The New BLM Throwdown: Utah County Sheriffs Cry ‘Retribution’

June 26, 2014 6:00 a.m.

Utah is one of the major hotbeds for disputes between the Bureau of Land Management and those who consider the federal agency in a permanent state of overreach.

Now the feud is spreading to another arena: contracts in which the agency pays local sheriffs for law enforcement on federal land. Alongside all the BLM-related controversy in the West, the BLM has allowed its contracts with five Utah county sheriff offices to expire over the past year or so.

The agency says that the move is wholly unrelated to any of broader disagreements over federal authority, which gained national attention since the Bundy Ranch standoff in Nevada. But the Utah county sheriffs believe otherwise.

“We all thought that this was retribution,” San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge, whose county saw a $5,000-per-year annual contract expire, told TPM. Some of the county contracts were worth up to $50,000 annually. “They still haven’t given us a good reason. They never explained what those problems were.”

BLM spokeswoman Megan Crandal told TPM that the expired contracts were “absolutely and unequivocally” unrelated to any other issues. The agency has concerns about the contracts’ “deliverables” — which are the specific services (and the accompanying documentation) that the county sheriffs are supposed to provide, she said.

“It’s unfortunate that folks would try to intimate that that’s the case because I can tell you unequivocally that it’s not the case. We don’t operate that way,” she said. “But when you are trying to negotiate an agreement, and you’re trying to find common ground, when one side continues to poke you in the eye with a stick, it is frustrating and it makes it very hard to continue to have productive talks.”

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Emery County Sheriff Greg Funk told TPM that he had not met with BLM officials since February. “They’re not negotiating with us,” he said.

It is difficult to ignore how many problems have arisen between Utah authorities and the agency, and how the failure of the BLM and county sheriffs to strike new deals fits into that ongoing narrative.

The Utah state legislature passed a bill in 2012 that demanded the federal government turn over 30 million acres of public land to the state, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. Several Utah counties have passed resolutions declaring the BLM’s authority “is not recognized” within their borders. The BLM special agent in charge in Utah, Dan Love, also has jurisdiction in Nevada and became a boogeyman of sorts for Bundy Ranch sympathizers.

It was in Utah where protesters, including a Bundy family member, drove all-terrain vehicles on federal land in protest of government overreach earlier this spring. A BLM officer in Utah was also reportedly threatened by armed men who told him, “You need to die.” BLM rangers then started stripping the agency’s logo from their official vehicles.

The role of county sheriffs in this dispute is also notable: Cliven Bundy expressed a ‘Constitutional Sheriff’ mentality, which asserts that sheriffs are the foremost law enforcement authority in the land. In the heat of his standoff with the BLM, Bundy urged “every county sheriff in the United States” to “disarm the federal bureaucrats.”

That fundamental disagreement about federal authority is also one of the underlying factors in the Utah contract dispute. Eldredge, the county sheriff, traced the problem back to the 1980’s when the BLM first started to undertake law enforcement actions with its own officers.

“Since the BLM started getting into the ranger program and starting giving law enforcement authority to their rangers, what they’ve essentially done is duplicating the job of the deputy,” he said. “We’ve just had problems with the way they treat people. They’re just duplicating the work of the elected sheriff here in the county.”

“We don’t think it’s right,” he said. “We believe that the BLM are land managers. They manage the land. If there’s a criminal problem, then call the sheriff.”

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