A witnesses at Tuesday's hearing said the armed takeover of the Fish and Wildlife Service's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016 actually brought sympathy for the federal employees who worked there.

A witnesses at Tuesday's hearing said the armed takeover of the Fish and Wildlife Service's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016 actually brought sympathy for the federal employees who worked there. Andrew Selsky / AP file photo

To Stop Attacks, Lawmakers Call for Kinder Rhetoric Toward Feds

"Anti-government rhetoric dehumanizes government employees, period," one congressman says.

Democratic lawmakers at a hearing on Tuesday accused conservatives voicing skepticism of the federal government’s control of land in the western United States of inciting violence toward the federal employees who manage that land. 

Members of a public lands panel on the House Natural Resources Committee voiced concern about rising attacks and abuse aimed federal law enforcement and other land management employees, though Republicans were careful to distinguish widespread frustrations over land use regulations from the relatively small number of individuals who have engaged in such harassment. Republicans pushed back after Democrats called for a kinder and more supportive attitude toward federal workers.

“We’re here because anti-government rhetoric dehumanizes government employees, period,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, who chairs the larger committee. “And those employees are being threatened and harassed because they are doing their jobs.” He added lawmakers “need to discuss how we improve their living and working conditions and what protections we extend to them.” 

Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, the top Republican on the National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee that hosted the hearing, said Democrats should not paint with too broad of a brush. 

“Absolutely no one in this room on either side of the aisle condones violence or threats against federal employees,” Curtis said. “It’s unfortunate that I even feel I need to make that statement.” 

Curtis added, however, that while feds’ safety “is of the utmost importance,” he took issue “with the assertion made that there’s a widespread problem with anti-government threats and abuse occurring in the west.” 

The hearing followed a Government Accountability Office report released on Monday that federal employees in western states faced hundreds of incidents of physical attacks and verbal harassment over the last several years, including death threats, stabbings and threatening graffiti on their homes. The Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service and Forest Service have largely failed to take steps to secure their facilities, GAO said. The agencies have inadequate resources or expertise to do so, the report found, and employees are increasingly at risk due to shrinking law enforcement workforces. 

Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., said efforts to defederalize public lands by returning them to state, local or private control have exacerbated the problem. 

Lawmakers should “examine this rhetoric and the danger it creates so we can protect public employees, promote collaboration and end the culture of threats and violence,” Haaland said. 

Peter Walker, a professor at the University of Oregon who wrote a book about the 2016 armed occupation at the FWS Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, said the militia members responsible for that incident mistakenly believed that “vilifying and harassing federal employees would rally local support for their cause.” Instead, however, it brought sympathy to those workers who had earned the respect of Harney County residents by working collaboratively with them. After the occupation ended, Walker noted, ranchers in the area hosted a dinner for the impacted FWS employees to “reaffirm that the federal workers are valued members of the community.” 

Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., suggested the attacks could lead to a brain drain at land management agencies and called on lawmakers not to use federal employees as “political pawns” to advance their agendas. 

“Even the way we talk about them could have a personally dangerous and professionally devastating consequence on these individuals,” Tonko said, “to say nothing of the serious and important work that they do.” 

Curtis, however, said his colleagues were treating employees in the federal workforce disparately, suggesting they should show the same sympathy for immigration and border agents facing abuse. He added if the subcommittee were to compare the number of attacks on federal law enforcement to their local counterparts, the incidents involving local officers “would far exceed this.”