Sportsmen take aim at law enforcement bill

They see HR 622 as a complex and serious threat to public lands.

 

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, a vocal proponent of transferring federal public lands to state control, has gotten an earful lately. His recent town hall in Cottonwood Heights, Utah, turned rowdy, swamped by more than 1,000 citizens. Riled up over his stance on public lands and his refusal to support investigations of President Donald Trump’s possible conflicts of interests, despite his position as House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman, they booed and chanted “Do your job” and “Explain yourself.”

But he appears to be willing to listen to one interest group: sportsmen. On Feb. 2, Chaffetz credited pressure from hook-and-bullet groups for his decision to kill the public lands transfer bill he recently introduced, HR 621. And those groups hope he’ll listen again when it comes to companion bill HR 622, the Local Enforcement for Local Lands Act.

Bureau of Land Managment and Forest Service law enforcement rangers enforce a wide set of laws, from timber theft to drug trafficking.

Sponsored by Chaffetz and cosponsored by several representatives from across the West, this bill presents a less direct threat: it would hand a difficult job — enforcing federal regulations on public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service — to local police. Sportsmen fear that this would undermine federal agencies’ ability to manage those 438 million acres, making the lands more vulnerable not only to abuse but to potential transfer as well. “It’s one more stake in the heart of public access to public lands,” says Whit Fosburgh, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership president and CEO.

For sportsmen, this is only the latest in a long history of conservation fights. “Sometimes people think hunters are new to this table,” says Land Tawney, president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, “but we’ve been doing this for the last 120 years.” The intensity of recent threats to public lands, however, has led to greater awareness than ever, spurring widespread involvement from the sportsmen community. BHA’s membership, for example, has increased by 25 percent since the election, and has tripled over the last year. “A lot more folks are emboldened to speak up now,” says Fosburgh.

BHA recently coordinated a press conference on HR 622, giving both sportsmen and career law enforcement employees from the BLM and Forest Service a platform to voice their opposition. This came about because the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, seeing potential allies in the sportsmen community, reached out to BHA. Together, they decided to take action “while this thing is hot,” says Tawney.

The bill would remove the law enforcement functions currently carried out by BLM and Forest Service personnel, instead deputizing local law enforcement and providing funding via block grants. During the conference, Tawney compared this to “asking your dentist to do gallbladder surgery for you.”

The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, which represents 26,000 federal agent members, unanimously opposes the bill, according to Pat O’Carroll, executive director. The BLM and Forest Service, O’Carroll explained, routinely confront complex cases pertaining to “archaeological resources, timber theft, international drug trafficking, illegal immigration, wildlife poaching and catastrophic wildfires.” He expressed doubt that local enforcement would be capable of investigating such cases, which can sprawl over numerous jurisdictions and even international boundaries. Federal agents are free from the political pressures that might impact local police, he added. 

Speaking during the conference, Lanny Wagner, now-retired chief law enforcement ranger for the BLM, emphasized not only the extensive training and knowledge necessary to enforce such cases, but also the passion and time that federal agents must dedicate to them. While he underscored his respect for local law enforcement, he added, “I’m not sure a sheriff’s office or its employees would have the same dedication and time or even energy” to pursue such cases.

Retired Forest Service Law Enforcement & Investigations Patrol Captain Jay Webster addressed the issue of local enforcement not only from a professional perspective, but also as a hunter and hiker who uses public lands almost daily. “I don’t want to meet a sheriff who’s out there just getting his shift in so he can go home,” he said, “I want to meet with Forest Service personnel.” Federal agents and local police simply have different expertise, he noted. A sheriff’s priority is serving the citizens of the community. If a home robbery and a public-lands wildfire take place at the same time, O’Carroll explained, “they’re probably going to be going for the robbery.”

The press conference was just one piece of a larger campaign against HR 622. Riding the momentum of their successful push against HR 621, BHA and other sportsmen groups have engaged Chaffetz on social media, in Washington D.C., and on his home turf.

Sportsmen are also collaborating with outdoor industry and environmental groups, both to fight HR 622 and to defend public lands more generally. Conservation is not a partisan issue, so bills that threaten public lands have the unique ability to draw a wide range of user groups together. “There’s nothing more universal,” says Tawney.

It may be universal, but it’s also particularly dear to sportsmen, which is why “folks are waking up” now, as Fosburgh puts it. HR 622 is among the “continued flank attacks on our public lands system,” he says, and sportsmen intend to keep fighting these attacks at every turn: If you get rid of public lands, “you effectively end hunting as we know it in America.”

Rebecca Worby is an editorial intern at High Country News. Follow @beccaworby