Letters From the West

Stories of agency intimidation told in House panel mostly old or nuanced

Owyee County Rancher Tim Lowry listens as Owyhee Treasurer Brenda Richards testified before a House panel.

Owyee County Rancher Tim Lowry listens as Owyhee Treasurer Brenda Richards testified before a House panel.

The hearing was entitled: “Threats, Intimidation and Bullying by Federal Land Managing Agencies.”

That invoked visions of faceless federal law enforcement officers knocking down doors and scaring the children as they took away the homes of law-abiding citizens. But watch the testimony at the hearing Tuesday before the House Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, chaired by Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, and you probably would be disappointed.

The stories from ranchers like Tim Lowry of Owyhee County are filled with emotion and in some cases details about harsh discussions between ranchers and local federal managers over grazing violations or orders to pull cows off the public lands. Unfortunately for Bishop most of the stories come from the 1990s or during the Bush Administration and have been told many times before.

That’s why you aren’t seeing headlines from this hearing. There was news but unfortunately it was the kind that could be interpreted differently depending on whose side you are on.

Lowry told the dramatic story of how he, two other ranchers and their wives built three miles of fence in four days trying to make a Bureau of Land Management deadline only to have it removed and later to have his grazing reduced and the value of his property drop. The Idaho Statesman reported that story several times including when Tim told it before a hearing Rep. Helen Chenoweth held om Nampa.

Lowry also told the story of how the BLM made claims on the water rights on the public land where Lowry grazed his cattle and it cost him $800,000 to finally see his claims validated before the Idaho Supreme Court.

Similar stories came from Wyoming and New Mexico but the newest was 2006, except for two stories from Owyhee County Treasurer Brenda Richards.

Richards and Lowry spoke of the current yearlong campaign by the BLM to renew 68 grazing permits on public land in the county under court order from U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill. These renewals will eventually force ranchers to cut their herds by as much as half to meet standards designed to protect fish and wildlife and water quality.

Richards also told how local BLM officials worked out a compromise route for the proposed Gateway West Transmission Line only to have it overruled in Washington. She also said recently proposed wilderness management rules ignored specific guidance from the legislation written by the Owyhee Initiative, a group of ranchers, environmentalists, recreation enthusiasts and local officials.

“Threats, bullying, and intimidation do not always present themselves in obvious ways or methods, but that does not make them any less damaging, any less wrong, nor does it have any less impact,” Richards said.

Arizona Democratic Rep. Raúl Grijalva noted that after local outcry the BLM delayed the final decision and left open the chance it could allow more talks. Both Richards and Lowry were supporters of the Owyhee Initative and part of their criticism is that actions seemed to go around it.

Ultimately, Richards’ criticism was strongest against the laws the BLM was enforcing than the behavior of the people enforcing them. But she like all the witnesses acknowledged the laws and the agencies’ rights to enforce them.

“We only hope… that the very laws and federal agencies threatening our existence may be changed to protect those rights and to not allow things to be done in bullying or threatening or intimidating ways, but in ways that you can hold your head up and be proud and successful in supporting,” she said.

The ironic part of the hearing is that some of the most bullying and threatening behavior I’ve seen has been congressmen cross-examining witnesses at these hearings. I have seen harsh exchanges going both ways over grazing issues as you would expect when people’s livelihoods are at stake.

But as tense as the Owyhee County permit renewal issue is right now, I have seen mostly respectful behavior from both sides. That Bishop’s panel had to go primarily to history or nuanced views like Richards to make its point seems to show that the situation has gotten better.

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Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West