GAO Report Says US Public Land Workers Face Assaults, Threats

October 22, 2019 by Dan McCue
Video feed of security cameras at a Bureau of Land Management field unit.

WASHINGTON – Federal employees overseeing public lands in the U.S. were assaulted or threatened at least 360 times over a five-year period ending in 2017, a sign of increased tensions between the employees and anti-government groups, the Government Accountability Office said Monday.

The findings were the subject of a hearing Tuesday before the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands.

Employees of the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service manage nearly 700 acres of federal lands in 12 Western states, and have law enforcement divisions that protect their employees and secure their facilities.

Monday’s report from the nonpartisan congressional watchdog agency is, in part, a follow up to a 2014 government analysis that predicted the ratio of violent domestic extremist incidents would increase.

Since then, some high-profile incidents have occurred on federal lands, such as the armed occupation of a FWS wildlife refuge in Oregon in 2016, and other standoffs with armed protesters in Montana and Nevada.

In the wake of these incidents, Rep. Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat and chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, asked the GAO to review the agencies procedures for protecting employees and safeguarding their facilities.

It found that for the fiscal years 2013 through 2017:

•       BLM data included 88 incidents of threats and assaults against BLM employees;

•       FWS data included 66 incidents of threats and assaults against FWS employees;

•       Forest Service data included 177 incidents of threats and assaults against Forest Service employees; and

•       Park Service data included 29 incidents of threats and assaults against Park Service employees.

The report says the incidents, which ranged from threatening phone calls to the stabbing of a Bureau of Land Management worker outside a federal building, stem from a deep distrust of government and a belief that the federal bureaucracy is unlawfully preventing people from using public land for grazing, mining and other economic purposes.

Even a routine traffic stop or the collection of a park entrance fee can be enough to trigger an assault or threat, according to GAO investigators.

Dan Nichols, a rancher and former county supervisor from Diamond, Oregon, told the House subcommittee that while the majority of ranchers he knows did not support the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in his state, many have “legitimate grievances with federal land management policies.

“Without a forum in which to air and address these concerns – and a fair, collaborative process by which to resolve them – we continue to push more people toward the hostile, unacceptable approaches adopted by individuals such as the Bundys,” he said, adding, “Much of what is often described as being ‘antigovernment’ is really coming from a place of feeling excluded or on the losing end of unbalanced natural resource management.”

The report did not say whether rates of assaults and threats were increasing, and Anne-Marie Fennell, who directs the GAO’s natural resources and environment team, told the House panel the number of actual threats and assaults against federal land management employees is unclear and may be higher than what is represented in available data.

The report notes that there are far fewer federal officers patrolling the nation’s open spaces.

Between 2013 and 2018, the GAO said, the U.S. Forest Service witnessed a 19% drop in the number of officers it employed, while the Bureau of Land Management saw a 9% drop.

The GAO’s Fennell said some incidents may go unreported due to a lack of coordination with state and local law enforcement, and then, “land management agency employees do not always report all incidents of threats,” she said.

“For example, some field unit employees said that in certain circumstances, they consider receiving threats as a normal part of their job,” Fennell said. “Some officials also described being threatened while off duty, such as being harassed in local stores or being monitored at their home, and they said that in some cases they did not report the incident because it was a common occurrence.”

The GAO investigation faulted officials at U.S. land agencies for failing to come up with plans to assess the security of government facilities, leaving employees at greater risk.

“The four federal land management agencies have completed some but not all of the facility security assessments on their occupied federal facilities as required by the Interagency Security Committee,” the report said. “Officials at the four agencies said that either they do not have the resources, expertise, or training to conduct assessments agency-wide. FWS has a plan to complete its assessments, but BLM, the Forest Service, and the Park Service do not …”

“Without developing a plan for conducting all of the remaining facility security assessments and using a methodology that complies with ISC requirements, agencies may not identify the risks their facilities face or identify the countermeasures—such as security cameras or security gates—they could implement to mitigate those risks,” the report said.

Officials with the Interior Department and the Forest Service agreed with the GAO recommendation to carry out security assessments. Neither agency said when such a review might occur.

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