With dozens of anti-government extremists facing criminal charges over their roles in the two high-profile Bundy showdowns over public lands, Republicans in Congress have rolled out proposed legislation that would diminish the authority of federal agencies to enforce federal public lands law.
The bill, the Local Enforcement for Local Lands Act of 2016, was introduced last week by Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) along with the rest of Utah’s Republican delegation: Reps. Mia Love, Rob Bishop and Chris Stewart. It would strip officials in the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) of their authority to enforce laws regulating federal land. Rather, local and state authorities would be provided with a block grant to enforce the laws instead.
Speaking to Deseret News earlier this month, Chaffetz accused those federal officials of being “more Rambo and less Andy Griffith than I would like.”
The GOP bill comes a little more than a month after the precarious conclusion of a tense showdown between anti-government extremists and authorities over public land use that left one extremist dead, a small Oregon town terrorized for weeks, and federal employees allegedly harassed and threatened.
The Oregon occupation began in early January when a group of armed, hard-right activists took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to protest the sentences imposed on local ranchers for burning fires on public land. It was led by Ammon Bunch, the son of Cliven Bundy, who was the face of a 2014 armed standoff between militia and patriot groups and federal officials at the Bundy ranch in Nevada.
More than two dozen extremists have been indicted by a federal grand jury in Portland for their alleged involvement in the Oregon standoff. Nearly 20 people have been have been indicted for the Nevada showdown. Some people have been indicted in both cases.
The bill is raising of host of criticisms among those concerned about the conservation of public lands, particularly as right-wing extremists in the West have become more aggressive in their resistance to federal law concerning land use.
“[I]t’s mind-boggling that my Republican colleagues would try to assist those who break these 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 Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Natural Resources, in a statement to TPM. “Validating Cliven Bundy and his sons is not the way to improve land management and reduce conflict on U.S. public lands, but that is exactly what this Republican-led bill would do.”
Chaffetz has said that shifting the BLM’s law enforcement to local sheriffs would help prevent future standoffs like the Oregon occupation.
“Federal agencies do not enjoy the same level of trust and respect as local law enforcement that are deeply rooted in local communities This legislation will help deescalate conflicts between law enforcement and local residents while improving transparency and accountability,” he and the other sponsors said in a statement announcing introduction of the legislation.
But critics say it would do just the opposite by emboldening those who have harassed federal land officials and by leaving the defense of the laws to local authorities without any guarantee that the laws be would enforced.
“The bottom line that this is a bill that would put park rangers and law enforcement at risk at the exact time when they are being threatened by these anti-government extremists,” Aaron Weiss, the media director for the conservation group the Center for Western Priorities, told TPM. “It’s unconscionable that Chairman Chaffetz and Congresswoman Love would try to run a bill designed to endanger park rangers and law enforcement.”
Motivating some of the participants in the two showdowns is the belief that the federally-controlled land that stretches across vast expanses of the West should be handed over to local governments, and that local sheriffs — not the federal government — should settle disagreements over land use.
Two of the bill’s sponsors, Bishop — who is also chair of the House Natural Resources Committee — and Stewart, launched the “Federal Land Action Group” last year to work on legislation that would turn public lands over to local control.
Critics of the BLM bill argue that the lawmakers sponsoring it are in effect siding with anti-government extremists pushing the line of thought that the federal government should not be in charge of regulating public lands.
“This is the latest in a long line of attempts to demonize agencies like BLM, which are in fact innocuous agencies that do a ton of good,” Mark Pitcavage, a senior researcher at the Anti-Defamation League, told TPM.
Aside from the signal the bill’s opponents say it sends to extremists, they brought up the logistical concerns it poses. The legislation leaves the enforcement of federal law to local authorities who they say, at best, may not be qualified to implement it, lack the resources to take on the additional responsibilities, and even be sympathetic to those wishing to resist it.
“It’s like telling IRS you can collect taxes but if someone doesn’t pay your taxes there’s nothing you can do about it,” Weiss said.
When asked about these concerns by TPM, Chaffetz’s office pointed to provisions in the bill that would require the state or local governments to submit annual reports to the Department of Interior. The bill also says the local authorities would need to “enter into an agreement” with the Interior Department.
“[T]his bill gives BLM and Forest Service the opportunity to stay focused on their core mission without the distraction of police functions,” M.J. Henshaw, Chaffetz’s press secretary, said in an email to TPM.
While Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward was widely praised for how he handled the Oregon occupation, the sheriff in the neighboring county, Glenn Palmer of Grant County, is now under a state investigation after allegations he put his interest in the anti-government movement over his duties as a sheriff.
Even before the tensions between local activists and federal officials erupted into headline-making showdowns, BLM workers have been the target of harassment by anti-government extremists, according to criminal complaints and outside reports.
“These are rangers in a sense. They are not going in anywhere with guns blazing or engaging in some sort of federal tyranny,” Pitcavage said. “The fact is that when there are conflicts between BLM officers or Forest Service officers, they tend to be on the receiving end of violence.”
Corrected on 3/22: The story has been corrected to show that Rep. Raúl Grijalva is a Democrat.