Lawmakers Look to Strip Federal Land Management Agencies of Law Enforcement Authority

Southern Idaho’s Snake River Plain. Southern Idaho’s Snake River Plain. Bob Wick/BLM

Four Republican lawmakers, all from Utah, want to prohibit federal land management agencies from enforcing the law on the lands over which they have jurisdiction. Instead, the legislators would turn law enforcement responsibilities over to local authorities.

The Local Enforcement for Local Lands Act would de-federalize law enforcement responsibility on lands controlled by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service. The measure, introduced by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and three colleagues from his state, would instead deputize local authorities to provide law enforcement on federal lands.

The legislation comes just weeks after the violent resolution of the armed standoff between law enforcement agents and anti-government activists occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. The refuge is under the jurisdiction of the Fish and Wildlife Service and it’s not clear how the legislation would impact FWS, which, like BLM, is part of the Interior Department. The Forest Service is part of the Agriculture Department.  

“Federal agencies do not enjoy the same level of trust and respect as local law enforcement that are deeply rooted in local communities,” the House members said in a joint statement. “This legislation will help deescalate conflicts between law enforcement and local residents while improving transparency and accountability.”

Additionally, they added, it would allow the agencies to focus on their core missions “without the distraction of police functions.”

“This is a win all around,” they said.

The bill would strip BLM and the Forest Service of their law enforcement functions completely, while providing block grants for local authorities proportional to the percentage of public land in each state.

Nate Catura, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, said he was “appalled” by the proposal, citing several concerns with the transfer of power. Primarily, he noted, local law enforcement is not prepared to deal with the functions federal agents are specifically trained and equipped to handle, such as timber theft, protecting archaeological resources and investigating wildfires.

“The law enforcement training BLM and Forest Service agents receive,” Catura said, “it’s very long, it’s intense, it’s very complex.” Local authorities, he added, “don’t possess the expertise to execute these duties.”

Catura accused Chaffetz and his colleagues of haphazardly crafting the legislation to appease groups like the Western States Sheriffs Association.

“I don’t think he’s really thought things through very clearly,” Catura said, adding it would create a “big, big problem. You’re going to see a lack of law enforcement in a lot of these areas.”

In addition to potential expertise and staffing issues, Catura said a federal-local partnership would likely create conflicts. If local sheriffs decide they do not agree with certain federal land management policies, they could refuse to provide their services or ignore certain orders. Catura acknowledged tension between federal land management agencies and local law enforcement, but Chaffetz’s proposal would do little to address it.

The FLEOA president said he raised his concerns with Chaffetz’s office. He said he asked if the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman had discussed his proposal with Forest Service and BLM management, but heard the lawmaker was not interested in such a discussion. Chaffetz’s office did not respond to requests for comment on these claims.

A Forest Service spokesman said the agency is reviewing the legislation and is working with Chaffetz to provide more information on its law enforcement activities. Kristen Lenhardt, a BLM spokeswoman, declined to comment directly on pending legislation, but refuted the general notion that eliminating law enforcement responsibilities at the agency would help it focus on its “core mission.”

“The BLM's overall mission is to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of America's public lands,” Lenhardt said. “Our law enforcement's objective is to not only protect those natural resources from illegal activities but also the employees carrying out their work, which directly supports the BLM's overall mission.”

The legislation appears to be part of a larger effort to crack down on the agencies; Chaffetz’s bill was coupled with an investigation he launched last week into BLM and the Forest Service’s spending on employee bonuses. On Wednesday, a subcommittee on Chaffetz’s oversight panel held a hearing into BLM’s policies on leasing public lands. 

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