PUBLIC LANDS

House panel discusses fixing 'abuses' by BLM, Forest Service land managers

A House panel yesterday continued to hammer away at what GOP lawmakers, local government leaders and ranchers called federal "bullying" tactics and overreach that has gotten out of hand and threatens the very welfare of communities across the West.

One of the major talking points at yesterday's House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation hearing was Forest Service actions in New Mexico to fence off small streams and waterways in areas of federal grazing allotments to protect habitat for the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse, which the Fish and Wildlife Service recently listed as endangered.

The area in question is covered by current federal grazing allotments where the mouse is known to live, but where ranchers hold water rights. One of those areas is a small spring-fed stream in the mountains of southern New Mexico called Aqua Chiquita, where the Forest Service has installed fences around the spring with small openings to allow cattle to get water.

The closures have angered New Mexico ranchers and some elected officials, who have accused the agency of essentially taking their water rights.

"The Forest Service came in, in spite of the fact these private property rights exist, and fenced around them," Blair Dunn, a private attorney in Albuquerque who represents cattle ranchers, told the panel yesterday. "At the end of the day, it was still their private property. It was still the U.S. Forest Service ignoring the laws of the state of New Mexico when it comes to water, and ignoring those laws in order to trample private property rights."

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Dunn asked Congress to find a solution, and he suggested legislation allowing local governments and property owners to take legal action against employees of the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management when they overstep their authority.

"At the end of the day, that is what we are talking about: oversight and a solution that allows the public to take them to court," Dunn said.

But most of the hearing was dominated by concerns about the "militarization" of land management agencies, specifically BLM and the Forest Service.

The Forest Service and BLM were not invited to attend yesterday's panel hearing.

In an opening statement, Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.) said local government leaders and residents in the West "have been subjected to threats, a lack of cooperation, and numerous unfair or heavy-handed tactics which threaten public safety and threaten the livelihoods of communities, especially those in the public land states."

Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) showed the panel slides of what he said were Interior Department enforcement officers wearing body armor and helmets and carrying high-powered rifles and other weapons. He did not say when or where the photos were taken.

"At first glance you, might look at those and think, 'Well, that's some scene from some war zone, maybe Afghanistan or Iraq or something similar to that.' But actually, that's not true. Those are Interior Department agency employees," Stewart said. "I have been disturbed over the past several months as I've learned more and more about the level of militarization that is occurring within many federal agencies. When I see agents with helmets, with shields, with hard-plated body armor, with grenades and in some cases grenade launchers, my assumption is they are military or possibly with the Department of Justice."

Unresolved issues

Yesterday's hearing, titled "Threats, Intimidation and Bullying by Federal Land Management Agencies, Part II," was a continuation of a subpanel hearing last October.

At the hearing last fall, witnesses, who included a Wyoming rancher, a property rights attorney and an Idaho county treasurer, told lawmakers that BLM and the Forest Service have essentially trampled on the rights of property owners who lack the financial resources to fight back (E&E Daily, Oct. 30, 2013).

BLM is the federal government's largest land manager, overseeing 256 million acres that make up about 13 percent of the country's total lands; the Forest Service manages 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the panel's ranking member, expressed disappointment yesterday that representatives from BLM and the Forest Service were not invited to testify at the hearing.

"We will not be able to hear their perspective or have them respond directly to the witnesses in order to find solutions and common ground," Grijalva said. "Their presence would have made this a much more useful hearing, and a better use of this committee's time. Instead, this afternoon will be an echo chamber of complaints."

Indeed, yesterday's hearing comes at a time when the federal government's management of public lands has drawn stiff criticism.

In recent months, tensions have focused on law enforcement issues, which came to a head in April when BLM and National Park Service rangers had to face down armed supporters of southern Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy.

In Utah, where state lawmakers have demanded the transfer of more than 20 million acres of federal land to the state, some counties have passed resolutions calling federal authority a threat to "the health, safety and welfare" of their citizens, and some have banned BLM rangers (Greenwire, July 17).

But decisions by the Forest Service and BLM to close access to federal lands have also drawn strong criticism.

In May, a county commissioner in Utah led an illegal all-terrain vehicle ride through southeastern Utah's Recapture Canyon to protest a 2007 BLM decision to close the river canyon to motorized vehicles in an effort to protect Anasazi and Pueblo sites dating back more than 2,000 years.

And now come the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse and moves by the Forest Service to erect fences to keep cattle away from the mouse's streamside habitat.

Grijalva noted, as he did at the hearing in October, that BLM oversees 18,000 grazing permits on 155 million acres and the Forest Service manages 8,000 permits on 90 million acres, "the vast majority of which are managed without complaints or incidents," he said.

But LaMalfa urged his colleagues to fashion a legislative solution "for dealing with regulatory abuses by federal land management employees."

"Status quo agency oversight, policies and procedures are inadequate for addressing or deterring employee abuses and may instead embolden overreaching or malicious employee behavior with little risk of retribution for their actions," he said.

Email: sstreater@eenews.net

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