The rise of the Sagebrush Sheriffs

How rural ‘constitutional’ peace officers are joining the war against the feds.

On the morning of May 10, 2014, San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge waited on horseback in the sagebrush of Recapture Canyon in southeastern Utah. In his faded jeans, boots and white cowboy hat, he looked as if he were out for a casual ride in the cool spring air. But what appeared to be a bulletproof vest underneath his shirt and the 30-odd deputies scattered amid the canyon’s scrub oak and sandstone hinted at a different story.

 

Eldredge and his deputies were braced for a mass act of motorized civil disobedience. Frustrated by “unconscionable acts by the Bureau of Land Management,” including the 2007 closure to motorized vehicles of the trail down Recapture Canyon, San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman and 40 to 50 followers were driving their ATVs toward the closed section of the canyon. They were there to defy federal regulations to protest what they consider the BLM’s heavy-handed management of the public lands that comprise so much of their county.

In promoting the ride, Lyman, soft-spoken with a boyish face and salt-and-pepper hair, invoked one of America’s favorite civil disobeyers, Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau, however, seemed an unlikely role model: Several of the protesters carried firearms, including a clean-cut guy with a “Regulator” neck tattoo and a semi-automatic Glock on his hip. A young man wearing an “American Venom” T-shirt had an assault rifle in one hand, his finger never leaving the trigger, while he piloted his four-wheeler with the other. Others carried signs: “Tranfer (sic) Federal Lands to Western States” and “Stop BLM Agenda 21 Road Closings.” Ryan Bundy, the son of scofflaw rancher Cliven Bundy, rode a four-wheeler down the canyon, as did a handful of self-professed militiamen who, just weeks earlier, had supported Bundy in his heavily armed standoff with BLM agents in Clark County, Nevada.

As the roar of the ATVs echoed up the canyon, Eldredge and his men stood ready. With a herd of determined lawbreakers heading toward them, another standoff seemed imminent. But as the caravan of protesters rode past the closure line, kicking up a billow of exhaust and red dust, the deputies did nothing, and Eldredge merely nodded a stoic greeting from atop his steed. That’s because he wasn’t actually there to police the protest, but to “keep the peace.” For the protesters, at least, that meant he was there to protect them from the plainclothes BLM officers roaming the canyon and collecting evidence — officers that Eldredge kicked out of the canyon before the ride was finished.

“There’s a big difference (between the Bundys and me),” Lyman told reporters prior to the ride. “I’ve got a sheriff standing next to me.”

 

Colorado sheriffs flank Weld County, Colorado, Sheriff John Cooke in 2013 as he announces that 54 Colorado sheriffs had filed a federal lawsuit challenging two gun control bills passed by the Colorado Legislature.
Brennan Linsley/AP

The Recapture ride was just another skirmish in the Sagebrush Rebellion, an anti-federal land-management movement with roots here in San Juan County. The first uprising, led in part by then-County Commissioner Calvin Black in the 1970s, was a reaction to what some saw as the federal occupation of the West by way of new environmental laws that impacted federal lands. It was also part of a region-wide effort to transfer federal lands in the West to the states.

The second iteration unfolded in the mid-1990s, provoked by former President Bill Clinton’s conservationist approach to federal land. While that rebellion became violent and coincided with a nationwide surge in anti-federal extremism, the land-use folks rarely crossed paths with the so-called “Patriot” groups. Today, though, the barriers are down. Now, a single event like Recapture, the 2014 Bundy Ranch standoff or the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation, broadcast globally and instantly via social media, draws supporters from across the extreme right, from other Sagebrush Rebels to pro-gun militiamen to local politicians who have no qualms about standing cheek-by-jowl with people aiming rifles at federal agents.

Among those officials are a growing cadre of county sheriffs, many of them from the rural West, who believe themselves above the reach of federal government, constitutionally empowered as the supreme law of the land. Some have chosen to become part of this movement, while others have joined unwittingly, by taking strong political stances or acting on the behalf of local anti-government movements. Eldredge, who refused to be interviewed for this story, openly allied himself with Lyman and company. These self-proclaimed “constitutional sheriffs” use their assumed position as the ultimate law enforcement authority to fight environmental regulation, run federal officials out of their counties, and, in some cases, break the law themselves.

Richard Mack as Graham County, Arizona, sheriff in 1994, sued the federal government over the background check provision of the Brady Act. Today, Mack (shown here at a 2010 anti-gun control rally in Washington, D.C.) pushes for local control and tries to get candidates with “constitutional” leanings elected.
Jim West/Alamy

The constitutional sheriffs’ seminal moment was in 1994, when Richard Mack, then-sheriff of Graham County, Arizona, and a handful of other sheriffs sued the federal government over a provision in the 1993 Brady Act that required local law enforcement to handle background checks on gun sales. In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 for the sheriffs, deeming it unconstitutional for the feds to force the state or its officers to execute the regulation.

Mack’s defiance made him a folk hero to the then-burgeoning Patriot movement, which is centered around the belief that the federal government is taking away individual liberties. Mack became a speaker at Patriot gatherings, railing at Clinton and his attorney general, Janet Reno. In 1996, Mack lost his bid for re-election, but he still spoke for libertarian causes, and he co-wrote a book with Randy Weaver, the man at the center of the 1992 Ruby Ridge shootout with federal agents, the event that catalyzed the militia movement.

But it was Mack’s “complete discouragement and feelings of hopelessness” at the 2008 election of Barack Obama that propelled him back into the political spotlight. In reaction, Mack wrote a 50-page screed denouncing the federal government and its intrusion into individual and state rights. The County Sheriff: America’s Last Hope, published in 2009, argues that the sheriff is the ultimate law enforcement authority and thus the “last line of defense” shielding individual liberties from out-of-control federal bureaucrats. The manifesto cemented his cause and made him one of the prime movers of the ad hoc reactionary movement that would come to be known as the Tea Party.

With his clear blue eyes, sweeping black hair and easy smile, Mack looks like central casting’s idea of the perfect sheriff. He shared his philosophy at dozens of Tea Party rallies as well as gatherings of the Oath Keepers, a quasi-militia organization founded in 2009. Had there been a true constitutional sheriff in Montgomery, Alabama, back in 1955, Mack told his audiences, that sheriff would have defied the segregation laws and protected Rosa Parks. “Today, that constitutional sheriff does the same for Rosa Parks the gun owner,” Mack says, “or Rosa Parks the rancher, or Rosa Parks the landowner, or Rosa Parks the homeschooler, or Rosa Parks the tax protester.”Help fund stories like this

By refusing to enforce federal and state laws that they deem unconstitutional, whether they involve BLM road closures, gun control, drug laws or bans against selling unpasteurized milk, Mack says sheriffs can lead the fight to rescue America from the “cesspool of corruption” that Washington, D.C., has become. If need be, he says, sheriffs even have the power to prevent federal and state agents from enforcing those laws, thereby nullifying federal authority. If a particular sheriff doesn’t rally to the cause, then the voters should kick him out of office. And Mack and his organization have been quietly fielding opposition candidates in many counties. In fact, he is one of the forces behind the Constitutional County Project, which aims, this year, to elect a whole slate of “constitutional” candidates to office in Navajo County, Arizona, in what amounts to a nonviolent coup d’état. “There is no solution in Washington, D.C.,” Mack told me. “If we’re going to take America back it’s going to be at the local level.”

Some Western sheriffs didn’t need Mack’s encouragement. Back in 2000, Eldredge’s predecessor, Mike Lacy, forcibly opened a road in Utah’s Canyonlands that the National Park Service had closed to protect cultural resources. A few years later, his Kane County counterpart, Sheriff Lamont Smith, went on a countywide escapade, removing more than two dozen BLM signs that indicated road closures and other restrictions on motorized travel. Mack’s movement gave these lone-wolf sheriffs a collective sense of empowerment and a rallying point.

By 2011, when Mack formally created the Constitutional Sheriffs and Police Officers Association, or CSPOA, his creed was already infiltrating Western sheriffs’ offices. That year, Josephine County, Oregon, Sheriff Gil Gilbertson started making headlines for defying (and allegedly harassing) federal land managers. Montezuma County, Colorado, Sheriff Dennis Spruell appeared on the right-wing radio show, The Political Cesspool, where he threatened to arrest federal officials who closed roads, citing his duty to defend his county “against enemies, foreign and domestic,” part of an oath undertaken by members of the U.S. armed services and now a favorite catchphrase of constitutional sheriffs.

Then-Montezuma County, Colorado, Sheriff Dennis Spruell, left, sits with constitutionalists Bob Sanders and Mike Gaddy in 2011. The sheriff had threatened to arrest any Forest Service workers he deemed to be breaking laws by closing certain roads. Spruell lost his bid for re-election in 2014.
Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images

In October 2011, seven sheriffs from Northern California and one from southern Oregon gathered for an event in Yreka, California, called “Sheriffs Stand TALL for the Constitution.” If any of the predominantly white, older audience believed that sheriffs are, or ought to be, apolitical, objective enforcers of the law, they were quickly disabused of the notion. One sheriff after another stood up and spoke proudly about his involvement in the Tea Party and the “assault being perpetrated against our community by our own government” by way of travel management plans and dam removals. Tellingly, Karen Budd-Falen, a Wyoming-based property rights attorney who is well-known for representing Sagebrush Rebels against the federal government, was also on the panel.

“We’re challenging the status quo, and we are challenging some federal and state agencies and some special interest groups who are using money, influence, politics, regulations and lies to literally destroy rural America and our way of life,” the event’s host, Siskiyou County Sheriff Jon Lopey, said, summing up the sentiments of his colleagues. “Some of your federal and state agencies care more about fish, frogs, trees and birds than (they) do about the human race. And one more thing: We’re broke. Why don’t you let the people work?” His message was clear: Environmental regulations wreck the economy, and a bad economy leads to crime, so the interests of sheriffs everywhere are best served by fighting environmental regulations.

Four months later, in January 2012, the CSPOA held its first gathering in Las Vegas, followed by a second event that September. By then, Obama was on his way to being re-elected and Tea Partiers had triumphed in a number of Republican primaries. Mack’s attendance rosters read like a Who’s Who of Tea Party politics. They included Oath Keepers’ founder Stewart Rhodes and Sagebrush Sheriffs such as Spruell and Lopey. Also speaking was Tom DeWeese, president of the American Policy Center, known for spreading fears that the United Nations, under Agenda 21, is taking over the world via bike paths and public transit, and Joe Arpaio, the notorious sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, whom Mack praised for launching an investigation into the validity of Obama’s birth certificate. Ken Ivory, president of the American Lands Council and champion of the federal land-transfer movement, gave a rousing speech at the September gathering about the “revolution of ideologies” he and the sheriffs were engaged in.

The larger movement really gelled, though, after the December 2012 shooting massacre of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut, when it seemed as if Congress might pass modest gun control measures. Hundreds of the 3,000-odd county sheriffs nationwide revolted against the specter of such regulations, vowing not to enforce any new gun laws and to prevent federal officials from doing so. The West led the charge, with a majority of the region’s 300 rural sheriffs, Republicans and Democrats alike, signing on to oppose new state or federal gun laws. Sheriffs who did not join the charge were added to a list of “red coats” on the CSPOA website, and risked the wrath of their gun-loving constituents.

Mack told me he is especially proud of the letter to Obama from 28 of Utah’s 29 county sheriffs, Eldredge included, which read, in part: “No federal official will be permitted to descend upon our constituents and take from them what the Bill of Rights — in particular Amendment II — has given them. We, like you, swore a solemn oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and we are prepared to trade our lives for the preservation of its traditional interpretation.”

 

Then-Josephine County, Oregon, Sheriff Gil Gilbertson, who questioned the federal government’s authority on federal land, lost his bid for re-election in 2014.
Bob Pennell/Mail Tribune via AP

Mack’s organization is not unique in believing in sheriff supremacy. The notion was critical to the ideology of the ultraconservative John Birch Society, founded in 1958, as well as the racist, anti-tax Posse Comitatus group of the 1970s. Now, organizations like the Oath Keepers have embraced it as well. The idea acts as a kind of glue that binds many of these libertarian and right-wing movements together; Sagebrush Rebels, Second Amendment advocates, county- and states’-rights groups and border security activists have increasingly looked to sheriffs to use their clout on their behalf.

This power, says Mack, derives mostly from the fact that the sheriff is the only elected law enforcement official, elevating him above his bureaucratic counterparts. Added to that is the 1997 Supreme Court decision on the Brady Bill’s proposed background checks. The majority opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, is in Mack’s favor: “The Federal Government may neither issue directives requiring the States to address particular problems, nor command the States’ officers, or those of their political subdivisions, to administer or enforce a federal regulatory program.” That interpretation could be used to justify Eldredge’s refusal to stop the illegal Recapture Canyon ride, as well as the sheriffs who threaten to ignore federal gun laws.

Yet the court decision does not empower those sheriffs to stop or impede federal officers from enforcing federal laws or regulations. Nor does it require federal officers to get the local sheriff’s permission before doing their jobs. Mack’s rhetoric, says Casey LaFrance, an associate professor of political science at Western Illinois University and author of Targeting Discretion, a police-training manual, is driven more by historical context than legal precedent. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, for example, prohibited the U.S. military from enforcing laws or invoking “posse comitatus” — that is, enlisting citizens to fight crime or repel outside invaders, a right sheriffs possessed in colonial America. According to some, this puts sheriffs at the top of the law enforcement food chain.

State legislatures, including those in Montana, Arizona and Washington, have tried to pass legislation giving sheriffs more power, usually by undercutting federal law enforcement. They’re rarely successful, but in 2013, Eldredge attended the Utah Legislature’s session to help Rep. Mike Noel, a well-known Sagebrush Rebel from Kane County, introduce a bill to limit the ability of federal officials to enforce state and local laws on public lands in the state. The “sheriff’s bill” passed, but was later repealed after the courts stopped it from taking effect.

Which isn’t to say sheriffs aren’t already extremely powerful, says LaFrance. As elected officials, sheriffs are accountable only to the voters. County commissioners have no control over them and can’t remove a sheriff, even if he or she is convicted of a crime. Though commissioners typically control the budget, they are usually prohibited from cutting off the sheriff altogether. In most states, only the governor can remove a sheriff from office, and that is only in cases of extreme malfeasance.

It’s often tough even for the voters to boot a sitting sheriff. In rural counties, among the only people qualified to replace a sheriff are the deputies, who risk losing their job by taking on their boss. “Honestly, the sheriff is rarely challenged,” says LaFrance; in fact, the average sheriff’s term is about 24 years. This apparent invulnerability makes some sheriffs feel free of the necessity of enforcing laws to which they are ideologically opposed, and that, say critics, can have dangerous consequences.

“When law enforcement refuses to enforce the laws, it sends a dangerous signal to extremists,” says Jessica Goad of the Center for Western Priorities. “It serves to embolden those who tend towards violence. This rhetoric and stance has an extremely chilling effect on the people who are doing their jobs — from park rangers to environmental activists. The thought that the sheriff doesn’t enforce the law is scary.”

It goes even further. U.S. Attorney S. Amanda Marshall chastised then-Josephine County Sheriff Gilbertson after he riled up a meeting of miners in 2012 and even promised to arrest federal law enforcement officers for “impersonating” police. “You do the miners a disservice by promoting, under color of the office of Josephine County Sheriff, a clearly erroneous interpretation of federal law,” she wrote him in a letter. “As a result, miners are becoming increasingly confrontational with federal officers. … Your continued misguided crusade will only increase the safety risks to our federal officers and members of the public.”

Rose Chilcoat, executive director of Great Old Broads for Wilderness, the longtime bête noir of Lyman and other San Juan County conservatives, says when elected officials side with lawbreakers, “it hugely undermines a civil society. It makes it that much harder for the feds to make a case. They can say: ‘Yeah, I rode my ATV on that closed trail because the sheriff said it’s OK.’ ” The feds made a strong case against Lyman, however, and ultimately succeeded in getting him convicted of two federal misdemeanors for organizing and participating in the ride. Lyman was sentenced to 10 days in jail, and he and a collaborator were ordered to pay $96,000 in restitution for damage done. (He is appealing the verdict.)

Sheriffs have used their authority to weigh in on all manner of issues. Mack was a leading figure at the Bundy Ranch standoff in 2014, excoriating the local sheriff for not running the BLM out of there, and last year, he urged constitutional sheriffs to refuse to enforce the Supreme Court’s decision to permit gay marriage. In Idaho, Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler wrote to the state’s governor, Butch Otter, exhorting him not to resettle Syrian refugees. Mack was on hand in Burns, Oregon, in early January to demonstrate in support of ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond, who were sentenced to five years in prison for arson on federal land. Even though he is close to the Bundys, however, Mack questioned their subsequent occupation of the nearby wildlife refuge. While the local Harney County Sheriff, David Ward, has taken a strong stance against the occupation, Sheriff Glenn Palmer, from Grant County, Oregon expressed limited support for Bundy and friends, saying the federal government should give in to some of their demands. Palmer was the 2011 CSPOA Sheriff of the Year, and made his name by pushing back against federal land agency travel-management plans.

Mack says the CSPOA has about 4,500 dues-paying members, some 200 of whom are sheriffs, and he says his group has “trained” (taught their principles to) hundreds more. But the tentacles of the constitutional sheriff philosophy clearly reach far beyond the group’s membership rolls. Shortly after the Recapture ride, the conservative media outlet Breitbart Texas interviewed Eldredge, who in 2010 had run as a Democrat against then-incumbent Mike Lacy, promising to open more doors to federal agencies. Four years later, he was a Republican, running on a record of standing against federal overreach. In the interview, the sheriff blamed environmental regulations for transforming San Juan County from one of the richest counties to one of the poorest in the state, and he said he’d love to see federal land transferred to the state. When asked if he considered himself a constitutional sheriff, Eldredge replied, “I do.

“I thought every sheriff was supposed to be a constitutional sheriff,” he added. “That’s our job.

Senior editor Jonathan Thompson writes from Durango, Colorado. @jonnypeace

Coverage in this special report is supported by contributors to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund.