The Plan to Stop Federal Law Enforcement of Public Lands

House Bill 621 is dead, but 622 would do much to undermine protections for our most treasured public lands

Leah Sottile

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On Wednesday, Utah Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz responded to public outcry and dropped H.R.621, which sought to sell off millions of acres of public land across the West. But a similar, lesser-known bill to gut public land protections, which Chaffetz introduced alongside H.R.621 on January 24, is still on the table.

Dubbed “the Local Enforcement for Local Lands Act,” the bill proposes stripping the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management of its law enforcement powers. Both organizations employ uniformed rangers and criminal investigators, who enforce laws and investigate a whole host of issues on federal land: mineral resource theft, dumping of hazardous materials, vandalism of archeological areas, theft of artifacts and timber, and wild land arson, among other crimes. Opponents of 622 say that federal law enforcement officers also help protect species and habitats by deterring illegal off-highway vehicle use, patrolling big game habitats, and curbing waterway pollution.

With 622, Chaffetz appears to be ripping a page from the anti-public lands chapter of the Bundy Family playbook. The Bundy Family, widely known for it’s highly publicized 2014 standoff with Bureau of Land Management agents on its Nevada cattle ranch, believes federal agencies should totally cede control of America’s public lands to local counties. That was the point that Ammon and Ryan Bundy, sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, drove home last year as they led a group of armed men in the highly-publicized 41-day takeover of southeastern Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. At press conferences, Ammon Bundy argued that by controlling land at the local level, counties could decide whether “to get the logger back to logging, to get the rancher back to ranching, to get the miner back to mining.”

What Chaffetz and friends are proposing with 622—which Chaffetz originally introduced last year after the Malheur occupation—could have been written by Ammon Bundy himself: get the enforcement of public lands out of the hands of the feds, and into the hands of locals. “Federal agencies do not enjoy the same level of trust and respect as local law enforcement,” Chaffetz wrote in a joint statement with other members of the Utah delegation last March. “This legislation will help deescalate conflicts between law enforcement and local residents while improving transparency and accountability.” Policing functions are a “distraction” for BLM and Forest Service employees, the statement said. “This is a win all around.”

That’s not how environmental and conservation groups see it. Conservationists say taking away the law enforcement role from BLM and Forest Service officers is a part of a trend by GOP representatives to “defund our public lands, villainize public servants who are managing these lands, and in cases like this remove their ability to do their job,” says Brent Fenty, executive director of Oregon Natural Desert Association, an organization devoted to protecting the health of the state’s deserts. (BLM and Forest Service contacts refused to comment for this story, citing pending litigation.)

But here’s the scary part: what Chaffetz is proposing is already happening in some Oregon counties.

In Grant County, the Oregonian reported that Sheriff Glenn Palmer, a Constitutional sheriff who has designated his own militia and who supported the Bundy occupation, transferred the patrolling of Forest Service roads and campgrounds to local deputies, questioning if Forest Service officials even had the Constitutional authority to police federal forests there. “There is a general mistrust of the federal government by people of this County, State and Nation,” Palmer wrote in a 2011 letter to the director of a national forest located in Grant county. “Within the confines of Grand County, Oregon, the duties and responsibility of law enforcement will rest with the County Sheriff and his designees.”

If 622 passed, guys like Palmer would be “in charge of enforcing environmental rules, protecting endangered species, and protecting the rights of hikers,” says Steve Pedery, conservation director of Oregon Wild, a group working to protect Oregon forests and waterways. “That doesn't seem like a very good idea.”

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