Raid, rinse, repeat – Part IV

Federal land agents descend on Bundy ranch
Thursday, May 24, 2018

Photo by Jason Bean/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP

In this April 12, 2014 file photo, the Bundy family and their supporters fly the American flag as their cattle are released by the Bureau of Land Management back onto public land outside of Bunkerville, Nevada. Charges of conspiracy against the family were dismissed with prejudice about four years later.

About three decades before he became part of a high-profile dispute with the Bureau of Land Management, Ammon Bundy remembers a childhood confrontation with a “stiff park ranger in a goofy hat.” Unlike his later experiences with the federal government, he wrote in a book by Custer Battlefield Museum Director Christopher Kortlander, this interaction would include no use of force or violence.

Ammon’s forward to Arrow to the Heart: The Last Battle at the Little Big Horn: The Custer Battlefield Museum vs. The Federal Government states he was about 9 or 10 years old when he went with his family to visit Great Basin National Park in Nevada. They had finished a tour of “magnificent” underground chambers within the Lehman Caves, honeycombed with limestone stalagmites and stalactites, when another sight caught the attention of Ammon and his brothers – a bird’s nest beneath the canopy of the visitor’s center. He climbed a railing to get a closer look, when a nearby park ranger approached and “strictly reprimanded” him for disturbing the birds.

“How would you like it if I came and frightened you in your home?” he remembered the ranger asking.

Embarrassed, Ammon jumped down and left the area. This interaction, he stated, was an example of federal law enforcement as it should be.

“He did not wear a gun. He did not have a radio. He was not wearing a protective vest or armor plates or a helmet,” he wrote in Arrow to the Heart. “He did not threaten to arrest us or use force in any way. In fact, I do not think the use of force was in his nature. He was someone who loved the birds and looked after them. He did his job, stopped our intrusion, educated us with a little shame and then walked away.”

Over the past 35 years, Ammon wrote, members of federal law enforcement on public land have evolved “from peaceful park rangers in goofy hats” to “terrifying soldiers with training to equal their gear.”

Signs of the times

In a January 2016 interview with High Country News, former BLM ranger Cris Hartman reflected on some of the controversial equipment upgrades she saw in-house as urban crime moved from growing Western cities onto federal land. These upgrades, the article notes, included “shotguns in the ‘80s; semi-automatic rifles in 1992; [and] high-powered assault rifles in the early 2000s, after [Hartman] left the BLM for the Forest Service, where she observed a similar pattern.”

Despite the increase in weaponry, Hartman told High Country News, “the sheriffs were always ahead of us” in terms of armaments.

Kortlander had witnessed these weapons in 2005 when the BLM raided the Battlefield Museum in Garryowen as part of a nearly five-year-long search for fraudulent artifacts that turned up nothing. Their actions were “egregious,” he said, and cost him his retirement savings and nearly $1 million in legal fees.

“I get my heart rate up even talking about this,” he said from his Garryowen office, clearly trying to control his temper. “When they have the target set on you, right or wrong, they’re going to take you down.”

Other stories alleging excessive force, discussed in previous issues, can be found in Utah and Wyoming – where a total of four suicides from 2009-17 have been attributed to stress as a result of BLM investigations. In another instance, Gibson Guitar Corporation settled a legal dispute with the Fish and Wildlife Service out of court in 2012, not due to what they believed to be legal fault, but because “proving our case at trial would have cost millions of dollars and taken a very long time to resolve.” The instrument company had been raided in 2009 and 2011 under suspicion of trafficking wood obtained illegally from Madagascar.

The BLM and FWS are two of nine agencies within the U.S. Department of the Interior, which employs 70,000 people and has an annual budget of $20.7 billion. The BLM have an estimated 200 law enforcement rangers (uniformed officers) and 70 special agents (investigators), while the FWS’ Office of Law Enforcement (OLE) – at capacity – include about 261 special agents and 140 wildlife inspectors. Most OLE personnel, the FWS website states, are “officers on the beat” who operate through eight regional offices nationwide.

A call for change

Interior, the BLM and the OLE declined comment regarding specific cases. However, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke called for a “culture change” in his agency on Dec. 14, 2017 following the results of a department-wide survey on harassment in the workplace. Thirty-five percent of Interior’s more than 28,000 respondents stated they had experienced harassment or discrimination during the 12 months preceding the survey, conducted from Jan. 9 to March 5 of 2017. The most common issues were harassment due to age

(20.5 percent), gender (16.5 percent), and race or ethnicity (9.3 percent). Further down the line were sexual harassment (8 percent); and harassment due to religion (7.1 percent), disability (6.1 percent) and sexual orientation (3.6 percent).

“It’s time to acknowledge that we have a problem,” Zinke said in a video on the Department of Interior website. “Unfortunately, the survey shows that harassment, intimidation and discrimination have been a common practice at Interior. A culture that tolerates such behavior tarnishes our noble mission of stewardship and breaches public trust.

“I’m speaking today to make it clear that the culture of harassment and intimidation – which this administration inherited – has come to an end. I’ve already removed four senior leaders that were guilty of inappropriate behavior and I will remove 400 more if necessary.”

For Ammon, any proposed restructuring of Interior would have to wait as, three years previous, agency law enforcement made a visit to the ranch of his father Cliven Bundy. This time, the issue wouldn’t involve the birds above their heads, but rather the grass beneath their feet.

During the tail-end of his conflict with the BLM, Ammon dictated his forward to Kortlander from solitary confinement at the federal detention center in Pahrump, Nevada. Ammon isn’t ready for any sort of book tour for Arrow to the Heart, Kortlander said, because right now, he just wants to manage his car fleet business in Phoenix, enjoy his family, and take more time for hiking and fishing.

“Look at me, I’m worked up and I never went to prison,” Kortlander said. “He went to prison for more than 690 days.”

Armed standoff

Ammon is well-known nationwide for both leading the 41-day occupation of Oregon’s Melheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016 – which included its own set of issues – and his involvement in an armed confrontation with BLM and Park Service law enforcement. The latter came to a head on April 5, 2014 over land-grazing fees.

The armed standoff began in Bunkerville, Nev., an unincorporated desert town of 1,300-plus as federal agents faced the Bundys and hundreds of their supporters. It was the tipping point of a dispute between Cliven and the BLM.

The BLM stated Cliven’s cattle had been grazing on federal land illegally for two decades and he owed $1 million in fees. Cliven argued that what the BLM believed to be federal land actually belonged to the states due to state sovereignty.

Like his father, Ammon resisted what he saw as federal overreach in regards to BLM ownership of public land. Citing Article 4, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution – which guarantees “every state in this union a Republican form of government” – he doesn’t believe the federal government should own large amounts of state land. For them to do so, according to Ammon, conflicts with a Republic’s emphasis on state sovereignty through the people or their elected representatives.

“I do not believe that the Bureau of Land Management has any authority whatsoever to be managing land inside the states,” he said. “There’s no leniency in the United States Constitution that allows the Bureau of Land Management to control, manage and profit off the lands and resources inside the state.”

The BLM manages more than 10 percent of U.S. land and one-third of the nation’s minerals via the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, otherwise known as FLPMA. In Nevada, the BLM manages 48 million acres – or 63 percent of the total area – according to the agency’s website.

When FLPMA was updated in December 2014, former BLM Director Neil Kornze took the opportunity to explain that the legislation was “central to everything we do at the Bureau of Land Management.”

“FLPMA defines our mission as one of multiple use and sustained yield,” he stated. “This means thoughtful development in the right places to drive economic opportunities for local communities. It also means protecting natural, cultural and historical resources that are simply too special to develop.

“[Above] all, it means working with a changing nation to make decisions that are balanced and forward looking.”

One of the Department of Interior’s decisions was to limit cattle activity on public lands within the habitat of the Mojave desert tortoise – listed as threatened by 1990 under the federal Endangered Species Act. When they did this, according to a May 2014 article in Reuters, “it effectively marked the cattle ranchers of Nevada’s Clark County for extinction.” At the time the tortoise was listed, the article states, there were about 50 cattle ranchers in Clark County, including Cliven. This number decreased as regulations made ranching in the area less sustainable.

“Some of them fought court battles to stay, rejecting the idea their cattle posed a danger to the tortoises,” the article states. “But, one by one, they slowly gave up and disappeared.”

A report by the FWS, released in October 2017, states the agency remains “unable to quantify how threats affect desert tortoise populations.” The most apparent problems, the study states, are loss of habitat due to urbanization or largescale renewable energy projects. Also cited among the prominent threats to the tortoise’s habitat are the construction of roads and highways, off-road vehicle activities, and the introduction of non-native invasive plant species.

In a Jan. 13 article by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, FWS desert tortoise recovery coordinator Roy Averill-Murray addressed the uncertainty expressed in the study.

“The reason that sentence is still in there – and why it’s so frustrating – is that it’s such a complicated web of threats,” he said. “Trying to pick that apart is almost impossible.”

Livestock allotments have been eliminated from “within the boundaries of critical habitat,” the study states. Because of this, it continues, the tortoise’s territory won’t be “substantially affected” within the area.

By April 12, 2014 the BLM confiscated about 300 of Cliven’s cattle, leading to what the Las Vegas Review-Journal stated two days later was “a 20-minute standoff between angry and armed ranchers and law enforcement officers.”

Several days previous, BLM rangers had shocked Ammon twice with a stun gun in a tense scene while surrounded by dozens of protesters. They yelled at him not to approach them; he wanted to know where his father’s cattle had gone. Now, both sides had snipers at the ready.

“With rifles pointing toward each side and tensions reaching a critical level,” the Review-Journal stated, “federal land officials backed off and agreed to give up the cattle to Bundy’s family and supporters.”

According to Kortlander, it was a good thing there wasn’t an accidental gunshot, otherwise “it would have been a bloodbath.”

Leaked BLM report

Once tensions died down, Special Agent Larry Wooten became the BLM’s lead investigator on the standoff, where he wrote the agency’s personnel – from supervisors on down – displayed “carnival, inappropriate and childish behavior.”

Wooten’s 18-page report to the Department of Justice regarding issues within the BLM’s Office of Law Enforcement and Security (OLES) was leaked online in December 2017. In the document, he wrote about how his agency’s “extreme unprofessional bias” adversely affected the BLM’s investigation of the Bundy family. Many of the harassment issues uncovered in 2017’s department-wide survey of Interior would come into play against the Bundys.

Wooten stated social interactions within his workplace “showed clear prejudice against the defendants, their supporters and Mormons.” Both Cliven and Ammon are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints. Wooten himself was accused of being a member, he wrote, and told, “I bet you think I am going to hell, don’t you?”

“A booking photo of Cliven Bundy was (and is) inappropriately, openly, prominently and proudly displayed in the office of a potential trial witness and my supervisor,” he wrote. “[Altered] and degrading suspect photos were put in an office presentation by my supervisor.”

In addition, Wooten wrote, he “became aware of potentially captured comments in which our own law enforcement officers allegedly bragged about roughing up [Ammon’s brother] Dave Bundy, grinding his face into the ground and Dave Bundy having little bits of gravel stuck in his face.”

On April 6, 2014, prior to the investigation, Dave had been arrested while videotaping people he suspected to be federal agents near Cliven’s ranch.

Also present in Wooten’s report is Dan Love, who served both as the BLM’s special agent in charge during the Bundy standoff and as the assistant SAC during the Operation Cerberus Action in 2009. Following the latter incident – discussed in a previous issue and alluded to earlier – three people in the Utah area connected to BLM investigations died, one by asphyxiation and two others by self-inflicted gunshot wounds. Love himself eventually would be ejected from the BLM after an Aug. 24, 2017 report cited him for official misconduct.

While on the case, however, Wooten stated he was told by his supervisor that Love was the OLES’ “director’s boy” and “they indicated they were going to hide and protect him.” According to Wooten, he also was notified of an instance where Love had threatened physical harm on a subordinate employee and his family.

“Time after time, I was told of former BLM SAC Love’s misconduct,” Wooten wrote. “I was told by BLM law enforcement supervisors that he had a kill book as a trophy and, in essence, bragged about getting three individuals in Utah to commit suicide.”

Bundy case dismissed

On Jan. 8, Judge Gloria Navarro of Federal District Court in Las Vegas dismissed with prejudice all charges – including conspiracy – stemming from the standoff in Bunkerville. In her reasoning, she noted “the new, yet unexplored issues related to the Wooten email” and the fact that Wooten was removed from the investigation in February 2017, allegedly for complaining about Love’s misconduct.

As a result of her ruling, Ammon was freed from prison, along with Cliven, his brother Ryan and a militia member named Ryan Payne.

“The government’s recklessness and the prejudice the defendants will suffer as a result of a retrial warrant the extreme measure of dismissing the indictment,” Navarro stated, “because no lesser sanction would adequately deter future investigatory and prosecutorial misconduct.”

Now that he’s out of prison, Ammon said, he gets to see his six children grow up – his oldest is 15 and his youngest 3. According to Ammon, he’s especially grateful to watch his youngest kids grow up “because they’re so innocent and so precious, and they show their love to me so much.”

In addition to his children, he said, calls from his wife helped him cope with the difficult times while in prison.

“Between...the relationship with God and the relationship with my wife, we just made it through it,” he said. “I truly believed that, sooner or later, the truth was going to come out. Just hanging onto that gave me a lot of strength, knowing that God was going to make it all right.”

Ironically, had the BLM investigation dropped the “extreme unprofessional bias” as per Wooten’s specifications, members of the Bundy family may have spent more time behind bars.

“The purpose of this narrative is not to take up for or defend the actions of the subjects of this investigation,” Wooten wrote, noting that Cliven used “an aggressive and bully-type strategy” that caused a national incident. “Instead of Cliven Bundy properly using the court system or other avenues to properly address his grievances, he chose an illegal, uncivilized and dangerous strategy in which a tragedy was narrowly and thankfully avoided.”

Though Kortlander disagrees with Wooten’s opinion regarding the Bundy family – calling Ammon a “patriot” – he commended “whistleblowers” such as him within the federal government. People like Wooten, he wrote in Arrow to the Heart, are holding the government accountable and “helping to keep our nation the land of the free.”

Genie in the bottle

In a setting far removed from the realm of a desert standoff, U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah made subdued gestures behind a wooden desk as he concluded a meeting held May 9 on law enforcement programs at the BLM and U.S. Forest Service.

“I think we all seem to agree, based on our discussions today, that there should be more local law enforcement involvement in this area,” said Lee, who serves as chairman of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests and Mining. “I think that’s a good point [of] relative consensus.”

His statement went unchallenged, and appeared in tune with the preceding hour and 40 minutes.

Drawing upon both the Bundy investigation and Operation Cerberus, he continued: “The question that remains is whether law enforcement authority for federal land management agencies are – by their nature...so prone to abuse that congress should consider amending or perhaps revoking their authority.”

Aside from the fact that the Forest Service has law enforcement personnel, little was said during the meeting on how they may have overstepped their authority. Tracy Perry, its director of law enforcement and investigations, said he works well with sheriffs and – as his agency has 193 million acres of national forest to cover – many local personnel don’t want to take on specialized federal cases.

Nonetheless, Kortlander and Ammon believe the country does not need Department of Interior law enforcement for public land – rather, they say, policing can be provided by county sheriffs and, if necessary, the U.S. Marshals Service. Federal land agencies, Kortlander continued, can be civil divisions while the county sheriff handles enforcement.

In a letter to Lee, Utah State Rep. Mike Noel – a former BLM employee with 22 years’ experience – stated tragedies such as the deaths from Operation Cerberus can be avoided if federal agencies follow “a simple requirement” of FLPMA.

“Instead of needlessly building up and deploying its own police force,” he wrote, “the BLM should first rely to the maximum extent feasible on local county sheriffs and sheriff deputies to enforce federal public land and resource-related laws and regulations.”

“It’s hard to shrink bureaucracy when it’s enlarged; it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle,” Kortlander said. “This is the monster we created.”

Curbing ‘abuse’

Last year, Kortlander – at one point a full-time deputy – threw his support behind the Local Enforcement for Local Lands Act, introduced by former U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah in January 2017. The legislation, if passed, would have removed all BLM and Forest Service law enforcement by Sept. 30, 2017. Rather than federal law enforcement, the bill would encourage the deputizing of local law enforcement with the help of block grant funding.

Lee, taking a cue from the bill, spoke to Deseret News on Monday, which stated he “is crafting legislation” to “either restrict or abolish” BLM and Forest Service law enforcement authority. Lee stated to Deseret that “federal land management agencies have drifted far from their intended purposes” and the “BLM has expanded its operations far from public lands.”

Though relatively new to his agency, Brian Steed, the BLM’s deputy director for policy and programs, spoke up to defend his coworkers. He stressed that though they identified “bad actors” in past investigations – toward whom they’re taking administrative, criminal and civil action – he believed it shortsighted to “paint with too broad a brush.”

“We have many good people working for the agency, people who care deeply about their jobs and put themselves in harm’s way every day,” Steed said. “I’d be remiss in not acknowledging that.”

“I want to make very clear, Mr. Steed, I agree that it true, that is absolutely true,” Lee answered. “But there is still a big difference that these things have happened within your agency. Federal land management law enforcement agents have done stuff that just wouldn’t happen in Kane County. It just wouldn’t happen in Garfield County.”

The difference, according to Lee, is that local law enforcement is held accountable – either directly by the people or by a police department who is answerable to an elected mayor. No local police department ever will be perfect, he said, but community-driven accountability will curb instances of “heavy-handed abuse.”

Meeting participant Paul Larkin Jr., who served in the U.S. Department of Justice from 1984-93, added that context was important when dealing with alleged crimes – and not knowing said context could result in an overreaction by law enforcement. The more one knows the area and its people, he continued, the more likely he or she will respond accordingly.

“There are seriously bad people out there,” he said. “We don’t need to manufacture them.”

While federal officials and employees continue to debate the finer points of federal agency management, Kortlander said, he can finally take charge of his situation, give speeches and go on book tours. Writing Arrow to the Heart, he noted, was in part an exercise to recover mentally from the ordeal.

“My goal is to tell my story,” he wrote, “thus freeing me to go forward, letting bygones be bygones, forgiving but never forgetting, because history matters.”

Custer Battlefield Museum is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Federal agents must bring a warrant.

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