July 17, 2014

Sheriffs are key to BLM mission, but local politics intrude

Clark County Sheriff Douglas Gillespie, right, stands alongside rancher Cliven Bundy, middle, who addresses supporters during his standoff with the Bureau of Land Management last April. Gillespie took no side in the conflict. (Photo by Jason Bean, courtesy of AP Images)

Phil Taylor

When the Bureau of Land Management faced down an angry, armed militia while rounding up rancher Cliven Bundy's cows last April in the southern Nevada desert, missing was a key ally.

Clark County Sheriff Douglas Gillespie and his deputies stayed on the sidelines of the conflict, leaving BLM and National Park Service rangers to manage hundreds of protesters, many of whom saw Gillespie, not the agencies, as the area's legitimate law enforcement authority.

BLM had tried for months to secure a contract with Gillespie and his Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department to assist in crowd control at Gold Butte, but the deal crumbled at the 11th hour.

"Sadly, [Gillespie] backed out of his commitment shortly before the operation -- and after months of joint planning and sharing of accurate information," BLM spokesman Craig Leff said.

Gillespie declined to be interviewed for this article, but earlier this month he blasted BLM in an interview with the Las Vegas Sun.

Gillespie accused BLM of being untruthful with him about the circumstances of the cattle impoundment, ignoring his advice to postpone the operation until the fall and using aggressive tactics to quell the crowd.

"I think if anybody would look at how they handled the protesting with the use of Tasers and police dogs, anyone who had been in policing would question those tactics," Gillespie told the newspaper. "And I believe that led to the heightened interest and escalating the situation."

Gillespie, who is not seeking re-election, was courted both by BLM and the Bundy family in the conflict, though he did not take a side.

In many Western counties, sheriffs carry major clout. In rural Clark, Gillespie's criticism of BLM's operation may have bolstered those who saw the agency as a ham-fisted landlord.

YouTube videos of BLM rangers deploying police dogs and a Taser gun on protesters went viral last April, helping recruit a new wave of gun-toting militia and "sovereign citizens" to Bundy's Bunkerville ranch. As tensions rose to the brink of gunfire, BLM abandoned the roundup and members of the Bundy family released hundreds of cows back onto the range, according to the agency.

BLM says it works well with most of the more than 200 Western sheriffs who share jurisdiction on federal lands. But its recent spat with Gillespie illustrates how local politics can hamstring the agency's ability to protect the West's vast open landscapes and the people who use them.

Those working relationships have deteriorated badly both in Clark and in many counties in Utah, where state lawmakers have demanded the transfer of more than 20 million acres of federal land to the state.

Utah counties have passed resolutions calling federal authority a threat to "the health, safety and welfare" of their citizens, and some have banned BLM rangers.

Over the past few years, BLM has also allowed several contracts with Utah sheriffs and state agencies to lapse. The agency said those decision have nothing to do with local politics.

"Coordination with local law enforcement is critical to carrying out the BLM's mission and ensuring public health and safety on the public lands," Leff said in an email. "We routinely enter into contracts for assistance and other services, and across the bureau have successful working relationships with local law enforcement."

Partnerships of 'utmost importance'

County sheriffs are key allies for BLM's 225 or so law enforcement rangers and 70 special agents who help protect wildlife, habitats, minerals, timber and archaeological treasures across a massive 250-million-acre estate. That works out to more than 1 million acres per ranger.

In places like BLM's Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area, an off-highway-vehicle Mecca in southeast California, as well as the annual Burning Man festival in BLM's Black Rock Desert in northwest Nevada, county sheriffs provide critical added patrols that help BLM curb incidents like drug use, domestic quarrels or reckless driving.

In Oregon, local law enforcement officials help BLM combat illegal marijuana cultivation on public lands that threatens both the environment and unsuspecting hikers.

"Because of the fact that our rangers are out there covering such large amounts of area with very limited resources, the only way we could even hope to get our job done effectively is to collaborate with the state, local and other federal partners," said Sal Lauro, BLM's director of law enforcement.

But in conservative pockets of the West, sheriffs' collaboration with federal agents doesn't always jibe with local politics. Sheriffs who assist BLM, whose multiple use mission sometimes involves closing roads, cracking down on illegal firewood cutting or curbing grazing, risk a backlash from voters on election day.

"The bottom line is that those relationships are the utmost importance," former BLM Director Bob Abbey said. "The local sheriff is an elected official. Therefore there are different things that are pulling upon him and her. That's local politics."

In Nevada, for instance, Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) has signed a state bill to prioritize lands Nevada would like to acquire from the federal government, which owns about 85 percent of land in the state, mostly under BLM.

When BLM last planned to impound Bundy's cattle in April 2012 -- an operation that was called off at the last minute at the urging of the Justice Department -- it sought assistance from Gillespie, whose presence at the ranch may have helped quell tempers, Abbey said.

"I knew we were going to be very dependent on Sheriff Gillespie and his deputies if we were going to have any chance of success," Abbey said.

Often, Western sheriffs face conflicts of interest in deciding whether to publicly support BLM, particularly in policies that local politicians oppose.

In southeastern Utah, for example, a county commissioner last May organized an illegal all-terrain vehicle ride through a river canyon teeming with archaeological sites.

BLM had closed Recapture Canyon to motorized vehicles in 2007 to protect Anasazi and Pueblo sites dating back more than 2,000 years, but the closure angered San Juan County elected officials.

Commissioner Phil Lyman led the May 10 ride to assert the county's right to access federal lands and to pressure BLM to reopen it to off-highway vehicles (OHV). Some of Bundy's children and militia supporters also took part in the protest with some carrying weapons.

San Juan Sheriff Rick Eldredge -- whose budget is set by Lyman and his two fellow commissioners -- brought about 30 deputies to the protest to safeguard citizens' right to free speech.

"We upheld the constitutional rights of everyone involved," Eldredge told the conservative news outlet Breitbart Texas in May. "I have got to be in that foxhole taking those mortars, so to speak, because I'm the one that was elected to do that."

Eldredge, who didn't respond to multiple phone messages from Greenwire, criticized BLM's management of the canyon, saying it has "drug their feet, drug their feet, drug their feet," on whether to grant San Juan's request to open it to ATVs.

"People are tired of it and want an answer," he told Breitbart, adding that he'd like to see the federal government "give back" the land to Utah.

With the public relations wounds still fresh from the Bundy standoff, BLM elected to keep a low profile at Recapture by sending two plainclothes officers to document who took part in the ride. It warned Lyman that he could face criminal charges for entering the canyon, but federal prosecutors are yet to take any action.

While that has frustrated some environmentalists, it reflects BLM's fear of further inflaming tensions with Utah counties.

'I'm pretty much waving the white flag'

According to The Salt Lake Tribune, Utah counties have recently passed resolutions deeming federal authority a threat to "the health, safety and welfare" of their citizens, and three of them -- Iron, Garfield and Carbon -- have passed resolutions banning federal law enforcement within their borders.

Carbon's resolution states that the county does not recognize any attempted law enforcement by an official of a federal land agency. Those agents who wish to enter the county and uphold federal laws on public lands are advised to first get approval of the sheriff.

The county anger has been further stoked by BLM's decision over the past two years to allow most of its contracts with Utah law enforcement offices to expire.

Throughout the West, BLM offers reimbursable contracts for local sheriff's offices to provide added patrols on public lands such as high-use campgrounds or during special recreation events or holiday weekends. BLM frequently also pays sheriffs to use their dispatch services.

According to data provided by BLM, the agency has allowed eight out of its 12 reimbursable contracts with Utah agencies to expire. Those include contracts for patrols and dispatch services in Emery, Grand, Juab, Kane and San Juan counties, as well as with Utah's Department of Natural Resources and Motor Vehicle Enforcement Division and the National Park Service.

BLM said some of those contracts were many years old and needed to be reassessed to ensure they were worth the money. Other contracts were no longer needed.

But the result is fewer police officers on public lands, less interagency cooperation and potentially more crime.

And it struck a nerve in Utah.

Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox (R), a former commissioner in Sanpete County, told the Tribune last month that the cancellations were "discouraging to our local sheriffs who are dependent on them, especially to our rural communities that don't have funding to provide law enforcement."

Garfield County Sheriff Danny Perkins had stronger criticism, calling BLM law enforcement in his county -- which includes BLM's massive Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument -- "a total embarrassment." He said his constituents regularly complain about heavy-handed enforcement and bullying and that he's frustrated BLM will not provide financial assistance for search and rescue operations that the county and state help provide in the monument.

"I'm bitter, I'm disgusted and I'm pretty much waving the white flag," Perkins said.

Perkins says he doesn't oppose federal law enforcement. He said he currently has three National Park Service law enforcement officials deputized to enforce state laws on federal lands and is working on deputizing another officer with the Forest Service. But he said BLM does not seem interested in partnering with him.

Dennis McLane, who served as BLM's deputy chief of law enforcement in the 1990s and wrote a book on the history of BLM law enforcement, said BLM has long struggled to win the hearts and minds of rural Western sheriffs.

"There's a kind of resentment because BLM comes in with a special set of laws," protecting wild horses and burros, archaeological sites, timber and minerals, and requiring BLM to set limits on motorized recreation, McLane said.

Those laws, which include the Endangered Species Act, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, are often opposed by local elected officials, McLane said. BLM is required by Congress to enforce them.

Sheriff-BLM beefs seen as 'localized issue'

The conflicts go back many years in Kane County, Utah.

In summer 2003, Sheriff Lamont Smith helped a county commissioner tear down 31 blue signs erected by BLM to restrict vehicle access in the Grand Staircase monument. The signs were later delivered to monument Manager Dave Hunsaker in Kanab with a letter from commissioners noting that the closures "fail to respect the rights of the dominant estate."

Kane two years later erected dozens of its own "road open" signs in closed portions of the monument, but no criminal or civil actions were ever filed. The county claimed it owned the rights to the roads under an antiquated law known as R.S. 2477.

To local constituents, the message from the county's highest law enforcement officer and elected officials was clear: BLM's decision to close roads on federal lands -- be it to protect soils, wildlife, cultural sites or solitude -- held no force of law.

"You're sending a clear message to your constituents that is confusing: that they don't have to follow federal law on public lands," said Steve Bloch, an attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

When county commissioners oppose BLM, sheriffs have an incentive to follow suit. It's a reflection both of the local electorate as well as the fact that commissioners write sheriffs' budgets, McLane said.

In the 1990s, the Western States Sheriffs' Association, which represents sheriffs in 15 states, was "generally hostile" to BLM, McLane said. Its officials at the time included Millard County, Utah, Sheriff Ed Phillips, a "county supremacy" believer who opposed federal law enforcement operating in his county, according to McLane.

BLM law enforcement officials in the 1990s made it a goal to attend WSSA's annual meetings, because "if you weren't there, they'd talk about you," McLane said.

In his book "Seldom Was Heard an Encouraging Word," McLane says county-supremacy sheriffs will "gladly accept funding through reimbursable law enforcement agreements as long as the BLM law enforcement program agrees not to operate in their counties whatsoever."

McLane said BLM often has more luck working with sheriffs in states where federal land management isn't so controversial.

"In some places in California, a phone call to a sheriff would get you five deputies in a heartbeat," he said.

But Jim Pond, WSSA's executive director who is a retired sheriff in Albany County, Wyo., said BLM's fallout with sheriffs in Utah is a "localized issue." By and large, the contract relationships between Western sheriffs and BLM are "good and remarkable," Pond said.

In southern Idaho, for example, sheriffs work "hand in glove" with BLM to patrol recreation sites during special event weekends, said Kootenai County Sheriff Ben Wolfinger, who is WSSA's sergeant at arms.

"When the public needs help, they really don't care what the badge looks like," he said.

'Huge step forward'

Budgets remain a major factor limiting the number of paid partnerships BLM can establish with local sheriffs.

That's because funding often comes out of the same budgets used for wildlife, rangeland management, recreation and cultural resources, said McLane, who said such contracts are "totally underfunded."

Money aside, Abbey said it's crucial for BLM rangers to cultivate relationships and maintain trust with local sheriffs. Those relationships, he said, are built largely on personalities.

"That doesn't mean you have to agree on everything," Abbey said. "Patrolling the public lands is not the highest priority a local sheriff has, and it certainly doesn't help him get elected. But those local recreationists are usually local residents, and their safety is also important to a local sheriff."

Last month, BLM law enforcement chief Lauro attended the National Sheriffs' Association annual conference in Fort Worth, Texas, and spoke directly with Western sheriffs, Pond said.

"That's a huge step forward," Pond said.

"He realized BLM's been noticeably silent with our organization for a while," Pond said. "He certainly was here to re-establish and reopen lines of communication."