Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his armed supporters who protested the Bureau of Land Management’s roundup of Bundy’s cattle last April broke the law and should be brought to justice, a Minnesota congresswoman said this morning.
Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) pressed BLM Director Neil Kornze on what the government has done to deter illegal grazing on public lands and to protect agency employees who have been threatened by anti-government violence.
"Mr. Bundy and his band of armed thugs are dangerous. They have committed acts that are criminal by threatening federal employees," McCollum told Kornze during a hearing this morning of the House Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee on BLM’s $1.2 billion fiscal 2016 budget request. "They should be held accountable. They should be prosecuted."
McCollum, who is the panel’s top Democrat, also cited a report from last May that two hooded men drove up next to a BLM employee on Interstate 15 in Utah, brandished a gun and held up a sign saying, "You need to die."
"What steps have been taken to stop this misuse of grazing without a permit and threatening federal employees who are just doing their jobs?" McCollum asked.
The question put Kornze in a bind, as Interior Department officials for several months have been deferring to the FBI and Justice Department to handle the government’s response to the Bundy standoff.
"It is absolutely essential that those who have broken laws are brought to justice," said Kornze, a native of Nevada, noting that the issue of illegal grazing is something that holds his "highest level of attention."
The Bundy roundup is "an issue that impacted the entire agency, but also I think impacted public employees generally," Kornze said. He said he’s visited many BLM field offices to promote employee morale. "My colleagues at the Bureau of Land Management do incredible work," he said. "Many of them do put their lives on the line every day."
As BLM approaches the one-year anniversary of the standoff on agency lands surrounding Bundy’s Bunkerville, Nev., ranch, some conservationists are intensifying calls for the government to bring the rancher to justice. A federal court has ruled unequivocally that Bundy has been breaking the law for decades by illegally grazing his cows, and BLM says he owes the government more than $1 million.
One issue for federal prosecutors is whether protesters illegally pointed weapons at federal law enforcement officers. The armed militia eventually forced the release of hundreds of rounded-up cattle back onto the range.
Oil and gas fees, sage grouse
At this morning’s hearing, Kornze also made pitches for BLM’s budget proposals to increase funding for sage grouse and its National Conservation Lands; to establish a new BLM charitable foundation that would leverage public support for its multiple use mission; and to collect about $48 million in new oil and gas inspection fees.
Kornze said BLM has authorized more than 50,000 wells in the last decades and now oversees more than 100,000 wells. It would take 220 inspectors to cover that terrain, but BLM currently has 159 inspectors, he said. A new fee, which would be similar to what is already charged to offshore drillers, would help it hire more staff, he said.
Moreover, the proposal would cost most lease holders $1,000 a year, a meager amount for companies that invest $8 million to $12 million to drill a well, Kornze said.
Panel Chairman Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) said new inspection fees would impose a burden on the oil and gas industry and that Congress would likely reject the proposal, as it has multiple times in recent years. He said new fees for inspections and grazing fall under the jurisdiction of the authorizing committees.
But McCollum said that position is a "catch-22." If authorizers refuse to approve policy that raises revenue for BLM, while also passing legislation mandating more oil and gas leasing, for example, it puts appropriators in a bind on how to fund the agency, she said. She backed BLM’s inspection proposal.
"If we expect BLM to safeguard that energy that’s being developed in a safe and responsible manner, it is essential that BLM has the adequate inspection resources to do so," she said.
Kornze also spoke to what BLM could do if appropriators approve its request for $45 million in additional funding for sage grouse.
He said it would help BLM remove encroaching pinyon and juniper trees that sage grouse do not like, while also girding public lands for wildfires; improving wet meadows, springs and seeps; and ensuring a seed system to restore public lands.
"It’s a little bit of everything," Kornze said. "We’d be putting that money on the ground with our partners."