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."Next Page >
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.