Democrats blast GOP inaction against extremists

House Democrats' leading voices on natural resources and homeland security yesterday raised concerns about the threat posed by groups against federal control of public lands and decried Republicans' reluctance to criticize the growing fringe movement.

Such groups are driven by "an extreme anti-government philosophy that rejects the rule of law and seeks to overturn more than a century of American conservation achievements," Natural Resources Committee ranking member Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said at a forum with Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, ranking member on the Homeland Security Committee, and a handful of other Democrats.

"The people who follow this dangerous ideology often put communities and hardworking public servants at risk," Grijalva said. "We've seen it before, and unfortunately we'll see it again. I believe Congress needs to understand this philosophy in order to defeat it."

In recent months, both ranking members have unsuccessfully requested hearings on right wing extremist groups, which the Department of Homeland Security first warned about in 2009.

Without the support of their committee leaders, Grijalva and Thompson decided to invite a panel of experts to the Capitol Visitor Center.

The forum's witnesses included David Jenkins, president of Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship; Tim Blount, executive director of Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which was seized by armed militants earlier this year; and experts on extremist movements.

Blount, who lives and works in Malheur, was informed during the occupation that "individuals associated with the refuge were at high personal risk," he said. Getting choked up, he added, "I now find myself looking over my shoulder, not feeling comfortable and realizing that I am a victim of domestic terrorism."

While Blount is still suffering emotionally from the aftermath of the occupation, his group has been an unlikely beneficiary. It has received more than $60,000 in donations and support since rancher Ammon Bundy and a band of outlaws seized the refuge, he said. The group has also seen its membership explode from 140 people to over 2,000.

Jenkins, a registered Republican, echoed many of the Democratic lawmakers at the event in lamenting the lack of scrutiny his party has shown to anti-public lands groups.

"I am disappointed that we are not discussing this problem at full committee hearing," he said. "This is clearly an issue that deserves bipartisan attention."

Jenkins went on to argue that far-right groups that oppose federal control of public lands based on a twisted interpretation of the Constitution are neither conservative nor patriotic, regardless of the labels they apply to themselves.

Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop and other Utah Republican lawmakers were frequent targets for Democrats and witnesses.

They are part of a handful of prominent "politicians who are giving this movement hope," said J.J. MacNab, a fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University. When Bishop and Western officials say "we're going to fix this and then they can't do it, it's worse than if they didn't do anything at all," MacNab said.

And hinting at the potential violence, as Bishop has repeatedly done, "is really driving the movement to consider additional Malheur-type takeovers," she added.

Earlier this year, Bishop and other Republicans spoke against the armed takeover. They also expressed some sympathy for the occupiers.

"I want it to end without violence, but I also understand the frustration and feelings people have working with land agencies," Bishop said in January. "They have been very heavy-handed."

To defuse the rage behind the anti-public lands groups, there needs to be a "politically neutral conversation," MacNab said. That will, she concluded, require the right wing of the Republican Party "to disassociate itself from right-wing crime."

By:  Corbin Hiar
Source: Environment and Energy Daily