Federal Officers Face Hostility Amid Tension Over Control Of Federal Lands

Sep 13, 2016
Originally published on September 13, 2016 5:26 pm

Just after dawn, on a rutted out dirt road west of Las Vegas, Nev., Bureau of Land Management Ranger Shane Nalen steers his four by four over a small hill.

"You never know what you're going to roll up on out here," he says, his dispatch radio squawking in the background.

A panoramic view of the rugged Nevada desert unfolds. But there's also something peculiar. The desert carpet is lit up with reflecting lights shimmering in the soft morning sun.

Nalen stops and hops out for a closer look. It's been a problem area for him, he says, pointing out the culprit, thousands of spent, steel shotgun shell casings. It turns out this is just one of scores of unofficial target shooting areas in Nalen's jurisdiction.

Since the last time he visited, much to his chagrin, it's also turned into a trash dump.

"We've got a couple of mattresses, looks like some hazmat," he says. "Somebody built a fire here."

A home-made target is propped up on the arm of a Joshua tree. Someone spray painted part of the cactus. There's also a sign made by some volunteers that reads 'help keep this range clean.' You can barely make it out though through all the bullet holes.

"It's ignorance, you have to respect the land," Nalen says. "This is complete disrespect, you've got to have somebody that's going to hold somebody accountable."

That somebody is him. Except all he can really do today is search through the garbage and try to find an address or any other clue that might lead him to a suspect.

Nature's Cop

It's not surprising to hear Nalen admit that he hardly ever gets to places in time to catch people in the act. After all, his jurisdiction is roughly a million acres of BLM land across the southern Nevada desert. This mirrors the agency nationally. There are only 200 law enforcement rangers, like Nalen, patrolling 245 million acres of BLM lands, mostly in the West.

It's hardly a glamorous job, and it's not easy either.

"I didn't get into this job to be a traditional cop," Nalen says. "I came into this job because I wanted to be the tip of the spear when it comes to protecting our resources."

A Marine Corps veteran who studied forestry in college, Nalen has 14 years of conservation law enforcement experience under his belt, in the Mississippi Gulf and in Nevada.

Here, about 95 percent of his time is spent in the field, on his own. He carries a survival kit with ready-made meals and other emergency supplies. If something goes wrong, backup could be hours away.

He also carries an AR-15 and has regular law enforcement powers.

Tensions over federal land management – and specifically the BLM – are as high as they've been in decades. The more high profile standoffs such as the seizure of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon and the standoff over cattle grazing near Cliven Bundy's ranch get the headlines. But government watchdog groups have tracked a steady increase in less high profile reports of threats and intimidation against federal land managers working in the field for the past several years.

Nalen was one of the rangers at the Bundy standoff here in southern Nevada in 2014.

His agency has barred him from talking about it, citing the upcoming trial. Nalen did say he understands there is a lot of anger toward the federal government right now, but that it's his job to try to engage with people to help them better understand why he's out here.

"I think some of it is that you have people that have been used to doing things on public lands for many, many years, generational perhaps, but that doesn't necessarily make it right," Nalen says.

Safeguarding Cultural Artifacts

Late one afternoon on patrol north of his hometown of Pahrump, Nev., Nalen decides to pay a visit to a Native American cultural site to check on some ancient petroglyph paintings.

He hasn't visited the spot for months. It's a bone busting detour several miles up what looks more like the remnants of a former riverbed than a road.

"This is why I wear suspenders and I have pillows that I sit on," Nalen says, his voice shaking from the bumps. "After a while, it will wear your body down."

A half hour later, he's ditched the rig and is hiking across the baking hot desert toward a section of red sandstone cliffs.

On one panel, there's an ancient drawing of an eagle, likely thousands of years old.

But something's not right. Nalen shimmies up the rock for a closer look.

"There's a good possibility that this little piece right here was shot," he says. "I'm looking for some shrapnel around the area."

The possible work of vandals; one of the biggest parts of Nalen's job is fighting the desecration of some of the West's most important archaeological treasures. Like the trash dumps and other littering on public lands, this rarely is what makes the headlines nationally.

"This is it," he says. "This is what we do. We're here to protect our public lands, our valuable cultural sites, that's why we're here."

Again, all Nalen can do is document it. He takes some photos of the defaced rock panel. It's evidence. Then he gets ready for the long drive home.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

We're going now to get an inside look at what's become an increasingly difficult job - being a federal law enforcement ranger in the rural West. Think about what's been happening over the last couple of years. The armed standoff over cattle grazing in Nevada has created high tensions over federal land. Reports of threats and intimidation against federal officials are on the rise. NPR's Kirk Siegler spent the day with a ranger whose job it is to protect about a million acres of public land in Nevada.

UNIDENTIFIED DISPATCHER: (Unintelligible).

SHANE NALEN: I'll have my riders, and we're going to be heading back over to the front side.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Just after dawn on a rutted-out dirt road west of Las Vegas, Bureau of Land Management Ranger Shane Nalen steers is four-by-four over a small hill. A panoramic view of the rugged Nevada desert unfolds. But there's also something peculiar. The desert carpet is lit up with reflecting lights shimmering in the soft morning sun.

NALEN: This has kind of been a problem area for me. This is...

SIEGLER: Nalen stops and hops out for a closer look.

NALEN: You know, thousands of spent shotgun shell casings. Somebody built a fire right here.

SIEGLER: This is just one of scores of unofficial target shooting areas in Nalen's jurisdiction. Since the last time he visited, it's also turned into a trash dump.

NALEN: We got a couple mattresses. We got - looks like some hazmat, maybe some oil that's been...

SIEGLER: A homemade target has propped up on the arm of a Joshua tree. Someone spray painted part of the cactus. Next to an illegal campfire ring, there's a sign.

NALEN: One of our private citizens put this sign up that says please help keep range clean. You can see it through the bullet holes (laughter).

SIEGLER: Nalen admits he hardly ever gets to places like this in time to catch people in the act.

NALEN: It's ignorance, and it's disrespect. You have to respect the land, and this is complete disrespect. And you got to have somebody that's going to hold somebody accountable.

SIEGLER: That somebody is him, except all he can really do today is search through the garbage and try to find an address or any other clue that might lead him to a suspect. Driving away, he says what we just saw is nothing.

NALEN: Folks using methamphetamine. I've had some prostitution out here. You name it. I've had people dumping carcasses - sheep, horses, goats, tuna.

SIEGLER: It's hardly a glamorous job and not easy, either. Nalen is one of only 200 BLM law enforcement rangers patrolling 245 million acres of public lands mostly in the West.

NALEN: You know, I didn't get into this job to be a traditional cop. I came into this job because I wanted to be the tip of the spear when it comes to protecting our resources.

SIEGLER: Nalen is a Marine Corps vet. In college he studied forestry. Ninety five percent of the time he's out on patrol, he's alone, so he carries a survival kit, ready-made meals. If something goes wrong, backup could be hours away. He also carries an AR-15, and he's got to be ready for anything.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NALEN: Yeah, don't turn your back on us. You're big boys with those big guns, aren't you?

(CHEERING)

SIEGLER: Nalen was one of the BLM rangers who responded to the 2014 armed anti-government standoff near Clive and Bundy's ranch.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NALEN: You're a bunch of bullies.

(CHEERING)

SIEGLER: The BLM wouldn't let Nalen talk to me about that standoff, but he did say he gets it. There's a lot of anger about the federal government right now. But he says when he's able to engage people and let them know what it is he really does, mostly they start to understand.

NALEN: I think that some of it is, you have people that had been used to doing things on public lands for many, many years, generational perhaps. But that doesn't necessarily make it right.

Hang on to your bootstraps.

SIEGLER: Late in the day, he decides to pay a visit to a Native American cultural site. He wants to check on some ancient petroglyph paintings. It's a bone-busting detour.

NALEN: So this is why I wear suspenders. And I have pillows that I sit on.

SIEGLER: A half hour later, we're finally out of the rig, hiking across the baking-hot and windy desert toward a red sandstone cliff.

NALEN: Let's go look at the panel around the corner here.

SIEGLER: There's an ancient drawing of an eagle thousands of years old.

NALEN: So you see this piece right here?

SIEGLER: But something's not right. He shimmies up the rock for a closer look.

NALEN: And there's a good possibility that this little piece right here was shot - looks like looking for some shrapnel around the area.

SIEGLER: Possible vandals, the kind of stuff around Nalen's job that doesn't always make the headlines.

NALEN: This is it. This is this is what we do. We're here to protect our public lands and our valuable cultural sites, and that's why we're here.

SIEGLER: He takes some photos of the defaced rock panel. It's evidence. Then he gets ready for the long drive home. Kirk Siegler, NPR News in southern Nevada. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.