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Threats to land managers are alarming

A report from the Governmental Accountability Office should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to public lands agencies and the resurgence of anti-government groups in recent years. Whether any meaningful action is taken to protect those who work for those agencies remains to be seen.

The report by the GAO, a nonpartisan watchdog agency that works for Congress, documented 360 incidents of assaults or threats against employees of the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service in fiscal years 2013 through 2017. The incidents ranged from telephone threats to attempted murder, and the report said the actual number may be higher because employees may not always report them, considering them part of the job.

The report also noted that the FBI initiated fewer than 100 domestic terrorism investigations into potential threats against federal land agencies, the majority involving the BLM and “individuals motivated by anti-government ideologies.”

It’s not clear whether the number of incidents represents an increase, but the report did note a significant decline in the number of officers patrolling public lands.

Those ideologies made headlines for months in Oregon when armed anti-government extremists occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns in 2016. Among the leaders of that occupation were the sons of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who engaged in a 2014 standoff with federal authorities over a dispute involving unpaid grazing fees on public land.

The motivation for these incidents is rooted in the mistaken belief that the federal government has no right to own land, and that vast swaths of land in the West should be turned over to state governments so that natural resources can be extracted through grazing and mining without federal interference. When those twisted beliefs put the live and safety of federal employees at risk for doing their jobs managing land that belongs to all of us, we should all be alarmed.

The GAO report recommends that the affected agencies complete security assessments of federal facilities occupied by employees. The Fish and Wildlife Service has a plan to complete this work, but the Forest Service, BLM and Park Service do not. Agency officials have said they concur with the recommendations, but told the GAO they do not have the resources, expertise or training to complete the assessments.

Congress should make sure the agencies have the resources they need, and should reverse the decline in officers patrolling the lands that belong to the American public.