Seeing our neighbors from 2,000 miles away


It’s not every day that a welder from Uinta County gets to share the podium with the President of the United States. But that’s what happened last Wednesday, Oct. 8. Andy Johnson did not seek the spotlight. The spotlight fell on him — with all the fury of a bureaucracy scorned. 

The achievement that put him on the dais with President Trump was that he stood for his rights as an American citizen against the threat of financial ruin. By quietly standing for property rights, Johnson not only won the case but also helped to expose injustices that threaten the lives and livelihoods of every family in America.

The ordeal began in 2011 when the Johnson family applied for a permit to build a stock pond on their property. They crossed every “T” and dotted every “I” that state and federal statute required. Then they saved and worked for more than a year in order to improve their property and make Sixmile Creek more ecologically friendly.

When the work was practically done, in 2013, the Army Corps of Engineers came calling. It wanted to inspect the pond. While a pair of agents were making measurements and taking notes, the Johnsons asked repeatedly if there were any violations of federal law. They kept receiving variations on the answer: “We don’t know.”

If federal agents themselves, whose business it is to know the law, don’t know whether the law has been violated, how is it possible for anyone to know the law? Neither the Wyoming State Engineer’s office, nor anyone in local government, knew of any federal regulations that the Johnsons had failed to meet. Nevertheless, long after the project was completed, the Johnsons received a letter demanding that they stop construction. 

Eventually, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) got in on the act. Richard Clark, from Region 8, could not tell them whether they were violating any federal regulations. He could only tell them that they would have to spend a lot of money to prove that they were not. The demand that someone prove his own innocence is outrageous and fundamentally unconstitutional

A full six months later, the EPA demanded that the pond be torn down. It threatened the Johnsons with criminal penalties and civil fines ranging from $37,500 to $75,000 per day until their private land conformed to EPA demands. 

There is no federal law that requires what the EPA demanded, but the agency claimed this authority under unpublished “guidance” to its agents and enforcers. Despite lacking statutory authority, the EPA continued adding fines until the Johnsons allegedly owed $16 million.

Only when the Pacific Legal Foundation helped the Johnsons file suit against the EPA did the tables turn. Ten months later, on May 9, 2016, the agency dropped all fines and ceased demanding the demolition of the Johnsons’ pond. It never did, however, admit any fault in the matter.

In a county of only 20,500 people, the Johnsons’ story should be common knowledge. One of our own families stood up to an obvious injustice from an overwhelming leviathan and won. That’s more exciting than the Red Devils winning a state championship! 

Sadly, however, media manipulation has so distorted our view of the world that most people are more familiar with the latest news-cycle in Washington, D.C. than they are with their next-door neighbor. It’s a sad commentary on communities everywhere when our next-door neighbors need to travel 2,000 miles away before we can see them and become aware of their very real struggles. 

To make matters worse, once the Johnsons stood next to President Trump, they faced a new danger. Their identity as real people and fellow citizens of Uinta County is easily swallowed up by the swamp of identity politics. Don’t let this happen.

Their story should not be filtered through the toxic filter of national politics. Those who did not vote for President Trump should be every bit as thankful for their steadfastness as those who did. And those who did vote for President Trump should not diminish their achievements by submerging them into the person of a president.

I don’t know if Andy is politically red or blue. I don’t know if his lovely wife, Morgan, shares his political hue or differs in some regard. What I do know is that they and their kids are members of our beautiful little community and that they deserve kudos from all of us. The ordeal they endured will have lasting effects on our own property rights and the rights of our children and grandchildren.

When Andy, Morgan and their youngest child Rowan participated in the signing of President Trump’s “Executive Order on Promoting the Rule of Law Through Transparency and Fairness in Civil Administrative Enforcement and Adjudication,” they represented all Americans—not only half of us. 

The executive order was especially urged by Russell Vought, the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget. He called it “a major step forward in the effort to drain the swamp. And to get our arms wrapped around the administrative state.”

Vought went on to explain that “[w]e can’t do that until we know all of the dark regulatory stealth regulation that is out there.” The order will require all executive agencies to make rules and guidance available on a searchable website so that any citizen can easily find applicable rules. After 120 days, whatever regulations are not available online will be counted as rescinded. 

Vought ended his comments by saying, “we want to make sure that the American people … are no longer bullied by their federal government.” As a community, we can all sympathize with the three years of terror that the Johnsons endured under the arbitrary and awesome power of the EPA. 

While we are sorry that they were subjected to such bullying, we are also grateful that their story helped shine a light on hidden injustices. We are thankful, too, for attentive, elected officials who noticed the problems and are working to do something to protect our neighbors and friends.

Andy Johnson took his opportunity at the podium to say, “I would just like to thank the president today for signing this executive order which will hold the EPA and other government agencies more responsible for their actions. Thank you.”

Andy, thank you for speaking so eloquently on our behalf. I apologize for not hearing you until you were 2,000 miles away. You have not only spotlighted a problem in Washington. You have also revealed a problem back home. 

We would all do well to quit our fixation with Washington and to turn our eyes to the people down the block. An executive order can begin to fix Washington problems. But a friendly smile and a handshake across the fence have a far more immediate and lasting impact where it counts.

Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow his blog at OnlyHuman-JL.blogspot.com.

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