Just one month after the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) introduced a bill to abolish the law enforcement capacity of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Forest Service officials. The bill proposes to instead transfer all law enforcement powers on U.S. public lands to local sheriffs, thus implementing a major demand of anti-government extremists — many of whom think sheriffs have more authority over local matters than the federal government.
The bill, H.R. 4751, is especially concerning in light of a new report from the Center for American Progress that finds there have been five armed takeovers of public lands since 2014 and not a single investigation by Congress.
“Congress has been a compliant witness to the rise of violent extremism on America’s public lands, ignoring the dangers that so-called Patriot militias and anti-government extremists pose to communities and public servants,” said Matt Lee-Ashley, senior fellow and director of the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress, in a statement. “Congress should send a clear message that violent extremism will not be tolerated and that anti-government efforts to seize and sell public lands do not reflect mainstream American values. Public lands must remain open to all, safe for all, and protected for all.”
BLM and Forest Service employees have also been the targets of violence outside of these occupations, ranging from attempted murder to threats of physical assault. The CAP report makes clear that these agencies need more resources, not less, to adequately protect the national forests, national parks, and other public lands to which they are entrusted.
Many of the sponsors of Rep. Chaffetz’s bill are the same people responsible for fanning the flames of the extremists at Malheur in January. Their public land seizure rhetoric and policies give a signal to so-called patriot militias and anti-government activists that their complaints are legitimate and their goals justified.
H.R. 4751 would give power to local officials who are likely to be inexperienced in federal land management laws or themselves tied to patriot or anti-government extremists groups, like Grant County sheriff Glenn Palmer. Rep. Chaffetz’s bill would also fulfill a major objective of the radical county supremacy movement, led by Richard Mack and the Constitutional Sheriffs, and supported by Cliven and Ammon Bundy. The movement believes that county sheriffs are the highest law enforcement authorities in the United States, with constitutional powers that supersede those of the federal government.
“This legislation will help deescalate conflicts between law enforcement and local residents while improving transparency and accountability,” Rep. Chaffetz said in a statement. “The BLM and Forest Service will be able to focus on their core missions without the distraction of police functions.”
However, as past instances have shown, these agencies are unable to do their jobs when the law is inadequately enforced. During the takeover at Malheur, militants reportedly harassed and intimated federal employees, forcing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to relocate its entire refuge staff out of the area. Gold Butte, Nevada — where a 2014 standoff occurred — has been unpatrolled for nearly two years, and BLM research teams reported harassment and threats as recently as last summer.
The new CAP study finds the federal agencies that manage U.S. public lands already have too few rangers and law enforcement officers to adequately combat criminal activities on public lands. The U.S. Forest Service has 765 full-time law enforcement officials covering 193 million acres, while the Bureau of Land Management has just 124 law enforcement rangers who are responsible for 245 million acres of land. That’s one officer for every 3,000 square miles of land.
These rangers are responsible for dealing with the threat of armed anti-government extremists, but they also have several other key duties, including protecting Native American artifacts from destruction and looting, preventing theft and vandalism of natural and cultural resources, and dealing with illegal marijuana cultivation on public lands. H.R. 4751 directly undercuts their ability to both protect themselves and others on these lands and to fulfill the rest of their duties.
“It’s mind-boggling that my Republican colleagues would try to assist those who break the laws – some of whom are also involved in drug trafficking, human trafficking and even terrorism – instead of working to conserve our natural resources for everyday Americans,” said Representative Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), the ranking member on the House Committee on Natural Resources.
Jenny Rowland is the Research and Advocacy Associate for the Public Lands Project at Center for American Progress. Follow her on Twitter @jennyhrowland.