At a recent congressional hearing called in St. George where local ranchers aired concerns with the federal Bureau of Land Management, Utah Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, noted that tensions between pro-land development factions and the federal land agency tasked with managing public lands had grown so tense that he feared there would be "bloodshed."
Four days later, his prediction came true with the Jan. 26 shooting death of Robert "LaVoy" Finicum, one of the militant occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Ore., who was shot by an Oregon state trooper at a highway barricade.
The St. George meeting took place on Jan. 22. Reps. Rob Bishop, Chris Stewart and Jason Chaffetz —Republican representatives for Utah's 1st, 2nd and 3rd districts, respectively—were present at what was an oversight hearing for the Subcommittee on Federal Lands, called to ensure that local concerns were being addressed in the wake of the BLM's recent release of a proposed management plan for national conservation areas (NCAs).
Before a packed audience at the Dixie Convention Center, Utah's congressmen accused the BLM of violating the spirit, and perhaps the letter, of Congress' 2009 law, the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act.
According to conservatives serving on the committee, the act required developing a new transportation corridor through a desert-tortoise land preserve. Jenna Whitlock, acting director of the Utah BLM, countered that the 2009 law doesn't specifically require that the road be built. "The act requires the BLM to identify one or more alternatives,"she said.
But the transportation corridor wasn't the conservatives' only concern. St. George Mayor Jon Pike complained that in the six years the BLM spent developing the proposed management plan, not once was he, his predecessor or the city council of St. George ever consulted. Whitlock didn't deny that the BLM hadn't directly worked with the St. George city government but noted the agency had taken in more than 1,000 comments in the past few years and was considering "each one."
Two hours after the hearing Reps. Bishop, Stewart and Chaffetz convened a congressional "listening session," where the three heard comments from constituents about federal land agencies. Fourteen speakers were pre-selected by the congressmen's offices, with the majority adamant in their dislike of federal land agencies, particularly the BLM and Forest Service.
Randy Parker of the Utah Farm Bureau Federation claimed, "We are seeing the systematic dismantling of ranchers' ability to graze their livestock. The BLM and the Forest Service are attacking livestock grazing and water rights," he said. Parker also claimed that the number of ranching families in the area has been reduced by more than 60 percent since the 1950s, and that he believes that is "entirely the fault of federal agencies' policies and grazing fees."
Piute County Commissioner Darin Bushman echoed other speakers, claiming that there is a vast "collusion scheme between federal agencies and special interest [environmental] groups."
One of the few speakers to defend conservation of Utah's public lands was Ty Markham, a former Torrey, Utah, town council member, who owns a bed-and-breakfast and a ranch. Markham argued that the far more economically sound policy would be to conserve the lands to capitalize on the ever-growing tourism industry. "We need good jobs year-round that aren't subject to boom-and-bust economies," said Markham.
But Rep. Noel disagreed, saying that the BLM and other federal agencies are acting illegally by having federal law-enforcement agencies working on these public lands. Noel calls it "ridiculous" that a Utahn could get pulled over for a broken tail light by a BLM officer. "The only legitimate authority," said Noel, "is the county sheriff." Noel went on to say that if federal land agencies continue to impede the development of public lands in Utah, he predicts it could end badly. "This has got to stop," Noel exclaimed.
Prior to Finicum's death in Oregon, group leader Ammon Bundy and several others had already surrendered. Through his lawyer, Bundy called for the remaining militants at the wildlife refuge to give up and go home. As of press time, there were reportedly four militants remaining who have posted videos saying they'll only leave if they get a guarantee from law enforcement they won't be arrested for their armed takeover of the government building.
In addition to writing news for City Weekly, Eric Ethington is communications director for Political Research Associates, an organization that studies the U.S. political right wing, including paramilitary organizations.