Wyoming Rancher’s Long Battle
By David Bowser
EMBAR, Wyo. — It's been a long time since Frank Robbins has had a payday. Most of his income the last few years has gone for legal fees.
"This ranch is my life," Robbins says. "It's a family operation."
And he's having to fight for it. Robbins says he thinks his opponents, some U.S. Bureau of Land Management employees, have underestimated his determination.
Robbins is suing them under a federal racketeering act.
Harvey Frank Robbins Jr., 48, is not native to Wyoming.
"I'm from Tuscumbia, Ala.," Robbins says. "It's right in the northwest corner of Alabama. There's a lot of farming, agriculture. There's a lot of industry around there, too. It's pretty diversified."
While he grew up in the red clay country of Alabama, the land of big cotton farms, his family was in the floor covering business.
"My grandfather started that business," Robbins says.
It started out as a rubber business, but when vinyl was invented his grandfather started making floor coverings.
"I was involved in that until 1994," Robbins says.
But that wasn't all he was involved in.
"When I was a kid, my dad told me if I'd refrain from drinking and smoking, he'd give me $5000," Robbins says. "At the time, that sounded like all the money in the world. I held him to that."
When Robbins was 16, his father asked him how he wanted the money.
"I said I wanted cattle," Robbins says.
That was the beginning of his ranching career. He started trading cattle in Alabama as a teenager.
"I've pretty much been in the cattle business ever since then," Robbins says.
He also raised some row crops, soybeans, cotton and corn.
"I worked a number of years, while I was in college," Robbins says. "I went to school and farmed full-time."
When he got out of college, he went into the family business and farmed in his spare time.
"We sold our business in 1994," Robbins says.
As part of the sale, the Robbins family had to sign a six-year non-compete agreement.
"The only thing I knew how to do was make floor tile and raise cattle," Robbins says.
He started looking for ranch land in the western U.S.
Initially, he found a ranch in Montana.
"It was a smaller place," Robbins says. "I ran cattle up there for a number of years, but I decided it wasn't where I wanted to live, and it wasn't where I wanted to raise my family, so I began looking for another place. That's when I found this place."
The place he has now is actually a number of smaller ranches that have been reunited. It stretches some 60 miles long and 25 to 30 miles wide across the Big Horn Basin here west of Thermopolis, Wyo.
He first bought the High Island Ranch, then the HD Ranch. Most recently he added the Owl Creek Ranch, bringing his holdings up to almost 120,000 acres.
"We've been running a cow-calf operation, but we also run a yearling operation," Robbins says. "We usually keep our calves over and sell them as yearlings."
Contrary to popular belief, Robbins says he has been running at about 50 percent capacity since 2000.
"The fewer cattle we've got," Robbins says, "the fewer problems we have with the government. We might not have any cattle next year before it's over with."
This area was first settled by big cattle outfits. One of them was the Rocky Mountain Cattle Ranch.
"It ran all the way from Meteetse to Lander," Robbins says. "It was a huge ranch."
That ranch was broken up in the early 1900s into smaller ranches. In recent years, many of the old ranches are starting to be pulled back together into larger ranches again.
"This original ranch right here was the first ranch in the Big Horn Basin in 1871," Robbins says. "It's got a pretty good history."
Teddy Roosevelt's legendary Rough Riders started here. The Rough Riders were initially formed by Col. J.L. Torry when war broke out with Spain in 1898.
"Col. Torry's Rough Riders originated right here on this ranch," Robbins says. "Col. Torry owned this ranch. He had about 50 cowboys here, and he took the best of those and picked up some more from the local area and created the Torry Rough Riders. Of course, Roosevelt eventually made them famous."
The ranch includes privately owned land and grazing allotments from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the State of Wyoming and the U.S. Forest Service.
"We've never had any problems with the Forest Service," Robbins says. "We never had any problems with the BLM in Montana."
As a matter of fact, the BLM office in Montana commended Robbins for the conservation program on his ranch up there.
"It was one of their accomplishments in the Montana Butte District where a couple of other ranchers and I went in and hired a range rider to help us rotate our cattle," Robbins explains. "It was kind of a test project to keep the cattle moving and rotate the pastures."
The Butte BLM office claimed it as one of their successes in conservation, giving Robbins and the other ranches credit for being involved in it.
There is little public land in Alabama, like many of the states east of the Mississippi River, and dealing with federal land management agencies was something new to Robbins.
"This is definitely a new experience," he confirms. "If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn't have bought a ranch in Wyoming. That's hindsight. I can't worry about that."
The way the ranch is laid out, there is no way of getting around the BLM land. While it's not a checkerboard, it's close.
When this area was settled, like most places in the West, pioneers homesteaded around the water and the broad grass-covered pastures, leaving the rocky peaks and inaccessible canyons for the government.
The ranch ranges from the mountains to the high desert basin.
"We go up from about 5000 feet to an area on the forest at 13,000 feet," Robbins says. "We cover all that range in between."
The winters here aren't bad, Robbins says. The ranch is protected by the mountains.
"There's very little wind," he says. "We don't get a lot of wind, and we don't get a lot of moisture."
They get about 10 inches of moisture in the lower pastures to 20 or so inches in the mountains.
"It lends itself to open winters," Robbins says, "which is good for cattle grazing. We don't have to feed hay. We can rotate on winter pastures where we can stay out all winter. There's no snow cover."
And that is beneficial to the wildlife, he says.
"It keeps the grass open for the wildlife," Robbins says. "We have a tremendous number of elk and deer and antelope. We have bighorn sheep, black bear, grizzly bear, mountain lions and wolves."
Robbins runs a commercial herd of black baldies. He holds his calves over and sells them as yearlings.
"We've got good cattle," Robbins says. "At least the buyers seem to think so."
His yearling steers this year averaged 862 pounds.
"I think that's pretty good," Robbins says. "I think that shows we're managing the range properly. We can't be abusing the place if our cattle are in good shape."
Robbins says his issues with the local BLM office stem from plans they had long before he bought the ranch.
"The government — the Forest Service, the BLM and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department — were trying to buy the ranch," he explains. "They had these plans of grandeur of having this sanctuary of elk and trout fishing and all the things they could do. Then this guy from Alabama comes in at the last minute, not knowing any of this, and buys this ranch."
In his suit against the BLM employees, Robbins accuses them of trying to force him to bend to their will, to the point of almost putting him out of business.
"After I signed the purchase agreement," Robbins says, "the BLM got the previous owner to sign an easement across the ranch."
That easement is necessary, Robbins says, because BLM officials have to cross his land to get to the land they're supposed to manage.
"They get this easement from the previous owner, but they don't record it," Robbins says. "I buy the ranch. I pay for the ranch, but they still hadn't recorded it."
A title search showed no evidence of the easement.
"Within a week of purchasing the land, I started getting phone calls from the BLM stating that they wanted me to renew this easement," Robbins says. "They basically said I didn't have any choice but to do it."
When Robbins wouldn't do what the BLM wanted, he claims, he became a target of local BLM officials.
"It's a level of arrogance," Robbins says, "that very few people back east understand."
Robbins says a person has to have dealings with these government officials to really understand it. He accuses the local BLM officials of drawing up their own rules and then not obeying them. He says they can make allegations against a rancher and the rancher has no choice but to be dragged into court to prove his innocence.
"That's what they've been doing with me for nine years," Robbins says. "There's a long appeal process."
Back in 1997, Robbins says, BLM employees were on his place in a continual pattern.
"On my private land — not public land, but private land — to a point where I told them, ‘I don't mind you coming on my place,’" he says, "’but I want to know what you're going to be doing and when you're going to be here.’"
"It got to a point where I sent them a certified letter in 1997, saying that I want them to get permission to get on my private land and I wanted to know what they were going to be doing."
A week later, a couple of BLM employees came up the road. Robbins was on a horse and went over and talked to them.
Robbins says he asked where they were going. When they replied that they were going up on his place, Robbins told them he hadn't gotten anything in writing notifying him of their crossing his land. They told him they didn't need his permission to go on his land.
"She pulled out this easement, which was a fence easement," Robbins says, "and stated that she was going in on that."
When the local BLM official first told Robbins the BLM wanted an easement, he also told him they wanted to survey his property.
"I told him no, absolutely not," Robbins says. "I wasn't going to give him an easement."
Robbins told the BLM official he would be glad to negotiate with him.
"He stated that the federal government does not negotiate," Robbins says. "I said, ‘Okay, fine. There's not anything to talk about. I'm not going to give you the easement, and I'm definitely not going to let you survey.’"
When the two BLM agents presented him with papers on the very road they wanted an easement across, Robbins says he assumed that they'd made a survey and recorded an easement without his knowledge.
Robbins says that day on the road, he told the two BLM employees in their pickup that they didn't have an easement. He tore it in half and gave it back to them. He also asked them to turn around and go back.
They did, but a month later Robbins was charged with interfering with a federal officer. Such a crime is punishable under federal law by a $100,000 fine and a year in prison on each count. Since there were two BLM employees in the pickup, Robbins was charged with two counts.
On Dec. 3, 1997, it took a jury in federal court in Cheyenne 20 minutes to acquit Robbins on all counts.
"The jury sent me Christmas cards apologizing for the actions of their own government," Robbins says.
But the court victory didn't stop the problems between Robbins and the BLM.
It reached a point that by 2000, Robbins spent the month of February riding around the local BLM office on a mule to draw attention to the situation.
He says he appealed to various organizations for help. He tried to get someone to look into these events and see what these people were doing.
"They were destroying me and my family," Robbins says. "In 2000, I was basically at the end of the rope. I didn't have anyplace to go, so I got on this mule down there. I rode that mule in February. It was 10 below zero every morning. For 21 days, I rode around that BLM office, trying to force these people into mediation."
His hope was to get some organization or some judge to look at the evidence.
"I was able to get them into mediation, but the BLM was not willing to negotiate whatsoever," Robbins says. "We weren't able to accomplish anything."
He says they told him that if he gave them an easement, they would try to settle the trespass accusations against him.
"It's all tied back to that easement they wanted," Robbins says.
Robbins says that with the help of a local reporter, he finally got a meeting with BLM officials in Washington, D.C.
At the meeting, Robbins says he carried the sworn testimony from the criminal case in which he was exonerated and from the administrative hearings that he had been through with the BLM.
He says he pointed out what appeared to him to be the bad faith negotiations of local BLM officials and what appeared to be perjury by some of those officials.
Local environmental activist groups claim Robbins got a sweetheart deal from the Washington officials, but Robbins says they settled because they knew they had no case.
The settlement, however, did not include the racketeering lawsuit Robbins filed against local BLM officials under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO.
On Dec. 8, Robbins and his attorney, Karen Budd-Falen, will be in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer in Cheyenne to try the case.
The Big Horn Basin has long been a battleground.
Before the white man came, the Arapaho and Shoshone battled over hunting rights here. Now, they've been moved to the Wind River Reservation, which borders Robbins' ranch.
Robbins says he hopes he fares better with the federal government than the Indians did.