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Washington • The armed standoff between Cliven Bundy supporters and the Bureau of Land Management grew out of continued concern about heavy-handed actions by the federal agency's law enforcement officials, a Utah county commissioner told a House committee on Thursday.
"You may not be aware that much of the support for the rancher by everyday citizens may have resulted from a growing frustration from the way they are treated by local BLM officers," Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock told the House Natural Resources Committee in the second of a series of hearings on alleged abuses by the BLM.
BLM officials facing an armed citizen militia eventually withdrew in April from a court-ordered roundup of Bundy's cattle illegally grazing on federal land in Nevada. Pollock said the "bullying, intimidation and lack of integrity" by BLM law officers has led to a difficult relationship.
"Right or wrong, some equate BLM's law enforcement operations to the Gestapo of the World War II era," Pollock said.
Pollock argued those points in written testimony to the committee, but while speaking Thursday he focused on the denial of a BLM contract with his county to provide law enforcement duties on federal lands. Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox has said the BLM's refusal to renew the contracts with county sheriffs in the state is "retribution" for Utah's actions to assert control over public lands.
Pollock said the contract would provide better public safety on the wide expanses. But since the BLM refused to sign one, the county passed a resolution lambasting the federal government's overreach and declaring that its law enforcement's authority wasn't recognized in the county.
Arizona's Rep. Raul Grijalva, the top Democrat on the Natural Resources land subcommittee, said it appeared hypocritical for the county to advocate for federal funding with a contract and then pass a resolution questioning federal authority. "Am I misreading that resolution?" Grijalva asked.
"That resolution, believe me, was a last resort," Pollock responded, noting that as elected officials, county commissioners must protect their residents. "The inconsistency? That's fine. I can deal with that. If the BLM would like to come forward and forge a relationship, absolutely, we will recant that resolution."
But Pollock added there are serious concerns about how BLM law enforcement officials treat visitors and residents of his county, citing the militarization of the federal agents, their efforts to block public roads and harassment of county officials trying to install a water line on a county road.
"BLM law enforcement in Garfield County is totally uncooperative and unresponsive," he said in written testimony. "Dispatchers have been rebuffed so many times by BLM agents that the county only contacts them as a last resort and with little hope for assistance."
Garfield Sheriff James D. "Danny" Perkins testified before the congressional panel that he has good working relationships with other federal agencies the FBI, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, the National Park Service and Forest Service but that doesn't extend to the BLM.
"It's because there is none," he said. "And that is what I want to focus on today, because I see this lack of coordination rather, their refusal to coordinate as a system-wide failure that needs to be urgently addressed."
BLM officials were not invited to testify at Thursday's hearing, a point that Grijalva stressed makes it difficult for the two sides to work together.
"The issue should be improvement in relationships and that relationship is a two-way street," Grijalva said, noting administration officials could have responded to the allegations. "Their presence would have made this a much more useful hearing" instead of "an echo chamber of complaints and hand-wringing."
BLM spokesman Jeff Krauss said the agency disagrees with the "many vague and inaccurate claims" made at Thursday's hearing.
"Cooperation with all stakeholders is critical to carrying out the BLM's mission and finding common ground in balancing the many uses of the public lands," Krauss said. "In doing so, across the Bureau we routinely enter into contracts, agreements and partnerships with a variety of entities, including local law enforcement, ranchers and members of the public, that serve to protect public health and safety and improve resource conditions on public lands across the West."
Rep. Chris Stewart, a Utah Republican whose district includes Garfield County, used the hearing to pitch his legislation that would defund what he says are paramilitary units within federal agencies that don't need such heavily-armed forces, including the BLM. He showed slides of such federal officers ostensibly from the Bundy standoff as an example.
"I'm not sure having these teams scattered across multiple federal agencies is the best use of limited resources," Stewart said. "It's intimidating to the American people and it harms the sense of trust that is so important to establish between Americans and their federal government."