Rocky Barker: Old stories miss collaboration’s power

November 4, 2013 


The hearing was titled “Threats, Intimidation and Bullying by Federal Land Managing Agencies.”

That invoked visions of faceless federal law enforcement officers knocking down doors and scaring the children. But watch the testimony from Tuesday’s hearing before the House Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, chaired by Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, and you probably will be disappointed.

The stories from ranchers such as Owyhee County’s Tim Lowry are filled with emotion and, in some cases, details about harsh discussions between ranchers and local federal managers over grazing violations or orders to pull cows off public lands. Unfortunately for Bishop, most of the stories came from the 1990s or during the Bush administration, and they have been told many times before.

That’s why you didn’t see headlines from this hearing. There was news, but it was the kind that could be interpreted, depending on which side you are on.

Lowry told the dramatic story of how he, two other ranchers and their wives built three miles of fence in four days trying to make a Bureau of Land Management deadline — only to have it removed and later to have his grazing reduced and the value of his property drop. The Idaho Statesman reported that story several times in the early 1990s, including when Lowry told it before a hearing that Rep. Helen Chenoweth held in Nampa.

Lowry also told the story of how the BLM made claims on the water rights on the public land where Lowry grazed his cattle. It cost him $800,000 to see his claims validated before the Idaho Supreme Court.

Similar stories came from Wyoming and New Mexico, but the most recent was from 2006 — except for two stories from Owyhee County Treasurer Brenda Richards.

Richards and Lowry spoke of the current yearlong campaign by the BLM to renew 68 grazing permits on public land in Owyhee County under court order. These renewals will eventually force ranchers to cut their herds by as much as half to meet standards designed to protect fish, wildlife and water quality.

Richards also told how local BLM officials worked out a compromise route for the proposed Gateway West Transmission Line, only to have it overruled in Washington. She also said recently that proposed wilderness management rules ignored specific guidance in the legislation that came out of the Owyhee Initiative, a group of ranchers, environmentalists, recreation enthusiasts and local officials.

“Threats, bullying and intimidation do not always present themselves in obvious ways or methods, but that does not make them any less damaging, any less wrong, nor does it have any less impact,” Richards said.

Arizona Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva noted that after local outcry, the BLM delayed the final decision on the wilderness rules and left open the chance it could allow more talks. Both Richards and Lowry were supporters of the Owyhee Initiative, and part of their criticism is that actions seemed to go around it.

Ultimately, Richards’ criticism was stronger against the laws the BLM was enforcing than the behavior of the people enforcing them. But she acknowledged the laws and the agencies’ rights to enforce them.

“We only hope … that the very laws and federal agencies threatening our existence may be changed to protect those rights and to not allow things to be done in bullying or threatening or intimidating ways, but in ways that you can hold your head up and be proud and successful in supporting,” she said.

Rep. Raul Labrador asked Richards whether she still supports collaboration; she said she does. Labrador said the other Raul didn’t seem to get that.

The ironic part of the hearing is that some of the worst bullying and threatening behavior I’ve seen has been congressmen cross-examining witnesses at these hearings. I have seen harsh exchanges going both ways over grazing issues, as you would expect when people’s livelihoods are at stake.

But as tense as the Owyhee County permit renewal issue is right now, I have seen mostly respectful behavior from both sides. That Bishop’s panel had to go primarily to history or nuanced views to make its point seems to show that the situation has gotten better.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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