Tribune Editorial: As federal workers face violence, rural leaders play politics

FILE - In this Jan. 4, 2016, file photo,, members of the group occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters stand guard near Burns, Ore. President Donald Trump on July 10, 2018, pardoned two cattle ranchers convicted of arson in a case that case sparked the armed occupation of the national wildlife refuge in Oregon. Dwight and Steven Hammond were convicted in 2012 of intentionally and maliciously setting fires on public lands.. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, file)

It’s the western version of the American right-wing extremism that has taken off this century.

A report from the General Accounting Office found more than 360 different cases in recent years of federal employees being threatened or assaulted by anti-government extremists who baselessly insist they are losing rights to America’s public lands.

And, like white supremacist and militia groups that have gotten more brazen during the current president’s term, the rise is fed by a larger group that does not condone the violence but sympathizes with the people who carry it out.

Utah is something of a hotbed for such thinking, and it didn’t start with a nexus to the Bundy family’s standoff in Malheur, Ore. Utah has roots going back to the 1970s as a leader in the so-called sagebrush rebellion.

In more recent years, the extremists have been encouraged by politicians who have made unsupported claims of sovereignty over lands belonging to all Americans. Utah again took the lead in 2012 with a law passed and signed by Gov. Gary Herbert to file suit to take over federal lands.

The law turned out to be nothing more than a taxpayer-fueled cash cow for out-of-state lawyers, but after it was passed there was an 11 percent increase in violence against federal employees.

Public lands policy in Utah is driven by the tail-wags-the-dog politics. Some 85% of Utahns are urbanites, but politicians representing the rural 15% are allowed to hold sway.

And, make no mistake, those rural leaders have inexorably tied themselves to President Trump’s ignorant and lawless reign. Just last week a coterie of more than 40 rural Utah politicians sent a letter to Utah’s congressional delegation railing against an impeachment investigation with bogus talking points straight from Fox News: “ … a total hearsay complaint … a libelous smear of President Trump … the double standard treatment of Vice President Biden’s obvious quid-pro-quo play … the abrupt change in intelligence community standards just days before the whistleblower complaint was filed … this is a deep state/media cabal ... ”

This utter foolishness from supposed leaders only makes it harder for rural Utahns to join the prosperity the rest of Utah already has. Their embrace of the president’s hollowing out of federal lands policy is shortsighted scientifically (Climate change is real, guys.) and demographically (Young people know it better than you do.)

The net effect of this war is that the best minds are being chased out of federal lands agencies at a time when their expertise is most needed. Even the ones who don’t get guns pointed at them face industry lackeys burying their findings.

There is a reason the sagebrush rebellion and its copycats have failed. They are fueled by what was, not what will be. It’s the global economy, not federal lands policy, that ties beef prices to Chinese consumption and lumber prices to Canadian production. No amount of logging and grazing on public lands will change that. And oil and gas exploration? We already can’t burn all that we’ve found without frying the planet.

Is the federal government inefficient and counterproductive? It often is, and every citizen has a role in making it better. But federal workers are part of the backbone of rural Utah. They send their kids to our schools. They worship at our churches. They live and work side by side with ranchers, miners and everyone else. Turning them into objects of hate is despicable.

When rural politicians find common ground with backwoods anarchists, they better look over their shoulders. Their voters know who the good people are.