Use the buddy system. Keep an eye on Twitter. And you may just have to postpone a meeting or two.
These are some of the steps recommended for federal officials whose agency is caught in a public lands feud with heavily armed libertarian protesters.
More than 270 pages of Bureau of Land Management records obtained by Greenwire under the Freedom of Information Act give a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how the agency responded to activists who descended on Josephine County, Ore., in a protest last spring.
A libertarian group called the Oath Keepers said BLM had taken unfair action against the owners of the small-scale Sugar Pine mine. Sympathizers began armed patrols to prevent agency workers from shutting down or seizing the operation (Greenwire, April 24, 2015).
The Oath Keepers group is made up of current and former military members, public safety workers and police officers. Stewart Rhodes, who has ties to ex-Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), a former presidential candidate, founded the organization.
Last year’s episode foreshadowed the standoff BLM and other federal agencies are now facing, as armed anti-government protesters occupy a federal building on Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (Greenwire, Jan. 4).
Tactics federal officials have used with the Malheur protesters so far — downplaying the dispute in the press, keeping agency employees away from potential trouble — were also evident in the Sugar Pine incident.
It’s become more common now for federal agencies to be confronted by armed protesters upset over government ownership of land in the West.
In fact, during the Sugar Pine episode, BLM emails show that staffers openly compared the protest to Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s 2014 standoff with BLM over his refusal to pay more than $1 million in overdue grazing fees.
Cliven Bundy’s son Ammon is now leading the armed takeover of the Malheur refuge, protesting sentences for ranchers convicted of setting a fire on federal property and what he argues is overbearing federal oversight of public lands.
One email exchanged by BLM workers during the Sugar Pine protest included the subject line: "the next Bundy Ranch."
In the email chain, employees shared the Oath Keepers’ website and a story from Locked and Loaded News ("Loaded with the truth") detailing a "Bundy Ranch"-type standoff at Sugar Pine.
BLM officials, in their discussions, also mentioned tracking the protest and developing an "early alert paper." Further, BLM monitored social media for "threatening language" and told employees to avoid the Sugar Pine mine area, among several efforts to protect workers during the armed protest.
"To keep our employees from a chance and potentially unsafe encounter, we have requested that both BLM and Forest Service employees avoid the Peavine Mountain area in and around the Sugar Pine Mine," wrote John Gerritsma, acting associate district manager for BLM’s Medford area, in an April 2015 email.
His email to employees also said, "Please know that social media sites and associated sites on the internet in general are being monitored for information and threatening language."
In addition, Gerritsma asked employees to "please refrain from circulating emails about this situation" in "the interest of employee safety" and to instead direct them to a redacted contact.
Jody Weil, a BLM spokeswoman, told Greenwire in an email that "social media was being monitored by the BLM to help the agency remain informed about the on-going situation and to help ensure public and employee safety."
Activists involved in the Sugar Pine incident decided to stand down in May after an Interior Department administrative law judge halted BLM enforcement pending a review of the dispute (Greenwire, May 21, 2015).
‘Have a safe day in the woods!’
Before the stand-down, BLM leaders decided to downplay the presence of armed protesters in and around the Sugar Pine mine, documents show.
One email under the subject line "Re: Sugar Pine Mine Draft Talking Points" sent to Weil, the BLM spokeswoman, said one person, his name redacted, was "going to continue to push the message that this is a non-event, there is no stand-off or law enforcement response, no one is going out to the claim to destroy their property, etc."
Other emails show BLM describing its regulatory actions at Sugar Pine as part of a "routine action." One email from Gerritsma includes an explanation of the situation as, "This is not a law enforcement matter but a routine action."
"From the Medford District’s perspective, it was a routine administrative action. The Medford District typically issues 4-6 Letters of Noncompliance to mining claimants per year and almost all are resolved without controversy," Weil told Greenwire.
The agency spokeswoman noted that "the militia groups called to the mine had no standing or influence regarding the letter of noncompliance and the only available avenue was to work through the administrative process, which the mining claimants ultimately agreed to do by deciding to appeal the BLM’s decision of noncompliance to the Interior Board of Land Appeals within that 30 day timeframe."
Still, BLM was taking the protest seriously, with Jerome Perez, BLM state director for Oregon and Washington, saying in one email that the agency was seeing "a militia response" to the agency.
"Please ensure personnel increase their situational awareness during this period," Perez told employees using bold letters.
Safety remained a concern for BLM employees even after armed protesters decided to back off. In a June 2015 email, Gerritsma reminded workers to stay in pairs and use their radios to check in if working in the vicinity of the mine.
"Thanks for helping all of us have a safe day in the woods!" Gerritsma said.
Later that month, BLM’s Medford District had an all-employee meeting to discuss safety and had a coordination team, established after the Sugar Pine episode, developing a protocol for dealing with firearm threats, according to emails and other documents. The outline for that meeting pointed to "Oath Keeper activity" as a likely factor in "current and future encounters."
Weil told Greenwire that BLM employees are no longer required to work in pairs but "some areas around the Sugar Pine Mine site are restricted and given recent events in eastern Oregon, employees have been encouraged to maintain situational awareness and follow appropriate safety and communications protocols."
The Sugar Pine protesters would, like the new Bundy-led militia, also draw BLM’s attention away from other priorities. One email from Gerritsma cited ongoing tensions as one reason the agency might not meet a timber sale date.
"The current energy devoted to the evolving Sugar Pine Mine incident is already taking away personnel from the collaborative timber sale effort," Gerritsma said.
In another email, Gerritsma asked to postpone a meeting partly "due to an ongoing issue of national attention involving armed militia and Oath Keepers and our attention to it."
Weil said the agency had to rework its schedule somewhat because of the Sugar Pine mine episode, but no timber sale ended up being postponed.
"Some meetings were postponed and rescheduled based on safety concerns and the burden of doing field work in pairs delayed some needed work, but ultimately, no timber sale was postponed," the BLM spokeswoman said.
BLM officials were also worried about retaliation from protesters or their sympathizers against agency employees.
In an email to senior state BLM officials, including Perez, Gerritsma said one of the agency’s spokesmen could be "a retaliation source" and wanted BLM’s support.
"As a face of the BLM and a potential retaliation source, Jim Whittington would like your validation that BLM will support him in every way possible should he be harassed with tactics like having liens filed on his home or having to change phone numbers," Gerritsma said, emphasizing his message with bold letters.
Whittington was responding to reporters’ questions during the tensions. Several news outlets quoted him by name in stories about Sugar Pine.
BLM officials would find their work contact information posted online, such as under one blog post titled, "How Much Is This BLM Land Grab Costing YOU, the Taxpayer? Ask them!"
BLM employees circulated the post, with one noting to the affected officials, "Heads up related to your work contact numbers being posted."
In her email to Greenwire, Weil said "there were no incidents involving BLM employees at the BLM Medford District."
‘No more free Wacos’
Even though Oath Keepers members are not leading the current confrontation, group websites show members are keeping a close eye on or supporting the new developments at the Oregon wildlife refuge.
Sympathizers, many of them with apparent ties to other libertarian and Republican groups, have posted comments on Oath Keepers’ national website. Rhodes himself posted a statement.
He said Oath Keepers was not yet calling on members to join the Bundy operation. But he pointed to an umbrella group, Pacific Patriots Network, which was promoting dialogue to prevent another incident like the 1993 Waco, Texas, raid.
"If this situation goes south, and the Obama Admin turns this into another Waco, the crap WILL hit the fan nationwide, since there are no more free Wacos — not anymore — and you will have your hands full right where you are, and in reaction, the first thing you should do is organize town and county militias for mutual defense," Rhodes wrote.
"And that is something we will all need sooner or later," he wrote in a Web posting. "So, start laying the groundwork for that now. Today."
Rhodes said the Josephine County, Ore., Oath Keepers chapter, which spearheaded the Sugar Pine protest, was involved with Pacific Patriots Network.
Click here to see the BLM documents that Greenwire obtained under FOIA.