BLM faces another Western standoff, now with four-wheelers

The US Bureau of Land Management has had to deal with a Nevada rancher, backed by armed self-appointed militias, who refuses to pay federal grazing fees. Now the BLM is facing off against four-wheelers illegally riding on protected land in Utah.

Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune/AP
BLM employee Tom Heinlein places a "No Vehicles" placard at the trail head of Recapture Canyon in Utah in 2010. A San Juan County commissioner is rallying a group of off-road vehicle riders to flout federal law and ride into the canyon.

The US West is facing its second major confrontation in a month between “patriot” citizens and federal land managers, as a group of ATV-riders vows to ignore trail closures in Utah and protest-ride through Recapture Canyon on Saturday.

The plan by San Juan County, Utah, commissioner Phil Lyman and others is to ride several miles of closed trails to reestablish control of public lands used by local families for generations. The government closed the trails in 2007 after motorized trail-blazers damaged an archaeological site, and the BLM has been slow to accede to residents’ demands to reopen the trail.

Punctuating what federal officials say is growing agitation by so-called “anti-government patriots,” the Utah ATV ride comes just weeks after Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, flanked by 400 armed militia members, stared down a contingent of federal agents, forcing them to release his cattle and retreat for safety reasons. Bundy owes $1 million in grazing fees, but he says he doesn’t have to pay since he believes the claims are unconstitutional.

At least outwardly, “The Battle of Bunkerville,” as militia members dubbed Bundy’s standoff, is still simmering. On Tuesday, someone from inside a car pointed a gun at a BLM wrangler as he pulled a trailer of horses and burros near the planned protest. The men in the car had covered their license plate with duct tape. There are also concerns that some of the armed militia members still patrolling Bundy’s ranch may join the ride.

Meanwhile, media in Nevada reported this week that the FBI is investigating the Bundy standoff.

More immediately, organizers of the ATV rally are hopeful that local law enforcement can keep the peace, but federal law enforcement has warned repeatedly that trespassers in Recapture Canyon will be arrested.

The Utah ride has been billed as a “peaceful and intelligent” action. The BLM is taking a low-key approach to the specter of another standoff.

The agency is not beefing up its two-man law enforcement unit in the area. But after the wrangler was threatened at gunpoint earlier this week, BLM employees have been asked to remove badges that identify them as BLM employees, out of fears that they’re being targeted.

BLM officials urged employees to “be prepared to encounter unfriendlies,” and added, “We never know in life when we will cross paths with these types. We are hopeful this will be a lone instance and it will fade from memory.”

Other officials worry that may be wishful thinking.

The fact that another stakeholder group in the West is engaging in civil disobedience suggests that Bundy’s successful standoff may be spawning other protests, a trend that fits into growing fears by federal officials.

“A lot of people relate to what’s happening …,” Rep Jason Chaffetz, of Utah, told the Los Angeles Times last week. “It isn’t long before shots will be fired.”

To be sure, the US government is not keen to repeat the deadly Waco and Ruby Ridge disasters of the 1990. But the new tension in the West comes as federal law enforcement agencies have growing concerned about agitation by right-wing extremists, and as many Americans in turn are arming up not just for self-defense, but for the potential of defense against the state.

Many of those still camped around Bundy’s ranch have been identified by extremism-watchers as members of various “patriot” militias. Interviews that Bundy has given over the years “make clear that he subscribes to Patriot movement theories about the legitimacy of the federal government, or the lack thereof, and to Posse Comitatus theories about the enshrinement of the powers of the county sheriff,” writes David Neiwert, on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Hate Watch” blog.

The boiled-over grievances at the Bundy ranch are certainly fueling a new, uncertain era in the West, a law enforcement officer who was at the Bundy ranch during the standoff told government investigators.

 “You saw kids and women and horses in the backdrop and then men with guns, laying on the ground, in the back of pickup trucks,” he said. “We’re going, ‘Wow, this would never happen in Las Vegas,’ But it was there.”

At the very least, the civil disobedience actions out West are a reminder of the 1970s Sagebrush Rebellion when some Westerners attempted unsuccessfully to assert state autonomy over federal lands.

Sixty percent of land in the average Western state is managed by Washington for economic and environmental purposes – a throw-back to early settlement days when many pioneers bypassed such land for greener pastures.

The imposition of federal rules on those lands in order to bar, limit or charge for its use has become symbolic, at least to some, of what they see as the actions of a bully government that doesn’t have the West’s interests at heart.

Many activists cite the 10th Amendment’s guarantees of state sovereignty in their argument that Washington has long been overstepping its jurisdiction in the West, and that those tendencies have gotten worse – an assertion that doesn’t necessarily square with state history and law.

Regarding the 85 percent of Nevada that is federal land, the state constitution says: “The people inhabiting said territory do agree and declare, that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within said territory, and that the same shall be and remain at the sole and entire disposition of the United States.”

Juan Palma, the BLM director in Utah, said Friday that the “illegal ATV ride appears to be going forward,” noting that it could further damage “ancient cultural sites.”

For its part, the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office said on its Facebook page that it will have deputies at the canyon Saturday "to keep the peace and protect the Constitutional rights of everyone involved. We feel this will be a peaceful event and encourage everyone to be respectful to one another and allow individuals to exercise their First Amendment right.”

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