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BLM's Surveillance Cameras Rankle Nevadans

Privacy: Devices were meant to catch those stealing preserve boundary signs, raising cry of 'Big Brotherism.'

November 10, 2001|From Associated Press

RENO — The Bureau of Land Management has been using camouflaged surveillance cameras in its investigation of the theft of more than 100 government signs marking boundaries of the new Black Rock Desert National Conservation Area.

So far, the cameras haven't produced any evidence that's helped in nabbing the thieves, but their use out in the sagebrush has sparked criticism among some conservation area opponents who say it amounts to government spying on law-abiding citizens.

"My first impression was that this smacks of Big Brotherism," Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.) said Friday. "I had no idea they did this kind of thing. I can understand people's concern that this is big government snooping," he told Associated Press.

BLM officials said Friday that both of the cameras were removed last month. One was in use for about a month and one for about two weeks along wilderness boundaries in the desert more than 100 miles northeast of Reno.

BLM Nevada Director Bob Abbey said he has ordered an internal review and issued a directive to the agency's law enforcement personnel that no cameras be used in the future without first consulting with him.

A Winnemucca man critical of the new federal protection of 1.2 million acres of desert and historic trials discovered one of the cameras in the sagebrush last month and complained to the BLM, the Elko Daily Free Press first reported in Friday's edition.

"I find it absolutely reprehensible that the Department of Interior should assume Nevadans are criminals, and therefore implement clandestine surveillance of our activities on what were once public lands, but which the Department of Interior now clearly considers to be federal lands," Bob Schweigert said in a letter to the BLM.

From 100 to 150 boundary signs have been stolen since the conservation area and 10 new wilderness areas were established by Congress last December, BLM spokeswoman Jo Simpson said Friday.

"The cameras were positioned near where we have been having the greatest theft problem. The alternative would be to station a person there," Simpson told AP.

"We don't use surveillance cameras a lot, but it is a tool in our investigative toolbox. We use them particularly at archeological sites where there has been vandalism."

Simpson said the cameras were approved in specific response to "an incident of criminal activity" and were not intended for general surveillance, as Schweigert had suggested.

"That's not at all what was going on here. It is a specific situation that is being repeated over and over again," Simpson said.

"It is a disservice not to have those signs there. Most people want to obey the law, and they don't know where the boundary is."

Simpson said the BLM doesn't know what motivated the thefts.

"What was alleged was it was a nearby landowner. What we thought we would do was try to prove innocence or guilt."

Abbey said he would review the matter to see "whether or not we had justifiable reasons for placing surveillance cameras there."

"We'll take whatever actions we deem are necessary to protect the resources that we manage on behalf of the American public," Abbey told the Daily Free Press. He said the use of surveillance cameras "is the exception rather than the norm."

Gibbons, a member of the House Resources Committee, said he had talked with Abbey on Friday and was glad he was responding with an internal audit.

"It seems to me some overzealous people at the BLM have lost focus on their core mission, which is to manage and preserve and protect public lands," Gibbons said. "When you start to put a camera out there to trap people, you also invade the privacy of people."

He said it might be justified to use camera surveillance for security to protect "valuable artifacts that cannot be replaced. But a doggone sign in the wilderness doesn't justify the expense of 24-hour security."

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