Outside magazine, December 1997
'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 "I'm not going to be satisfied until [the BLM's law-enforcement authority] is rescinded by Congress," he says.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.
Illustration by Mike Lee
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