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

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.
  • ROADS END CABIN NEAR YELLOWSTONE
    Vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces, two bedrooms, loft, jetted tub, wifi. Forest, mountain views. Wildlife. [email protected]
  • ACCOUNTING CLERK
    Our director is seeking to employ the services of an Accounting Clerk to assist with various accounting and administrative tasks. This is a great opportunity...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COMMUNITY RADIO PROJECT
    Community Radio Project, Cortez, CO (KSJD & the Sunflower Theatre). Visit ksjd.org and click on the Executive Director search link. CRP is an EOE.