Grazin' Hell

Bush put former industry lobbyists in charge of public lands. Now a deal with a Wyoming rancher has the stewards running for cover.

In fact, it is now possible to stroll into a National Park Service bookstore and purchase a work of Bible-based "natural history," explaining that the Grand Canyon is merely 6,000 years old. Religious symbols and Bible verses are receiving more prominent display in the parks, over the protests of local managers and apparently at the instigation of political appointees within the DOI.

The tilt toward industry and "faith-based parks" has been a difficult adjustment for many of the department's field personnel, particularly those engaged in resource protection and public land management. A recent report by the Office of the Inspector General, based on a survey sent to more than 25,000 DOI employees, concluded that there was a "culture of fear" within the department; more than one-quarter of respondents stated that they feared retaliation if they reported problems.

"The grade level of our intake is way up," says PEER's Ruch, referring to the type of whistleblowers within the DOI who contact his organization. "It's gone from range conservationists to field office managers and state directors."

Wyoming rancher Frank Robbins.
Lee Lockhart/Northern Wyoming Daily News
Wyoming rancher Frank Robbins.

The solicitor's office is one of the most politically charged components of the Department of the Interior, since it offers more political-appointee positions than any other -- including the solicitor, deputy solicitor and six associate solicitors. Under Myers, it became a hotbed of former lobbyists and litigators accustomed to challenging the government's regulatory "excesses" on behalf of grazing associations and mining and energy companies -- the same regulations that they were now sworn to uphold.

One of the stars of the new regime was Robert Comer, associate solicitor for the Division of Land and Water -- a post that oversaw legal matters dealing with the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Reclamation, among other agencies. A Denver attorney who'd worked as a field ecologist, done a previous stint in the regional solicitor's office in Lakewood, represented mining giant Asarco as in-house counsel and served on the board of the Colorado Mining Association, Comer came to Washington with impeccable credentials as a warrior for the cause. There was talk around the office that he was "pretty tight" with then-Deputy Secretary Steven Griles (another former energy lobbyist, now back in the private sector); that he was "going places"; even a rumor that he could be the next director of the BLM.

But judging from the comments of staffers who worked with Comer in Washington and in the regional solicitor's office in Lakewood, he was also disliked in some quarters -- and feared. "He was thought of as someone who could send you to Nebraska," says one insider, who requested anonymity out of concerns about retaliation. "The agenda was clear -- to de-emphasize protection of public lands. People learned to back off rather than push the law."

"He would tell attorneys what conclusion he wanted them to reach, rather than asking their legal opinion," says another. "That's not the way it's supposed to work. His biases were very apparent. They weren't based in the law, and he didn't represent the positions of the agencies he was supposed to represent. Usually, if it was something that favored the feds, it was automatically bad."

Comer was known as a hard worker who often put in long hours. He was also frequently out of the office, observers say -- visiting his family, speaking at conferences or otherwise engaged. But then, Myers was often absent, too. In contrast to the DOI solicitor in the Clinton years, John Leshy, a high-profile scholar who'd literally written the book on public-land regulations (Coggin, Wilkinson and Leshy's Federal Public Land and Resources Law), Myers was an elusive boss.

"It wasn't like Bill was a strong figure, and Bob was carrying out his business," says one source. "There was no one leading the office, and Bob had free rein. He was acting on his own judgment a lot of the time, in my opinion."

Comer was a key player in one of the DOI's most startling policy turnabouts: the decision to settle a dispute with the State of Utah over whether the BLM could continue to make recommendations for wilderness designation of any of its lands. The deal threw out years of wilderness studies and opened up millions of acres of BLM land across the West to possible development -- including Colorado's wildlife-rich Roan Plateau, now targeted for hundreds of natural-gas wells ("Raiding the Roan," January 1, 2004).

The Utah deal outraged environmentalists, since it signaled the end of a process that dated back to the days of Jimmy Carter and had survived the administrations of both Reagan and George Bush the First. But among advocates of greater commercial use of BLM lands, it was hailed as an unequivocal triumph.

Given the Utah case and other momentous work that Comer was engaged in, some insiders thought it was curious that he'd be asked to resolve an ugly but very local dispute between a single rancher and a BLM office in Wyoming. But then, very little about the Robbins matter was typical. And the solution that Comer devised was odder still, even by the odd standards of the Norton era.

Frank Robbins talks like a man who's been running cows through Wyoming all his life. He has the lingo, the drawl -- and the wariness of outsiders that comes with riding the range and hassling with bureaucrats.

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