Gehrke: How the actions of Utah’s rural officials connect to an increase in violence toward federal employees

Robert Gehrke

A man walked into the Bureau of Land Management field office in Moab in October 2010, upset — more than upset, really — over road closures and wanting to confront the tree-huggers responsible for it.

He warned that he was a Vietnam veteran “trained to kill people” and said he wanted to “break some bones.” He later told a sheriff’s deputy, according to reports gathered by High Country News, that he would sit on a ridge with his rifle waiting for a BLM employee to drive by and said he “knows where to dispose of bodies so they will not be found.”

That’s one example of more than 400 instances where federal land employees in the West were harassed, threatened or assaulted since 1995. Rangers have had their tires shot at, a BLM employee’s home was bombed, they have been shoved, hit, spit on and sent death threats.

None of this happens in a vacuum and a new study charts how actions taken by our elected leaders can fan the flames of violence and threats against land management employees.

Back in 2012, Utah became the first Western state to pass legislation demanding that Congress relinquish ownership of more than 30 million acres within its borders, tapping into the same philosophy that led to Cliven Bundy’s standoff with federal officials in Nevada.

The legislation was widely dismissed as blatantly unconstitutional by academics and the Western attorneys general. Still, out-of-state lawyers cashed in writing a memo outlining a $14 million legal strategy.

Aside from that, not much has happened. The lands remain in federal control.

However, Zoe Nemerever, a PhD candidate at the University of California, San Diego, found that in the year after Utah and other Western state legislatures made their land-transfer demands, those states saw a nearly 11% increase in violence directed at federal public lands employees.

The anti-federal legislation “validates the concerns of people who are against federal land management,” Nemerever told me Tuesday. “[They believe], ’It’s not just me that feels this way. Even the state legislature thinks it’s a problem.’ So it validates their concerns and makes them feel the state would be on their side if they were to get in trouble.”

Individuals who feel their views are supported by their state politicians may discount the legal consequences of violent acts and adding land transfer legislation to the political agenda “could inflame latent anti-government sentiments into strongly-held negative feelings toward the BLM,” she wrote.

Nemerever, who first became interested in anti-federalist violence after militants occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, found another factor with an even stronger correlation to violence against land managers — the election of a “constitutionalist” sheriff — those sheriffs who view the state and federal government as subordinate to the counties.

Counties that elect such a sheriff are 53% more likely to have incidents of violence directed at federal land employees within a year of the election.

“It was too uncanny to be just by chance that these sheriffs are in the same places we’re seeing a lot of violence against federal employees,” she said.

Nemerever points to Utah’s Kane County, where in 2003, Lamont Smith, the sheriff at the time, tore down more than 30 signs restricting access to federal land. In 2013, he joined other sheriffs pledging to ignore attempts at federal gun control. And in legislative testimony, he called BLM’s presence in Utah “an assault on the sovereignty of the state of Utah.”

Kane County has the highest rate of political violence against BLM employees in the state, according to the data.

The big takeaway from Nemerever’s study is something that intuitively we knew on some level — that the words and actions of our elected leaders matter.

Those officials need to remember it. Officials like Beaver County Sheriff Cameron Noel should keep that in mind when he proclaims himself the only legitimate law enforcement in the county — "The federal government, the BLM, the Forest Service, the FBI, the DEA, any of those guys, they're not elected. Those other entities, they answer to me,” he said in 2016 — it delegitimizes those other agencies in the eyes of residents.

When Garfield County Sheriff Danny Perkins arrests a BLM officer and threatens to arrest Forest Service employees if they try to close roads, it turns up the heat on an already overheated land dispute.

When state legislators enact a slew of anti-federal government laws — more than any other state in the West — and pair it with heated rhetoric, it paints a target on the back of federal workers and exposes them to hostility from locals.

When officials like state Rep. Phil Lyman (then a county commissioner) openly defy federal road closures and then attack the legitimacy of the judicial process calling it a “modern-day witch hunt,” those words and actions matter.

What we need from our elected officials is a reasoned temperament and a recognition that fanning the flames of anti-government resentment can — and the data shows does — provoke actions with serious consequences for men and women who are merely doing their jobs trying to protect our public treasures.