Wyoming: Thermopolis rancher seeks probe of BLM office

Gazette Wyoming Bureau


Thermopolis, WY - The lawyer for a Thermopolis rancher is asking federal inspectors to investigate the Bureau of Land Management office in Worland for misuse of public funds, trespass, blackmail, perjury and other allegations.

The BLM office and Frank Robbins have been in a dispute for years over a number of issues, including trespass and other charges against Robbins and accusations that the BLM has unfairly - and sometimes criminally - made a target of Robbins.

"The Worland BLM has continually harassed Frank Robbins while Robbins conducted his lawful operations on both BLM and his private land," Karen Budd-Falen, Robbins' attorney, said in a nine-page letter this week to the inspector general's office at the Department of Interior.

Earlier this year, Robbins and the BLM signed an unusual and controversial agreement allowing Robbins to continue grazing operations on BLM land. In exchange, both parties agreed to put on hold the charges against one another.

The inspector general's office is already investigating the agreement, as is the staff of Rebecca Watson, assistant secretary for the Interior Department, who oversees the BLM and other agencies.

But the letter from Budd-Falen asks inspectors to look at several particular accusations against the BLM office in Worland involving "illegal and unethical actions" and certain employees who "clearly have violated federal law and regulation."

Roy Kime, a spokesman for the inspector general's office in Washington, D.C., said the agency had not received the letter as of Friday afternoon.

"It would be reviewed by people who would potentially be involved in it and they'd make some determination as to what action should be taken and recommend that to the inspector general," Kime said.

State BLM officials said Friday they had not seen the letter and could not comment.

Among other allegations, Budd-Falen accuses three BLM employees, including one from Worland, of trespassing on Robbins' private property in August 2000 and says at least one of the three "broke into" a lodge owned by Robbins.

The BLM is also accused of blackmailing Robbins so he would grant the agency an easement over a private road at the High Island Ranch. At one point, a former BLM worker told Robbins that he should give into the agency's demands "or things were going to come to war and that Mr. Robbins was going to get a 'hardball education,' " Budd-Falen wrote.

The dispute over the easement resulted in a series of actions designed to force Robbins to give up the land, she added. Eventually, Robbins was charged with interfering with federal officials. He later was acquitted by a trial jury.

Robbins has also disputed scores of alleged grazing violations made against him by the Worland BLM. Between February 1996 and March 2002, the agency issued 29 "adverse grazing decisions" against Robbins.

Budd-Falen called the violations "excessive," especially because Robbins has operated on a separate Forest Service grazing permit in Wyoming and another BLM permit connected with a ranch in Montana without any trespass charges.

"Mr. Robbins has not received a single trespass charge in connection with any other federal office, other than the Worland BLM," Budd-Falen wrote.

She added that the fines against Robbins were much higher than "under normal circumstances" and that the BLM had consistently misinterpreted federal trespass laws.

The BLM has also videotaped guests on Robbins' trail rides on private property and once threatened sanctions against a Walt Disney crew that was visiting Robbins' property and making drawings of BLM land, according to his attorney.

In addition, Budd-Falen said the BLM has failed to act on a number of Freedom of Information Act requests in a timely manner. In some cases, newspaper reporters had received copies of documents that Robbins had earlier requested but had not been given, she said.

Without those key documents, Robbins is at a "serious disadvantage" in understanding and responding to the charges against him, Budd-Falen said.

She cited an incident earlier this summer when Robbins asked for a memo that reportedly detailed a number of alleged violations by Robbins.

BLM sent Robbins a version that had "all of the substance" blacked out, according to Budd-Falen. But Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a group that has opposed the agreement between Robbins and the BLM, had received a copy of the BLM memo - or at least a similar document - in which nothing was blacked out, Budd-Falen said.

"At best, this is proof that certain employees within Worland BLM are colluding with certain environmental groups to put undue pressure on the Department of the Interior," Budd-Falen said.

The BLM is also accused by Budd-Falen of misusing its money by contracting airplanes to fly over Robbins' ranching operation.

"The use of such airplanes is very expensive and should not be used solely to retaliate against Mr. Robbins," she said.

The latest allegations are likely to put added pressure on a conflict that has been simmering for years.

The problems started after Robbins bought the High Island Ranch in 1994 and the HD Ranch in 1998.

Over the years, the Worland BLM has accused Robbins of trespassing, unauthorized use of public land, attempts to block BLM employees from monitoring the land, violations of cease and desist orders and defiance of emergency closures.

"Mr. Robbins has shown a complete disregard for the terms and conditions of the permits and of the authority of the BLM to manage public lands," Darrell Barnes, manager of the Worland BLM office, said in a memo to the BLM state director in March 2002. "The cumulative effects of unauthorized grazing is causing significant damage to public land resources on his permitted allotments."

Robbins has vehemently fought all allegations and filed lawsuits against the agency, including allegations of racketeering and trespassing.

The agreement between Robbins and top officials at BLM, signed in December and January, was an attempt to stem the legal battles.

But environmental groups say the agreement violates federal law and significantly weakens the BLM's ability to protect and govern public land.

Meanwhile, government investigations into the agreement continue.

Kime, of the inspector general's office, said he couldn't say when the investigation will be complete. "It's an ongoing investigation," he said. "I just don't know right now."


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