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Thursday's acquittals in the Malheur occupation, while greeted with jubilation by supporters of the Bundy clan, have conservationists and federal land managers fearful that the response will be further armed confrontation from those who oppose federal management of the West's public lands.
"While we must respect the jury's decision because we believe in the rule of law and our system of justice, I am profoundly disappointed in this outcome and am concerned about its potential implications for our employees and for the effective management of public lands," Interior Secretary Sally Jewell wrote in an all-staff email Friday. "As we digest the jury's verdict, our foremost priority continues to be the safety, security and well-being of people who comprise the federal family and those visiting America's public lands."
Public-lands advocates fear that the nation's wildlife refuges and other enclaves of protected public lands will be further neglected as the Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and other federal land agencies divert resources to shore up security.
"We are surprised and concerned. It may send a message that militias can take free shots at federal employee without fear of consequences," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
After six weeks of trial in a Portland, Ore., federal courtroom, a jury acquitted Bundy brothers Ammon and Ryan and five co-defendants, including Kanab resident Shawna Cox, of nearly all charges stemming from the 41-day armed occupation they led earlier this year at an Oregon wildlife refuge. Spurred by the imprisonment of two Oregon ranchers, they were protesting federal management of public lands that they say is pushing rural Westerners off the land and killing their livelihoods.
While their co-defendants were released, the Bundy brothers remained in custody awaiting a February trial on charges stemming from the 2014 standoff with federal officers at their father's Nevada ranch. In all, 26 Malheur occupiers were charged with conspiracy to impede federal officers. The charges against one man were dismissed the day before trial began. Eleven negotiated guilty pleas and seven others await trial in February.
The Bundys' confrontations with federal authorities occurred in Nevada and Oregon, but their complaints resonate with rural Utahns because of a shared Mormon faith and frustrations with the BLM. And the Malheur occupiers' demands for local control of public lands aligned with Utah state officials' policy goals of transferring 31 million acres to the state.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's office declined to comment Friday.
One key Utah proponent of land transfer affirmed the importance of respectful dialogue and seeking change through legal channels.
"I would hope there would never be a green light to act outside the rule of law. I can understand the frustration, but in Utah we do things different. We honor the law," said Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem. "Guns on either side would never be appropriate."
But when it comes to land management, Stratton said, the federal government has strayed from "constitutional anchors of state sovereignty and equal footing." Restoring balance between federal and state authority would help resolve issues before they lead to confrontations like those at Bunkerville and Malheur.
"That would be key to the future of every American," said Stratton, an attorney who co-chairs the Utah Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands. "We are at a critical crossroads in our country right now. We call for sensible civil dialogue in this area."
Utah's Washington County Commissioner Alan Gardner also contends land transfer needs to be accomplished through civic channels.
"I hope it doesn't do anything to encourage any more violence. We have been trying to work things through the courts, legislation and education," said Gardner, who serves on the board of the American Lands Council, the Utah nonprofit promoting the land-transfer movement.
Yet Gardner was pleased with the Malheur acquittals because he believes the occupiers were mischarged.
"They were getting hung with a lot of stuff that was not very appropriate. From what we heard, half the people in that compound were FBI implants that were egging things on," Gardner said.
Defense lawyers say their clients were peaceful protesters who occupied the refuge only after federal authorities ignored their grievances.
The prosecution overplayed its portrayal of the Bundys and their supporters as "domestic terrorists," which the jury saw through and rejected, according to Ammon Bundy's lawyer, Marcus Mumford.
"He took the stand and he bared his soul and laid it all out there and put his complete faith and trust in these 12 strangers in the box," Mumford said. "The jury understood what was happening here. He wasn't a conspirator, he wasn't a danger to anyone. It was a farce. You defied the federal government and they try to teach you a lesson."
But the verdict may simply indicate federal prosecutors failed to meet their tough burden of proof, said University of Utah law professor Paul Cassell, a former federal prosecutor and judge.
"My sense is the jury found technical problems with the charges filed by the federal government," he said.
The belief appears to be borne out by a statement from one juror, who emailed The Oregonian newspaper to say the acquittal should not be construed as an affirmation of the defendants' beliefs and actions. Rather, jurors felt that prosecutors failed to establish key elements of the alleged conspiracy.
"We were not asked to judge on bullets and hurt feelings, rather to decide if any agreement was made with an illegal object in mind," wrote the unnamed juror, a student at Portland's Marylhurst University. "It seemed this basic, high standard of proof was lost upon the prosecution throughout."
Still, Thursday's verdicts were "a big victory for those who feel the federal government has been heavy-handed," said Cassell. And the tactics could promote "anarchy," he said.
"Their claim they have a particular constitutional interpretations that means they can take certain actions is a dangerous kind of message. We have to worry about that," Cassell said.
Federal officials say the occupation left a lasting scar on the refuge and its staff. Jewell visited the refuge in March, about a month after the stand-off ended.
"It was painful to hear from employees who had devoted entire careers to public service and were worried about their safety as they carried out their important missions on behalf of the American people. It was disheartening to walk room to room and survey the damage and destruction caused by occupiers to the natural, cultural and tribal resources," the secretary wrote in her email to Interior employees.
BLM Director Neil Kornze sent an email Friday to all 10,000 of his agency's employees, assuring them of leadership's full support as they continue to do their jobs.
"Like you, I am greatly disappointed. While we must remain respectful of the jury's decision, we must also be clear-eyed about the potential impacts of yesterday's verdict," he wrote. "You do extraordinary work each day, and you accomplish great things despite working in the midst of a constantly changing physical and political landscape. These are not easy jobs. But your efforts have a profound positive impact on our nation and the public lands legacy that we pass to the next generation."
Brian Maffly covers public lands for The Salt Lake Tribune. Maffly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 801-257-8713.