BILLINGS, Montana — Federal employees overseeing U.S. public lands were assaulted or threatened at least 360 times over a five-year period marked by heightened tensions with anti-government groups, according to a congressional watchdog agency.
The Government Accountability Office in a new report highlights anti-government tensions that at times have boiled over. That includes the six-week armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon in 2016, and other standoffs with armed protesters in Montana and Nevada.
The Associated Press obtained GAO’s report ahead of its scheduled Monday release.
It cataloged incidents ranging from threatening phone calls to the stabbing of a Bureau of Land Management worker outside a federal building. Some of the assaults triggered FBI domestic terrorism investigations, although the precise number was not disclosed because it is considered sensitive information.
The report did not say whether rates of assaults and threats were increasing. But it noted a dwindling number of federal officers patrolling the nation’s vast forests, parks, wildlife refuges and other open spaces, which cover more than 670 million acres primarily in 12 western states.
There’s been a 19 percent drop in the ranks of officers at the U.S. Forest Service between 2013 and 2018, according to GAO. The Bureau of Land Management saw a 9 percent drop and now has one officer in the field for every 1.2 million acres the agency oversees.
The GAO investigation faulted officials U.S. land agencies for failing to come up with plans to assess the security of government facilities, leaving employees at greater risk.
The security review was requested by the Democratic chairman of the U.S House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Raul Grijalva. It covered four agencies: the Forest Service, BLM, Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service.
Grijalva said the findings underscore growing concerns over the safety of government workers on public land.
The Arizona lawmaker also criticized the Trump administration’s appointment of Bureau of Land Management Acting Director William “Perry” Pendley, who has expressed support for Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy. Bundy’s family played central roles in a 2014 standoff over grazing fees in Nevada and the 2016 occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
“Making a folk hero out of Bundy, that sets a dangerous precedent,” Grijalva said. “At the top of the agency, they reinforce and embolden some of these actions by doing nothing and previously being in support of them.”
Pendley, a former property rights attorney, routinely lambasted federal bureaucrats prior to his appointment in July and warned of a populist “sagebrush rebellion” if the government didn’t open more Western lands to development.
Pendley now calls his past anti-government statements irrelevant. He told the AP in a recent interview that the Trump administration has helped quell any rebellion, by giving more deference to states on natural resource development.
Professor John Freemuth, an expert on U.S. land policies at Boise State University in Idaho, said it was true that the Trump administration’s pro-development policies could help quiet resentments toward the government. But Freemuth added that anti-government rhetoric also gets legitimized when it’s espoused by prominent figures.
“Sometimes it’s hard to be a federal employee,” he said. “There seems to be a general hostility that bubbles around.”
In a formal response to the GAO report, Interior Department Assistant Secretary Scott Cameron agreed with recommendations to carry out security assessments at hundreds of government facilities. In a separate response, Forest Service Chief Victoria Christiansen also agreed with the recommendation for security review.
Neither response gave details on when the security work would occur.
“Our highest priority is the safety and well-being of our employees and visitors on our public lands,” Interior Department spokeswoman Melissa Brown said.