Here is the follow-up story to the Billings Gazette article of ten days ago about the sweetheart settlement between the BLM national Director Kathleen Clark and hobby rancher Frank Robbins of Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Apparently the Star-Tribune has already removed this story from their web site as WWP has had to receive this copy of the story directly from Star-Tribune Reporter, Brodie Farquhar.
Thanks are due to WWP media director Keith Raether for getting media involvement and coverage of this story.
WWP is considering still reviewing potential legal action to block elements of the Robbins Settlement described in this article.
HOT SPRINGS COUNTY -- A bitter clash between a Thermopolis-area rancher and the Worland Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management got so out of hand in recent years that a unique settlement was brokered by top officials in the Bush administration's Department of Interior.
The conflict spawned a welter of lawsuits and counter-lawsuits between Harvey Frank Robbins, Jr., and the BLM, tying up resources on both sides. Rather than allow the lawsuits to play out, Interior officials told Worland to back off while a settlement was negotiated.
"To get away from the courts, we were going to have to try something different," said Wyoming BLM Assistant Director Alan Kesterke. "It was going downhill and seemed to be getting worse."
Worked out last year, the settlement was signed in December and January. While Kesterke insists the settlement does not constitute a precedent, others say it does and could change range management everywhere. "This undermines sane range management throughout the West. Once it is known these kinds of deals can be gotten, there's going to be a long line at the door to get them," said Jeff Ruch, director of PEER, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Washington, D.C. watch-dog group. "The public interest has been sold out," he said, because the settlement has muzzled local BLM staff in favor of a politically connected rogue rancher.
Not only were nine years of Robbins' violations forgiven, Ruch said, but Robbins was rewarded with greater flexibility. "The only thing that the United States government got out of this agreement, was out of the way," Ruch said.
Robbins himself views the settlement as welcome relief from the heavy hand of a rogue BLM field office. "This is a good settlement," Robbins said. "I don't think my settlement is unusual. I think it should be a model of agreements between the BLM and ranchers all over the country." Johanna Wald, public lands attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the settlement unprecedented, not only for giving another chance to a flagrant violator of BLM regulations, but for giving Robbins special access to the BLM director herself, if he and Worland BLM officials can't work things out.
"Big picture, not only is this settlement a threat to the Taylor Grazing Act, but to the very idea that public lands should be managed for the benefit of the public -- not for the benefit of a select few," she said. "This takes rancher and BLM coziness to a new level." An outgrowth of massive overgrazing in the 1920s and the Dust Bowl era of the Great Depression, the Taylor Grazing Act (1934) is the foundation of public land grazing laws.
Robbins is a member of a wealthy industrial family in northern Alabama that has made generous campaign contributions to Alabama politicians and the Republican Party.
In an interview at his ranch, Robbins said he moved to Wyoming "to hunt and ranch," buying three Wyoming ranches respectively in 1994, 1998 and 2000. Today, the High Island Ranch, the HD Ranch and the Owl Creek Land Co. constitute 117,962 acres, of which 47 percent are private, 47 percent are BLM leases and 6 percent are state leases. The Robbins ranches run a cow/calf operation, while selling the "cowboy experience" to tourists, "pushing the herd to seasonal pastures," according to the High Island brochure.
Robbins' notions of an independent ranching life in the West ran head-long into a bureaucracy that required access to BLM lands, monitoring reports, grazing plans, permit applications and adherence to rules and regulations.
Beginning in 1994, Robbins and the Worland BLM staff have been continuously at odds. Robbins has contended that he was being "blackmailed" by staff. BLM staffers wouldn't give him a right-of-way permit, unless he gave the BLM a reciprocal easement across his private property, he said. BLM staff said they needed the easement to reach BLM grazing allotments.
BLM files are filled with complaints about Robbins and his operations, including cattle trespassing on the private property of neighbors; trespassing on BLM grazing allotments that belonged to neighbors; trespassing too soon, too late or too many cattle on BLM grazing allotments leased by Robbins; trespassing on resting BLM grazing allotments; blocking a neighbor's use of a cattle drive trail with a locked gate; claiming cattle were on private pasture when they were on BLM pastures; and refusing to obtain required recreation permits for dude ranch trail drives over BLM lands.
In the midst of the deepening Wyoming drought, Worland officials asked ranchers to reduce herd size or change grazing patterns to reduce damage to the dry rangeland -- a request essentially ignored by Robbins. BLM records show that because of continuing violations, Worland officials refused Robbins' request for a grazing permit on the newly purchased Owl Creek ranch and also canceled Robbins' grazing permits on his two other ranches (later stayed for judicial review) and were actively contemplating seizure of Robbins' livestock.
Tall and slender, with flecks of grey in his moustache, Frank Robbins spilled water from an irrigation ditch into a lush, green field near his home last week. His verdant, irrigated bottomland is in marked contrast with surrounding hills of bare rock and sturdy sagebrush.
Bitterly angry over his eight-year fight with the BLM, Robbins accused Worland staff of "tyranny." BLM harassment has created confrontations, impeded his business and led to criminal charges against Robbins for allegedly interfering with the work of federal officers, Robbins said -- a charge rejected by a jury in 1998.
He said that with the Bush administration in power and a new BLM state director -- Bob Bennett -- on board, things are getting better for him and his neighbors.
Robbins' lawyer, Cheyenne-based Karen Budd Falen, said her client is committed to living up to the settlement.
For example, Robbins changed the route of his dude ranch trail drives, to avoid BLM lands, thereby avoiding the need for a BLM permit. She said Robbins has given the BLM his grazing numbers and plans to graze in certain allotments -- if the BLM needs more detail, they should say so.
She said charges that Robbins has not been abiding by the settlement are false, and that no formal complaints about Robbins' actions have been brought to his or her attention.
"Nothing has been sent to us," she said, making it difficult to respond while BLM officials are busy complaining to and among themselves, but not communicating with Robbins.
Under settlement terms, the Worland field office must now forward all concerns and problems with Robbins to the Wyoming BLM headquarters in Cheyenne, for review and final decisions. According to Dave Wallace, supervisory range conservationist, Worland has sent about a dozen issues to Cheyenne. Some issues have expired, others have been worked through, but others are still unresolved, Wallace said. Assistant Director Marty Griffith said there are no outstanding issues left unresolved. "I really want to see this agreement work," Griffith said.
The settlement allows Robbins to continue to graze his cattle on BLM allotments, gives Robbins considerable flexibility in grazing management, sets grazing levels or targets without first conducting an environmental assessment and assures continued BLM access to BLM lands leased to Robbins.
No BLM employee has ventured onto Robbins' ranch without first contacting Robbins, Wallace said. The only BLM employee who has ventured onto Robbins' land is a new rangeland specialist -- John Elliot -- who was brought in from the outside. Robbins is billed on the basis of how many cattle he says he has on BLM allotments.
The settlement also stayed most pending litigation: rancher Robbins' lawsuits against the BLM and all BLM litigation against Robbins. The settlement does allow Robbins' remaining lawsuit -- based on the federal Racketeering Influence and Corrupt Organization Act -- to proceed against eight current and former BLM workers. Kesterke said the RICO lawsuit was important to Robbins, but didn't know why Interior officials allowed it to continue.
"It wasn't going anywhere positive," said Fran Cherry, assistant director of the BLM. "Cooler heads prevailed and we sought an alternative path." He emphatically denied that there was any involvement by Alabama politicians in the settlement and said it seems to be working. He confirmed that there is no other situation in the BLM that has triggered a similar settlement of such sweeping dimensions. Cherry said he expects the RICO lawsuit to be ultimately dismissed, because Worland staff "were acting within the professional scope of their duties."
Robbins' RICO lawsuit contends he was unfairly targeted by BLM staff who ignored other ranchers' trespasses at the same time, in the same pasture. After depositions from witnesses are taken this summer, the RICO case goes to trial before U.S. District Court Judge Clarence Brimmer on Dec. 8, in Cheyenne. Robbins said he fully expects his RICO lawsuit against BLM staffers to ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
PEER's Ruch said he's particularly unhappy that Interior officials "sold out" their BLM staff and left them exposed to what Ruch termed "a frivolous" RICO lawsuit. Ruch said the BLM's own fact-finding team determined that Worland staff were behaving professionally and properly in their dealings with Robbins.
He said the settlement's provision for a right-of-way for Robbins, but not a reciprocal one for the BLM, is contrary to BLM's own regulations. The additional flexibility for Robbins' grazing operations is also not authorized, he said.
"These are federal lands. You can't just hand them over to someone and say manage them however you want," Ruch said.
Written by Interior Solicitor lawyers, the settlement is "so sleazy," Ruch said, that PEER is challenging the solicitor's fitness for judicial office. Interior Solicitor William Myers has been nominated by the Bush administration, for a seat on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Previously, Myers was executive director of the Public Lands Council and director of federal lands for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. Ruch said the Senate Judiciary Committee will receive copies of the Robbins settlement and a point-by-point rebuttal from PEER legal staff, as evidence of Myers' unfitness for judicial office.
Ruch said the settlement is stacked in Robbin's favor because only BLM Director Kathleen Clarke or her designee, Bob Bennett, can cite Robbins for a violation and only for a willful violation.
"The very people who politically caved in are the only people with the power to undo this deal. That's why we want it examined by members of the U.S. Senate," Ruch said.
Jon Marvel of the Western Watershed Project said the Robbins settlement is unprecedented and should be overturned by the courts.
"This underlines the Bush administration's approach to public lands management," Marvel said. "The staff of the land management agencies remain at fault, while commercial interests gain the upper hand." According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data collected by the Environmental Work Group, Robbins collected $42,655 in federal agricultural subsidies on his Hot Springs County ranches from 1996 to 2001. Robbins is a microcosm of the West, Marvel said. Robbins and other ranchers are happy to bad-mouth the federal government while holding their hands out for federal subsidies, yet complain if the money is not immediately forthcoming without strings, Marvel said.
And yet, the Wyoming agricultural community has long been concerned with the Worland office. A June 2000 letter from leadership of the Wyoming State Grazing Board, the Wyoming Stock Growers Association and Wyoming Wool Growers Association, said, "Something is very wrong with respect to the Worland BLM field office," citing irrational decisions and lack of consultation with permittees.
Budd-Falen said she has had more lawsuits against the BLM emerge from the Worland district than in any other district in the state.