In southern Utah, a ranger is jailed under questionable circumstances

The region has a history of sheriffs butting heads with federal land agencies.

 

In early December, a Bureau of Land Management ranger at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, in southern Utah, had a casual office conversation with a colleague about his frustration with how a holiday party was disrupting his day’s work. Two days later, he was in a Garfield County jail cell, purportedly for what he had said.

The ranger, Jeff Ellison, was in his second year working with the agency. He came to Grand Staircase-Escalente in 2014, and stepped into a hornet’s nest. In 1996, President Bill Clinton used the Antiquities Act to designate as a national monument the 1.8 million acre swath of slickrock, verdant canyons and piñon-juniper mesas. Because of the impacts the extra level of protection might have on grazing and coal mining, not to mention an ingrained disdain for federal control, many of the locals in this rural, Mormon-dominated area were furious. Most of those individuals still are. That makes being a federal employee a dicey proposition in this isolated area, and reports of locals and even elected officials intimidating or harassing BLM employees are not uncommon.

Whether Ellison’s arrest was a form of intimidation or a simple misunderstanding is not yet clear. 

During the conversation in question, Ellison brought up improvised explosive devices, the weapon of choice for insurgents trying to do harm to U.S. military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The co-worker apparently was uncomfortable with the banter, and two days later, Ellison’s supervisor called him at home to let him know that he had to apologize. The supervisor also said he’d been informed two sheriff’s deputies were on their way to Ellison’s home.

Sure enough, the lawmen were soon at his door, and the ranger was arrested that evening. Ellison recalls that one of the deputies said the sheriff wanted to “make an example out of him.” He also says he was not informed of the exact charges — class B misdemeanor of threats and violence and infraction of disorderly conduct — until the next morning, as he was paying about $950 in bail.

Those charges have yet to be confirmed with the police report. Ellison says he asked multiple times to see the report, but the sheriff refused to provide it.

While some witnesses interviewed by a deputy were not clear about the tone of the conversation, most said it appeared to be light-hearted. Pat Shea, a former BLM national director, and Ellison’s lawyer, also spoke with witnesses, all of whom said they did not think Ellison’s actions warranted the reaction. 

Sheriff James "Danny" Perkins was not available for comment at the time of this publication. A representative at the sheriff’s office told HCN last month that the police report could not be released because the incident is still under investigation. But both Ellison and Shea have been told the charges were dropped.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah.
Ken Lund Flickr user

The incident was largely unknown to the wider public for at least a month after it occurred, but this past week was unveiled by Robert Weinick, a local conservationist and acquaintance of Ellison's, in an op-ed in the Independent out of St. George, Utah. 

Newcomers  even those who have been in the area for decades  and those with an environmentalist bent have told HCN that such intimidation tactics are not uncommon in the area. One person, who asked to remain anonymous, said locals have had precious water turned on and let to run while they're away. There are other reports of pets being killed. Who is behind these types of incidents is unclear. But federal employees are often on the receiving end of this harassment.  

"That was the most frightening experience of my life," Ellison says of being jailed. "I have been shot at, blown up, threatened and everything else that goes along with war and public service (the former ranger is a veteran), but all those things pale in comparison to someone trying to willfully ruin my life and trample upon my rights."

Many counties in the West struggle to see eye to eye with officials working for national bureaucracies that receive mandates from Washington, D.C. But an especially intense antagonism exists between BLM and local law enforcement officers in southern Utah and Garfield County, where over 90 percent of the land is managed by the feds. In 2014, Sheriff Perkins testified to Congress about the BLM law enforcement overstepping its bounds and blatantly disrespecting his department's authority. As of 2014, at least four Utah counties, including Garfield, had passed resolutions that federal agents were not welcome.

Southern Utah is home to a handful of sheriffs who operate on the belief that they are the ultimate law enforcement agents in their county, and that federal agents must therefore answer to them. (See “The Rise of Sagebrush Sheriffs” by Jonathan Thompson.)

Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz proposed a bill this month to get rid of BLM and Forest Service law enforcement all together on federal land. And last month, Rep. Mike Noel, Utah-Kanab, proposed legislation to rein in the feds and require BLM to defer more to local law enforcement. “I don't believe they have the right to be out there except as a proprietary officer for protecting their own resources [such as timber and artifacts],” Noel told the Salt Lake Tribune. “I definitely don't believe they have the right to arrest you or me for traffic citations or violations on county roads." In 2013, Noel-sponsored a similar bill that passed but was repealed by the state legislature.

The monument's public affairs officer, Larry Crutchfield, however, says that relations between the BLM and Sheriff Perkins are mostly positive.

Yet the Ellison events serve as a reminder that southern Utah is in many ways ground zero for the ideological forces at play that created the recent occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Several locals traveled from Utah to support rancher Cliven Bundy at the Nevada standoff in 2014. Lavoy Finicum, a central figure in the Malheur occupation who was shot and killed during the confrontation with Oregon State Police and FBI last month, was born in Kanab, Utah.

“This is our issue," says Robert Weinick of issues around county supremacy and anti-federal sentiment. "Don’t give it up to Oregon."

Ellison now lives in California and has taken a new job. At the time of his arrest, the ranger had already planned to move away. But he says local antagonism toward federal management contributed to his decision.

If you live in the West and have had a personal experience with incidents similar to those described in this article, please consider contacting us privately at HCN, using our tip form

Tay Wiles is the web editor of High Country News. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST (NORTH CENTRAL WA)
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, and the chance to work with many different kinds of people and accomplish big conservation outcomes? Do you...
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • ANNUAL FUND MANAGER
    Working closely with the Foundation's leadership, the Annual Fund Manager is responsible for the oversight and management of the Foundation's annual operating fund. This is...
  • DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR
    Looking for someone who loves public land and understands the value and importance of data in reaching shared goals as part of a high-functioning team....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...
  • NEW BOOK: A FEAST OF ECSTATIC VERSE AND IMAGERY
    Dynamic fine art photographer offers use of images to raise funds. Available for use by conservation groups. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com.
  • WANTED: TALENTED WRITER
    Write the introduction to A Feast of Ecstatic Verse and Imagery, a book concerning nature and spirituality. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com. Writer who works for conservation/nature...
  • MT STATE DIRECTOR- THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY
    The Montana State Director is a member of The Wilderness Society's (TWS) Conservation program team who plays a leading role in advancing the organization's mission...
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS EDITORIAL INTERNS
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is looking for its next cohort of editorial interns....