonstrated is the frustration by Westerners that their concerns about public lands often fall on deaf ears among federal land managers.
But, he said, “We should adhere to the rule of law, otherwise we have anarchy and chaos.”
Brushfires • The standoff between Bundy and his supporters and the BLM is only one example of public-lands brushfires now threatening to turn into a runaway blaze. Iron County officials recently warned the BLM to round up wild horses from an overpopulated herd or residents would do it themselves. And in San Juan County, a county commissioner plans an early May ATV protest ride in an off-limits canyon.
Bishop, who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees public lands, says violence has no place in the debate over public lands, and cautions that refusing to pay grazing fees like Bundy isn’t an option.
The volatile mixture that has emerged could soon become a focus of Bishop’s congressional panel.
“We’ve had hearings in the past over what we simply call bullying tactics. We will have them in the future,” Bishop said. “I don’t know if we’re going to specifically use the Bundy situation. There’s just a wealth of examples of where the federal government has harmed individuals.”
In recent years, Bishop has launched an initiative to try and bring consensus to the public-lands debate by gathering environmentalists, local leaders, residents and government officials together to agree on solutions. The behind-the-scenes effort hasn’t disappeared but hasn’t produced results, either.
Bundy’s case, and other brewing battles, aren’t helping. Bishop says the BLM was too heavy handed and arrogant in approaching Bundy and it should have been handled in a more low-key manner, with involvement of local officials.
“I clearly realized that we have to do something about the anger that’s out there,” Bishop said.
Frustrations • Bob Abbey, the most recent BLM director who left last year before the Bundy standoff, says the concern by local residents isn’t isolated to public lands, and he also endorses a calmer approach.
“I think there’s frustration throughout this country given the partisanship in Congress and the lack of any meaningful action to address the citizens’ concerns,” Abbey said in a phone interview. “The Bundy disobedience is a reflection of frustrations among at least a segment of our population.”
The better answer: build relationships, not conflict.
Abbey suggests at the very least communicating in a way that helps everyone understand the situation instead of escalating it.
He agrees the BLM was too heavy handed with its approach to Bundy and should have worked with local law enforcement.
“You can always, ultimately have a controversy that’s going to have to be addressed, and you don’t want to wait until you have that controversy before you introduce yourself to the players,” Abbey says.
Bishop is expected to discuss his vision at the Western Republicans Leadership Conference early Friday, appearing at a press event right after a group of state lawmakers from Utah, Nevada and Montana outline their desire to wrest control of BLM and Forest Service land from the federal government.
No room for compromise? • State Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, is driving that effort, and his approach differs significantly from Bishop’s. He questions a strategy where ranchers, energy producers and local leaders seek more autonomy by giving environmentalists and the government more acres to protect as wilderness. Ivory wants to force change through Congress and, if that doesn’t work, take the fight to court.
“What do you do when you feel like your livelihood, your way of life has been pushed into a corner? What do you do? How do you react?” he said. “When backed into a corner, when their very way of life is threatened economically, it can be unpredictable at best.”
What’s clear for now is that the BLM is backing off, albeit temporarily. The Interior Department says the agency is focused on solutions to the Bundy case that are judicial and administrative, a big departure from the on-the-ground approach that prompted the armed response.
The Nevada Cattlemen’s Association for one is hoping for a new direction.
The group, which represents some 700 ranchers, says it regrets the way the Bundy situation has played out.
“While we cannot advocate operating outside the law to solve problems, we also sympathize with Mr. Bundy’s dilemma,” the association said in a statement. “With good faith negotiations from both sides, we believe a result can be achieved which recognizes the balance that must be struck between private property rights and resource sustainability.”
That squares with the approach Utah’s governor is pushing — more collaboration and less confrontation.
“We will always be a public-lands state. The only question on the table before us is who is going to manage it — is it the federal government or the state?” Herbert said. “I think it will be a combination of both.”
Matt Canham contributed to this story.