Washington, DC — Assaults against national forest and rangeland employees and facilities rose sharply last year, according to figures released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Reported incidents nearly doubled (87% increase) on rangelands overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and increased by more than half (60%) on national forests.
“Security is a rising concern for scientists and other specialists working in the remote Western outposts,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “Higher law enforcement costs are cannibalizing already thin refuge budgets; meaning that some refuges are effectively closed to better protect others.”
The figures collected from agencies under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) cover the year after the 2014 armed stan-off with renegade rancher Cliven Bundy but before the seizure of a national wildlife refuge in Oregon by armed militia led by two of Bundy’s sons. They show –
- The biggest annual jump in threats and assaults was seen by the BLM where reported incidents nearly doubled from 15 to 28 instances;
- After a couple of years of declining incidents, reported threats and assaults spiked for the U.S. Forest Service, where incidents rose from 97 to 155;
- The National Park Service posted a slight rise in incidents, as did the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration; and
- The U.S. Park Police, which patrols urban parks, primarily in Washington DC, saw a sharp (nearly 60%) drop in 2015 from an all-time record number of violent incidents in 2014 (from 120 to 49). Meanwhile, the U.S Fish & Wildlife Service, the agency managing national wildlife refuges, reported a slight drop in overall incidents.
PEER has maintained a database of incidents against federal resource employees since the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. Most of the agencies did not track this type of information when PEER first started submitting FOIA requests but now all maintain some data, although it is not consistent or complete. For example, the Park Service does not maintain records of attacks on non-law enforcement.
The U.S. Justice Department no longer systematically tracks assaults on federal employees. A reporting requirement for such incidents enacted after the Oklahoma City bombing was repealed in 2002 after DOJ complained that collecting this data was cumbersome. At the same time, federal security agencies had largely dismantled to counter domestic extremism, shifting the focus to Islamic extremism.
“These right-wing militias constitute a real public safety threat, especially on federal lands in the Sagebrush West,” Ruch added, referencing the “nullification” ideology embraced by these groups, which contests federal ownership of national refuges, rangelands and forests. “By studying the patterns of these events perhaps managers can begin to defuse or prevent confrontations over federal lands.”