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.

"The environmentalists created the whole problem," he says. "They see cows as one of the worst environmental hazards, and the rancher is the biggest criminal there is. That's the war we're in here."

Actually, Robbins is a relatively recent arrival to the Cowboy State. His family hails from Alabama, where the E.S. Robbins Company, a manufacturer of office products, is a major employer and Frank's father and uncle are known as prominent Republican donors. Robbins moved to Wyoming in 1994, when he bought the High Island Ranch and Cattle Co. near Thermopolis. Over the next six years he acquired two more ranches. Today his properties total around 55,000 acres, mingled with BLM lands totaling another 55,000 acres.

Robbins's operations included raising cattle, operating a dude ranch and taking guests on cattle drives -- all activities that depended on access to the federal lands interlaced with his own. But his relationship with the BLM field office in Worland soon became strained, then nuclear. The rancher locked horns with local regulators over a host of alleged infractions, including cows trespassing on neighbors' BLM allotments; bringing more cattle to his allotments than the permits allowed, or bringing them too early or too late; and refusing to follow drought restrictions or obtain proper permits for his cattle drives.

 
Jay Bevenour
 
Move 'em on, head 'em up: Former DOI solicitor 
William G. Myers III, seeking a federal judgeship, 
fields questions about the "sweetheart deal" struck by 
aide Robert Comer.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Move 'em on, head 'em up: Former DOI solicitor William G. Myers III, seeking a federal judgeship, fields questions about the "sweetheart deal" struck by aide Robert Comer.

By some accounts, local BLM staff first made "informal attempts" to resolve the disputes with Robbins -- no formal trespass actions were issued for two years, despite continuing reports of violations -- but the rancher's refusal to cooperate led to a tougher stance and increasing trespass citations.

The Robbins version, contained in lawsuit pleadings in Cheyenne and Denver, is that things turned nasty after the rancher declined to grant the BLM an easement across his property to replace one approved by the previous owner that had lapsed. Such reciprocal arrangements are common between ranchers and the BLM; Robbins needed a similar easement from the BLM just to maintain a road that led to the High Island. But Robbins claims the BLM tried to "extort" an easement from him by throwing its weight around.

The situation came to a head in the summer of 1997, when two BLM employees encountered Robbins on their way to repair a fence on one of the rancher's allotments. Robbins tore up the easement document they showed him, which allowed them access to the area. In response, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Cheyenne charged him with a misdemeanor: interfering with a federal officer. Robbins was acquitted at trial, and he then filed suit against several employees of the BLM's Worland office, claiming violations of his constitutional rights and extortion under the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. He's also filed administrative appeals on almost two dozen BLM actions against him.

Just how much of a problem Robbins's operations posed to public lands is a matter of debate. One 2002 BLM report stated a concern that unauthorized grazing by his livestock during a time of drought was causing "sustained, long-term ecological damage."

"It was clear that Robbins didn't know what he was doing," says Marvel of the Western Watersheds Project, who toured the area with Robbins and BLM officials in 2002. "Not that many ranchers do, but he was an especially bad one because of the damaged condition of the riparian areas and even the stripped nature of the uplands. He's the worst kind of hobby rancher -- irresponsible, arrogant and much too rich."

However, a University of Wyoming professor who studied Robbins's operation at his request came away with a less alarming impression. Michael Smith, who teaches in the renewable-resources department at Laramie, believes that many of the conflicts arose from trying to coordinate grazing permits associated with different ranches that had never been run as one entity before. "There is no fundamental resource condition problem on the ranch, just fundamental personal differences among various individuals," he says. "I think a reasonable grazing plan could be developed for that operation if the two parties were willing to start over."

Robbins himself bristles at the notion that he's some kind of hobby rancher. He estimates he's spent $800,000 on legal fees in the past eight years defending his livelihood against the BLM. "This is my life out here," he says. "They've destroyed my life. I haven't made money in this operation since 1997. Every dime this ranch makes goes to lawyers. How many years are you willing to work for nothing?"

The rancher says he took his complaints about the Worland BLM office "to the congressional people, to the governor, to anybody who would listen." After Bush's election, he finally found a receptive audience at DOI headquarters. On February 8, 2002, he was granted a meeting with senior BLM officials in Washington, during which he recited a long list of alleged misdeeds by the Worland office, including harassment, blackmail, perjury and bad faith.

"I looked at everybody in that room," Robbins recalls. "There were twelve or fifteen people in there, and six or eight on the speaker phone, a bunch of lawyers from the Department of Justice. I said, ŒIf you folks had perjury on me, y'all would put me in jail. I have proven to you today perjury by your own people, and you're not gonna do a thing to 'em.'"

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