There's no end in sight to new legislation that would reshape America's public lands. In many cases, for the worse.
The Local Enforcement for Local Lands Act (H.R. 622), introduced by Utah's Republican congressman Jason Chaffetz, would fire every law enforcement officer for the Bureau of Land Management and US Forest Service. In their stead, local police units, such as sheriff's departments, would manage millions of acres of land they were never trained to protect. Not only are human lives potentially at risk, but the wild places that generate billion of dollars in annual revenue are as well.
Compared to other proposed legislation, H.R. 622 is subtler in its attempts to destabilize public land ownership. So far this year, we've seen a resolution that would devalue federal lands entirely, nullify clean water regulations for mining projects, and dispose of 3.3 million acres of Western countryside (also proposed by Chaffetz, and later withdrawn after public protests).
But H.R. 622 is a long-con, and dovetails with this administration's hostility toward federal oversight. According to conservationists who oppose it, the bill could embolden acts of extremism from anti-government and anti-public lands militias. The skirmishes we saw at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, or Nevada's Gold Butte, for example, are just a taste of what may lie ahead.
"There's this sagebrush radical movement—and I'm not saying that every sheriff's department is like this—but there's definitely a cadre of people who think sheriffs should have the highest authority. And this could reinforce the political ideology that a handful of crazy people are going to use to justify occupations," Dave Chadwick, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation, told me over the phone.
Together, the Bureau of Land Management and US Forest Service administer more than 438 million acres of surface land entrusted to the American people. This includes national wildlife refuges, national forests, national monuments, and popular outdoor recreation areas.
The several hundred officers tasked with managing them receive specialized training for natural resource-related crimes. Their purview ranges from archaeological sites to logging operations to wild mustang herds. If conflicts arise, they're often the first responders.
"Local sheriffs don't have the capacity to manage millions of acres of federal lands; Including illegal trails, mining, and working with Native Americans. Sheriffs don't have that bandwidth or expertise," Bobby McEnaney, senior deputy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Western Renewable Energy Project, told me.
It's unclear how, exactly, power would be transferred from federal officers to local ones. Neither the Bureau of Land Management nor the US Forest Service were willing to comment on the bill when Motherboard contacted their offices.
While the bill still needs to be voted on, the concern it's stoking isn't unwarranted. In some parts of the American West, the foundation has already been laid for a state versus federal government lands blowout.
During the 1970s and 1980s, a movement called "the Sagebrush Rebellion" witnessed the clash of private landowners—ranchers, miners, loggers, and even state officials—and the federal government over rights to public lands. What one party called "federal colonialism," the other called responsible land stewardship. The struggle came to a head under the Reagan administration, with the president declaring in a campaign speech: "Count me in as a rebel." Tensions eventually dissipated as Reagan exempted some of the stricter regulations, but the fight between state and federal entities over public lands control never went away.
More recently, a standoff between Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management reignited the historic rebellion. In 2014, the agency attempted to impound Bundy's cattle over decades of illegal grazing on habitat set aside for an endangered tortoise. Not wanting to relinquish rights to the land he'd actually sold to the Bureau of Land Management, nor wanting to pay up to $1 million in fees, Bundy and his family—some of them armed—resisted. The rancher was later incarcerated and indicted on 16 felony charges last year by a federal grand jury.
His two sons, Ammon and Ryan, similarly occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters in Oregon last year. At times, threatening to harm federal officers. One rancher, LaVoy Finicum, was shot and killed by Oregon state police when an investigation turned violent. The brothers were controversially acquitted of federal conspiracy and weapons charges.
The Malheur occupation cost the federal government an estimated $6 million in damages, and the state of Oregon approximately $3 million.
Still, Chaffetz has pegged the bill a boon for state economies. It "establishes a formula to reimburse local law enforcement based on the percentage of public land in each state," his office said in a statement.
But what he's chosen to ignore is that healthy, well-cared for public lands generate millions of dollars in revenue for states. Each year, outdoor recreation—much of which occurs on federal lands—creates $646 billion in consumer spending, and 6.1 million jobs. It's the third largest annual consumer spending driver in the United States.
In Chaffetz' own state, outdoor recreation is responsible for $856 million in state and local tax revenue, $12 billion in consumer spending, and 122,000 jobs. Utahns also largely approve of federal land management agencies, according to a recent survey of Western states.
Residents are fairly split, however, on whether ownership of public lands should belong to states or the federal government.
Repeated attempts to reach Chaffetz' Utah and Washington, DC offices were unsuccessful.
"We're in a time of crazy political upheaval, but fundamental support from people who live in the West hasn't changed one bit. This election wasn't about installing anti-public lands agencies, in fact, it was quite the opposite," Chadwick said.
"Candidates who tried to run against public lands lost. It's the one thing Americans are not deeply divided over."