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Weeks after Oregon, standoff lingers over American West's public lands

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Federal government control of public lands in the U.S. West remains a political flashpoint weeks after an armed standoff in Oregon fizzled, with lawmakers debating proposals and a left-leaning think tank urging scrutiny of extremist groups.

An occupier climbs the stairs of the tower at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, January 10, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

In a dispute that echoes some of the anti-government themes running through the U.S. presidential campaign, Republican lawmakers want to probe federal land management agencies they call the “root cause” of the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by right-wing activists in January and February.

But Democrats accuse Republicans of “dangerously irresponsible rhetoric” that encourages lawlessness and violence in the wide-open West, where the federal government polices vast tracts of wilderness.

The Democratic Party-aligned Center for American Progress on Thursday called on Congress to look into groups like the ones behind the Malheur occupation. Such an inquiry could illuminate a “network of patriot militias, financiers, and special interest groups that are currently fighting to seize control of U.S. public lands,” said a report that the center shared with Reuters.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid commended the report on Thursday, saying in a statement, “It is time for Republicans to come to their senses and stand up to these extremists and denounce the horrible values they represent.”

As long as Republicans retain control of both chambers of Congress, the inquiry the report calls for is unlikely, though Republicans’ proposals will probably get a full airing.

A bill introduced last week by Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Republican, would eliminate all Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service law enforcement personnel.

This would “fulfill a major objective of the radical ‘county supremacy’ movement ... which argues that county sheriffs are the highest law enforcement authorities in the United States,” according to the Center for American Progress report.

But a spokesperson for Chaffetz rejected that claim, saying the bill would give land agencies a chance to focus “on their core mission without the distraction of their police function,” and would require local law enforcement authorities to annually report on their land stewardship.

“If the land agencies actually tried to listen and solve the problems of the people instead of imposing a dogma on them, we wouldn’t have this issue,” Utah Republican Representative Rob Bishop, who chairs the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee, told Reuters.

Representative Raul Grijalva from Arizona, the chief Democrat on the committee, told Reuters he wants “an end to the dangerously irresponsible rhetoric coming from some in Congress who are promoting a divisive culture of lawlessness and violence in the West.”

The House Natural Resources Committee last month considered three related Republican bills: one would allow states to take over 2 million acres of federal forests, primarily for logging; another is focused on an aircraft range but would transfer the rights to some roadways across federal land in Utah to counties; a third would let states manage tracts of federally owned land through pilot programs.

A spokesman for Alaska Republican Representative Don Young, who introduced the first bill, said it would alleviate a decline in timber production due to ineffective federal forest management.

Utah Republican Representative Chris Stewart, who sponsored the second bill, said it is “about military readiness, plain and simple.” The sponsor of the third bill declined to comment.

Reporting by Julia Harte; editing by Bernard Orr and Cynthia Osterman