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How the Bundys won in Nevada and what the government needs to do differently in Oregon

Ammon Bundy and a group of supporters, including his brother, were arrested on Jan. 26. Here's a look at the Bundy family's history of anti-government actions. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

In his 34 years in government, Bob Abbey has seen a lot of drama out West. He ran the Bureau of Land Management, one of the agencies at the center of the armed occupation of a federal wildlife building in Oregon, for three years, and before that he ran the agency's state operation in Nevada.

Abbey oversaw multiple cattle round-ups, though none as controversial as the one in April 2014 in which Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his family rallied armed anti-government activists to forcibly stop the government from taking their cattle after they had been illegally grazing on federal land for years.

The round-up quickly devolved into a tense armed standoff that Bundy and his supporters won, and its repercussions are echoing in Oregon today. At least two of Bundy's sons are leading the occupation in rural Oregon.

We caught up with Abbey by phone to talk about lessons the agency learned during the last Bundy standoff and how the government is handling the situation in Oregon differently as a result.

FIX: What do these people want?

ABBEY: That's really hard to define. I think first and foremost, they want to be visible. They want their concerns to be known by others. I believe they certainly have taken a radical tactic to communicate those concerns. But other than that, I think they are frustrated and feel somewhat disenfranchised with today's society.

FIX: Anything in particular they're frustrated about?

ABBEY: I think they're frustrated with society in general, and they feel like their voices and concerns are not necessarily being heard or addressed. And they believe in order to bring some attention to what they believe would be best for the people, they are pursuing a tactic that will gain the greatest exposure.

FIX: They're certainly succeeding at that.

ABBEY: Yes, they are.

FIX: What parallels do you see in Oregon to the standoff at the Bundy ranch in Nevada?

ABBEY: I think contrary to some of the articles I've read, I for one believe that land management agencies like the BLM really have a long and successful history in cooperatively managing public lands with stakeholders and with nearby communities who are dependent on how these lands are being managed.

And when people talk about their concerns about the federal government owning or managing too much land, I believe the more important question that's not being addressed is how should these lands be managed regardless of ownership? That doesn't seem to be resonating with a lot of people. They're focused on whether or not the government should be managing 50 percent of states' [land] -- or even more than that in states like Nevada. But they're really, I believe, focused on the wrong issue. And the true issue for all of us as a nation is how should these lands be managed over the long term, not only to meet the needs of today but also to ensure many of these same resources we rely on today are available for future generations.

FIX: It can be tough to plan for that future, if you're the government, with people who don't recognize your authority, right?

ABBEY: Well, I'm not a psychologist, but I think the Bundys and some of their supporters feel somewhat disenfranchised and certainly frustrated. They're passionate about their beliefs, but they're wrong. And either they need to decide that they're going to live like the rest of us and comply with our laws or else suffer the consequences.

FIX: But there have been no consequences yet for the Bundy family and those who joined them in pointing guns at federal officials. (The Department of Justice is investigating, but almost two years later, no charges have been filed.)

ABBEY: I firmly believe Cliven Bundy and those who participated with him will be held accountable for their actions for threatening federal officials. But I do also believe that, unfortunately, the delay in bringing those to justice certainly has empowered other right-wing extremists to pursue more radical tactics.

The truth of the matter is, as it relates to BLM, managing 240 million acres of public lands and 700 million plus acres of federal mineral estate is a difficult job. And today these employees -- they're witnessing unprecedented social, economic, environmental and cultural changes, increasing populations in the West, the polarization of special interest groups and political parties, budget limitations. This all creates their challenges for effective resource management.

FIX: You've been critical of the government response to the Bundy ranch. Remind me what you think went wrong.

ABBEY: I wasn't criticizing based on the fact that the impoundment to remove livestock was a wrong decision. Mr. Bundy had been trespassing for a number of years. His livestock had damaged some sensitive resources in Southern Nevada, and he has ignored continuous efforts on the part of the agency as well as federal judges' directives to remove his livestock, so I do think there should have been some type of action taken.

Having said that, my criticism -- and again, some of this is Monday-morning quarterbacking -- was the tactic that was employed by BLM and others of bringing an inordinate number of law enforcement officials to round up the cattle. And while I think it's always prudent to protect the safety of employees and members of the public who might be out, I think the tactic helped to create a situation where it could have rapidly become confrontational -- and it actually did. And one of the lessons that's to be learned was that federal agencies should have relied a little more on the sheriff and the local law enforcement to take the lead, at least with working with Bundy to try to lessen the emotions and maybe lessen the potential for violence.

FIX: With those lessons in mind, what is the government thinking right now to try to de-escalate the situation in Oregon?

ABBEY: I commend the approach that's being taken right now. I don't have any other information other than what I've read in articles, but it appears there is no immediate threat to life and certainly there's no threat to resources on the refuge, so they do have time on their side. I don't think you can wait forever, but I do think it's important for them to continue to openly communicate with those individuals who are occupying that refuge facility to try to find a way to convince them of the wisdom of removing themselves from the facility so the local town can get back to living their lives.

FIX: How does this end peacefully?

ABBEY: I think it ends peacefully when the individuals who are at the facility, who are occupying it willfully, understand they don't have the support from the local people. They are outsiders, and while there are certainly people who might sympathize with their concerns with the perceived overreach of the federal agencies, this is not the way to register those grievances.

There is the court of law, and people are expected to abide by those laws, and maybe they'll get the message they're not welcome and decide there's another way to deal with their concerns and frustrations.

FIX: How does the government avoid making this standoff-as-a-statement situation a trend?

ABBEY: I think it's important to find the right balance between appropriate development and conservation, and this certainly is a challenge for BLM as well as communities who are depending on how these lands are being managed.

But I also believe agencies need to be better prepared to deal with the ever-divisive rhetoric, and I don't think they are right now.

There will never be a true consensus for how to best meet the natural and energy resources for our agencies. But they need to do a better job articulating the rationale behind their decisions, and I think this in itself will go a long ways in earning the public trust that is so vital for us to find that common ground and to work together for the good of the majority of people in this nation.