Writers on the Range

We can do our part to defuse the West

By Ray Ring
Writers on the Range

The following is just a sample of what public-land managers have encountered while on the job in the last few years: On a dirt road in Arizona, a man who was paranoid about the federal government aimed a rifle at federal rangers and opened fire. In California, a shooter targeted a firefighter in a national forest. In Oregon, firebombs were hurled at federal campground hosts.

Verbal threats stopping just short of violence can be nearly as frightening: A wild-horse advocate in Wyoming told federal rangers planning a roundup, “You sick bastards ought to be killed  … tortured  … hung upside down  … [and] may your families be tortured.” In New Mexico, a couple of ranchers, angry over cattle-grazing regulations, jumped in a pickup and chased rangers, shouting, “ … we’re going to settle this right now!”

We know about these incidents, and more, because High Country News, a nonprofit magazine that covers the West, recently launched an investigation to unearth official reports of threats and violence against the employees of two key federal agencies — the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) — since 2010.

Of course, hostility against the federal government has smoldered in the West for a long time. History and geography endowed our region with most of the nation’s public land, and many presidents and sessions of Congress have sought to protect wildlife and ecosystems by imposing environmental regulations. Though many westerners appreciate the federal presence, some respond with anger and hatred. For the thousands of federal employees on the front lines, managing the federal land can be dangerous.

The most extreme anti-federal flare-ups make national news, such as the one earlier this year in Nevada, when rancher Cliven Bundy faced off against BLM employees. When the BLM tried to round up Bundy’s cattle for trespassing on federal land, some of Bundy’s crew took up sniper positions and threatened to shoot it out. The BLM temporarily backed off to avoid bloodshed. Similar incidents occur frequently without ever making the news.

The rangers and other federal employees also face what you might call generic violence from run-of-the-mill criminals and drunks, and nothing much can be done about that. But reasonable westerners can try to tone down the extreme anti-federal sentiment that spurs confrontations. For instance, the editors and writers for Range magazine — popular reading material for ranchers — covered the Bundy standoff by describing the BLM as a communist and “eco-jihad” force that uses “potentially murderous aggression” to drive ranchers off federal land. The publication also praised “the everyday Americans showing up from all around the West  … bearing semiautomatic .223 rifles” to resist the BLM’s “jihad.” This is irresponsible journalism.

Other incendiary pundits include some of the talking heads on Fox News, who embraced Bundy’s armed rebellion and his claims that federal land and related regulations were an illegal imposition on westerners. Fox’s Sean Hannity, who also hosts a national talk-radio show, compared Bundy’s rebellion to our nation’s 1776 war for independence from British rule: “We would never [have] won any of these wars from the Revolutionary War on up if we didn’t have faith and courage and fighting for something.”

Utah’s Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock went further, telling a congressional hearing last July, “Right or wrong, some equate BLM’s law enforcement operations to the Gestapo of the World War II era.” And Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory, sponsor of a new Utah law that demands federal land be turned over to the locals, said that the National Park Service was using “Gestapo tactics” in denying tourists access to parks during the October 2013 shutdown of the federal government.

This is nonsense. Any sane person knows that the BLM and the Park Service are not rounding up ranchers and tourists and hauling them to concentration camps and gas chambers.

Most westerners respect the role of government and are willing to work with federal employees to solve our region’s problems. Those who oppose environmental regulations on federal land have nonviolent options, including court actions and electing presidents and members of Congress who agree with them. There’s more than enough violence and extremism in the world today. Let’s encourage reasonable westerners across the political spectrum to speak out for civility toward the federal employees. Let’s do our part to try to defuse the West.

Ray Ring is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He is a contributing editor for the magazine and is based in Bozeman, Montana.