It's cop-versus-cop as embittered westerners look to further tweak the feds

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, December 1997

Power Plays: Hold It
Right There, Officer

It's cop-versus-cop as embittered westerners look to further tweak the feds
By Tristram Korten

Who Cares If It Works — We've Optioned the Movie Rights!

"These wasp eggs are ticking time bombs," says David Orr, sizing up his arsenal of insect-laden containers. "Each one will hatch into hundreds of hungry embryos, and that's when you get your defoliation." The North Carolina State University entomologist is talking hard-core biological warfare, which is appropriate, considering that his enemy is kudzu — an Asian vine that has overrun the South since its introduction a century ago, growing up to a foot a day and obscuring trees, barns, and billboards across a seven-million-acre swath. Orr has just devised a scheme — not unlike the one that formed the premise of the recent sci-fi hit Mimic, in which a termite was crossed with a praying mantis and then unleashed on the plague-spreading cockroaches of New York City — that he hopes will put an end to the nefarious vine once and for all: This month, he's injecting thousands of thumb-size caterpillars with the eggs of a tiny wasp. His hypothesis? The wasp embryos will hatch into larvae that will boost the caterpillars' already voracious appetite for the vine, and then — before the caterpillars metamorphose into moths and ravage nearby crops — the wasps will kill their hosts. Or so Orr and other kudzu foes hope. "There's really very little chance of it running amok," insists Alabama-based Forest Service ecologist Jim Miller, putting to rest any fears that the dreaded caterwasp, like Mimic's bioengineered villain, will somehow prevail in the wild. "But at this point, we'll use whatever ammunition we have."

Give Us Ten Hail Marys for Every Decibel

"They figured we were a bunch of dumb monks," says Mother Tessa. "But Jesus said be gentle as doves and shrewd as serpents. So we are." In true David-versus-Goliath form, Mother Tessa's Nova Nada Monastery in southwest Nova Scotia is taking on the multimillion-dollar J. D. Irving Ltd., a Canadian timber firm that has been clear-cutting the surrounding forest. Environmental degradation aside, the monastics' biggest complaint is the noise. Not only does the constant screeching of chainsaws and heavy logging machinery destroy what their obscure Catholic order values most — "silence, solitude, and wilderness" — but it's wrecking their lucrative spiritual-retreat business. "In good faith, we cannot host any guests," laments Mother Tessa, explaining that the pilgrims who flock here to meditate and uphold the order's vow to speak only when necessary have recently had to wear earplugs to bed. Hence their plan to lobby this month — first via petitions and then by legal action if necessary — for a two-mile no-cut zone around the monastery. The logging concern, alas, is anything but cowed by the notoriously soft-spoken cenobites. "We're willing to give them a 100-meter buffer," says Irving spokesperson Mary Keith, "but the bottom line is, we own the land."

'Hell no, I didn't give him the report," hollers Ed Phillips, sheriff of Utah's Millard County. Phillips is referring to his recent run-in with the local BLM ranger, over a request for a copy of an incident report on a kid who burned himself with gasoline while trying to start a fire in a cave. "None of his goddamned business."

So much for interdepartmental cooperation. Welcome to the latest front in the Sagebrush Rebellion: the keepers-of-the-peace war. In this skirmish, law enforcement, always a combustible western mix of swagger, tradition, and territorialism, has erupted into ugly recriminations and retaliations. On one side, local sheriffs. On the other, Bureau of Land Management rangers, who for more than 20 years have had the right to arrest any and all lawbreakers on BLM land. The sheriffs want that power wrenched away. And they're marshaling plenty of political support. Next month, the Utah legislature is expected to consider a bill severely restricting rangers' powers. Many sheriffs, like Phillips, are pushing for even more. "I'm not going to be satisfied until [the BLM's law-enforcement authority] is rescinded by Congress," he says.

At issue is the right of rangers to arrest people on federal land for state and local violations. No one disputes that they have the power to uphold federal laws, but they have no license to intercede when state and local laws — from murder to disturbing the peace — are broken. They've often done so. "There've been examples of BLM agents doing drug arrests, running radar," says Salt Lake County Sheriff Aaron Kennard, president of the Utah Sheriff's Association. "That's the responsibility of local law enforcement."

Representatives of the BLM suspect other antipathies — especially the West's rampant "feds as bogeymen" syndrome. "This whole thing boils down to a distrust of federal control," says Keith Aller, the bureau's special-agent-in-charge in Utah. "We're an easy target."

Certainly they've been made a popular conservative political cause. The Utah bill would require BLM personnel to get signed agreements from local sheriffs before being allowed to make arrests for state violations. Idaho and Colorado are considering similar legislation. Congress may as well. A bill requiring federal agents, including BLM rangers, to get permission from local sheriffs before working anywhere in the sheriffs' jurisdiction was introduced last term. It never came to a vote but is likely to be reintroduced next year.

For his part, the BLM's chief law-enforcement official in Washington, D.C., Walter Johnson, professes a lack of concern about the growing anger toward his troops out West. "I'm going to go sit down with the sheriffs and have meaningful dialogue," Johnson says. "We've always had an excellent working relationship with most local law enforcement in our jurisdiction, so I think that this current situation is really just a misunderstanding of BLM authority. We certainly don't need state peace officer status to enforce the law."

Unfortunately, it seems Johnson may be underestimating the passions involved. Just ask Gary Aman, sheriff of Idaho's Owyhee County.
"We're going after 'em. We're gonna run 'em out," Aman crows when asked about the BLM. Last summer, Aman boasts, he even forced a showdown with rangers who were threatening to confiscate cattle that had trespassed on BLM land. "I told them, 'You take those cows and you'll be arrested.' I wasn't kidding." For the record, the cows stayed. The ranger involved was transferred.

Illustration by Mike Lee

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Open a World of Adventure

Our Dispatch email delivers the stories you can’t afford to miss.

Thank you!