The Interior Department and its component agencies are warning federal employees to “remain vigilant” in the wake of a federal court jury acquitting the occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and vowed to continue pressing for “some measure of justice” against the perpetrators of the 41-day standoff.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe and Bureau of Land Management Director Neil Kornze sent memos to their workforces warning them of potential fallout from the court’s decision and expressing frustration with the result. A jury found seven leaders of the armed militia that occupied the refuge early this year not guilty on federal conspiracy charges last week.
“While we must respect the jury’s decision because we believe in the rule of law and our system of justice, I am profoundly disappointed in this outcome and am concerned about its potential implications for our employees and for the effective management of public lands,” Jewell said in one of the memos obtained by Government Executive.
» Get the best federal news and ideas delivered right to your inbox. Sign up here.
The Interior secretary said she visited with employees at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, the home of the FWS facility dozens of militia members occupied in January and early February, and found it “painful” to hear of the fear they lived in throughout the episode and its aftermath. She praised the employees for the relationships they formed with other members of the community that predated the occupation and that “will endure long after the jury’s verdict.”
Jewell also decried the physical damage wrought by the occupiers, which she saw during her visit. FWS estimates it has spent $6.3 million in response to situation on cleanup, repairs, relocating employees and their families, and law enforcement.
“It was disheartening to walk room to room and survey the damage and destruction caused by occupiers to the natural, cultural and tribal resources,” Jewell said.
She instructed employees to take special caution in the immediate future.
“In the coming days and weeks, I encourage you to take care of yourselves and your fellow employees,” Jewell wrote. “The armed occupation in Oregon was and continues to be a reminder that employees in all offices should remain vigilant and report any suspicious activity to your supervisor and, where appropriate, law enforcement officials.”
FWS’ Ashe said “words cannot express my deep disappointment” in the jury’s verdict, adding the remaining defendants still awaiting trial should be “held accountable for their actions.” Ashe said he sent a “victim statement” to the judge in the recently decided case, noting the facility can be restored but the occupiers’ impact will be long lasting.
“The lives and careers of many employees and family members will never be quite the same,” Ashe wrote. He said the work that went undone would impede “years of dedicated effort,” and added that some employees declined to come back to work after the episode.
“Even now, though many employees have returned, they continue to bear the scars of this traumatic experience,” Ashe said. “Some have chosen to not return, while others are making plans to leave.”
He expressed hope that “some measure of justice” would be brought in outstanding cases to serve as a deterrent against future occupiers.
“We must send a strong message of deterrence to those who would seek to replicate the occupation or perpetuate the toxic myths that sustained it,” Ashe wrote. “I hope and trust future juries will respond and give the defendants the justice they have earned.”
BLM’s Kornze warned employees to be “clear-eyed about the potential impact” of the verdict in the Malheur case. The agency closed an office near the Malheur refuge earlier this year.
“Your BLM and departmental leadership team are behind you 100 percent and we will not pause in our efforts to ensure that you have the support and opportunities you need to succeed,” Kornze wrote. “That includes ensuring that your well-being and safety remains the agency's top priority, both in the office and in the field.”
Leaders at the National Park Service, as well as the Agriculture Department’s Forest Service, which was also forced to close an office near Malheur out of safety concerns during the occupation, did not send individual memos to their employees, spokespeople for the agencies said.
Jewell said public servants are “held to a higher standard,” and was optimistic her workforce would meet the challenge ahead of it -- including by keeping everyone safe.
“As we digest the jury’s verdict, our foremost priority continues to be the safety, security, and well-being of people who comprise the federal family and those visiting America’s public lands,” she said. “I am absolutely committed to maintaining a safe work environment that allows employees to uphold the laws of the United States and carry out our mission of responsible public land and water stewardship for the benefit of all Americans. That will never change.”