In the Eye of the Beholder

Bullying involving federal employees and private citizens on public lands is not a one way street. But you would never know it from listening to House Republicans' congressional hearings. These one-sided sessions dwell on federal employees' alleged abuse of authority by brusquely denying local citizens sufficient commercial access to public lands.

There have undoubtedly been occasions when federal land managers could have been more diplomatic in enforcement of rules governing territory under their jurisdiction. But that said, federal employees also have concerns. They must operate in a tension-filled atmosphere created by resentful locals who think the federal government owns far too much land as it is.
The private citizens whose complaints are featured at the congressional hearings bristle at federal agents' regulatory activity, which in the name of conservation puts limits on commercial exploitation of public lands. Yet the evidence suggests that despite some grassroots rancor, the Bureau of land Management (BLM) and Forest Service are doing a decent job of balancing conservation and commercial activity on nearly 500 million acres, primarily in the western United States.

The reality that these public lands are the property of all Americans is hard for many locals to accept. They believe title should rest with the states, or better yet, be ceded to local control. In any event, they seem to think they deserve privileged entrepreneurial access simply by virtue of their proximity to the public lands at issue.

Over the years, federal land managers have experienced frequent verbal harassment, and on occasion, vandalism and even bodily harm carried out by local inhabitants and anti-government militia. Some of these malcontent individuals not only oppose the federal land restrictions but question the legitimacy of the institution from whence the restrictions came.

Local hostility has caused BLM personnel to remove agency logos from their cars and park the vehicles in positions conducive to a quick getaway. The BLM director is routinely accompanied by a security detail, and with good reason. Just in the last few months, a BLM agent was shot by an irate militia type near California's Lake Tahoe, and another BLM employee while on the job had a hand gun pointed at him by some belligerent Utah locals.

By all means, let's not have federal personnel bullying members of the general public while executing the laws of the land. But House Republicans should be at least as solicitous (and outraged) when the roles between officials and private citizens are reversed. If legislators and their constituents think public land laws are too restrictive, change them. Don't take it out on civil servants who are just doing their job by putting the laws into effect.