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Battle between Utah's rural counties and BLM intensifies

Ongoing tension between multiple rural counties in Utah and the Bureau of Land Management's law enforcement division has erupted into another public fight. This time, commissioners pleaded their case against the agency in Washington, D.C.
Ongoing tension between multiple rural counties in Utah and the Bureau of Land Management's law enforcement division has erupted into another public fight. This time, commissioners pleaded their case against the agency in Washington, D.C.
, University of Utah

SALT LAKE CITY — When Garfield County Sheriff Danny Perkins sat down in a conference room with the national director of the Bureau of Land Management's law enforcement operations, he had a series of numbers in his head.

He was face to face with Sal Lauro, a Washington, D.C., decision-maker who could make life somewhat easier back home in Garfield County, or keep it strained.

The numbers were plain: $70,000, 464, and zero.

"Since the first of July 2013 to the end of April 2014, I have spent $70,000 on helicopter time from the Department of Public Safety, 464 hours of actual boot time on the ground with officers on search and rescue operations on the (Grand Staircase-Escalante National) monument and I have been assisted absolutely nothing, zero, from the BLM."

Perkins accompanied six county commissioners from Iron, Beaver and Garfield counties to Washington, D.C., for a series of meetings last week to air complaints — chief among them the fractured and abysmal experience rural Utah has with top law enforcement officials from the Bureau of Land Management.

"We have absolutely no relationship with the BLM. We have tried; they seem to want to do their own thing," Perkins said. "They do not respect the authority of the sheriff at all. It is hard for them to accept that this sheriff is the chief law enforcement officer in this county."

Accusations abound

The meeting in Washington happened the same day members of the Utah natural resources legislative interim committee hosted a public roundtable discussion in Salt Lake City with Juan Palma, director of the Utah BLM, and Kevin Rice, special agent in charge with the U.S. Forest Service in Salt Lake City, among others.

BLM spokeswoman Megan Crandall said the legislative hearing did nothing to improve relationships.

"The only way to resolve this issue is to have serious dialogue and productive discussions and those two items were not present at that meeting," she said. "It was not the appropriate forum for how we are going to drive home a solution that is positive for everyone involved."

In the aftermath of embattled Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy's showdown with the BLM in April, in the devolution of county law enforcement contracts with the BLM in Utah that were not renewed, rural counties are wary, frustrated, defiant and angry.

"We have many examples of the abuse and this militarization of the government agencies is a real problem," said Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock, who also traveled to Washington, D.C. "If this guy does something that blows up, we are all going to be on the TV. It is a scary scenario, especially in rural Utah."

The "this guy" Pollock is referring to is BLM's special agent in charge Dan Love, who commissioners accuse of spreading a culture of dismissiveness and arrogance among his coworkers. Pollock said county commissioners want Lauro to step in and find a solution.

"He has created a situation where they thumb their noses at us," Pollock said. "This starts at the top."

Defending the BLM

At the legislative hearing, Palma, the Utah BLM director, noted that Love answers to Washington, D.C. officials and is carrying out rules he didn't write. Palma defended Love as performing his job.

Love did not comment directly on the allegations regarding his working relationship with local sheriff's agencies, but offered this statement:

“Working together is the only way to navigate current issues and meet future law enforcement challenges, and I look forward to having the serious, productive discussions necessary to make that a reality.”

Pollock said county officials want action, not explanations.

His county has joined with Carbon, Beaver, Piute and Iron counties in the passage of resolutions declaring federal law enforcement authority is not recognized in their jurisdictions.

Pollock said the resolutions put the federal government on notice there will be no tolerance for overwhelming force and intimidation.

"We feel like they are a threat to the people in our county," Pollock said. "A resolution is exactly that; easily converted into county ordinance which we are prepared to do if something is not resolved. Our message is you have a serious problem, let's work this out before we take it to county law."

Armed agents

The rising anxiety over "armed" federal regulatory agencies is not unique to Utah, with Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, highlighting incidences that have happened in Los Angeles and at a mining operation in Alaska.

Earlier this week Stewart unveiled legislation that aims to "de-militarize" federal regulatory agencies and prevent them from having armed SWAT teams.

"I understand that federal agents must be capable of protecting themselves. But what we have goes far beyond providing the necessary protection," he said. "...Not only is it overkill, but having these highly armed units within dozens of agencies is duplicative, costly, heavy-handed, dangerous and destroys any sense of trust between citizens and the federal government."

But BLM Utah spokeswoman Megan Crandall said any attempt to solve on-the-ground issues is compounded by meetings like the recent legislative hearing and the anti-federal government resolutions by the counties.

"It is frustrating as we work to identify the best possible path forward for everyone when some of the entities we are trying to work with consistently feel the need to poke us in the eye and then complain we are not working with them," she said.

Perkins and Pollock point out that it's been impossible to have any sort of "productive" relationship with the BLM because of what they called the confrontational behavior they don't experience with other federal agencies.

"I got a really good working relationship with the U.S. Forest Service and I have always had a good relationship with the (national) parks people," Perkins said. "The problem is with the BLM."

Perkins said that he has three national park rangers who are deputized in Garfield County and a similar arrangement with the U.S. Forest Service, but he wouldn't entertain that arrangement with the BLM because of the conduct of the agency's officers.

"There's no way in the world I would consider deputizing the BLM officers I have in this county — none," he said. "I have had the folks in northern Utah tell me they'll never come back to my county because of how they were treated by the BLM officers at the monument."

Perkins noted that BLM officers have stopped motorists for having gun racks and have demanded to look in coolers in campsites, among other things.

Cancelled contracts

The counties and the state of Utah believe Love "cancelled" $244,000 worth of BLM contracts with multiple rural counties out of retaliation for a state law that attempted to rein in federal law enforcement authority on federal lands.

Crandall said the counties and state are wrong.

"Ultimately, BLM-Utah's law enforcement service contracts are designed to address BLM-specific goals and concerns, to maximize the safety of people visiting public lands and to ensure resources are appropriately protected," she said. "These contracts are not based on a relationship— positive or negative — with one, single person."

Crandall said that a review team looked at the contractual arrangements, determined improvements were necessary and decided to let the contracts lapse. Love, she stressed, was not part of that decision.

"It has been intimated that allowing the contracts to expire was retaliatory, and I can tell you unequivocally that is not true."

Any decision to renew arrangements with local sheriff agencies will be made at the Washington, D.C., level, not by the Salt Lake City office, she said.

Carbon County Commissioner Casey Hope said he and other elected officials have taken some criticism for their "anti-federal" resolution, but he said critics don't understand what happens on the ground.

"There's a big misunderstanding on whose duties are what," he said. "If you go out and get in a wreck, hurt or lost, it is not the BLM who goes out and finds you, it's Carbon County sheriffs, Carbon County Search and Rescue. They are the agencies that go out and find you and help you. Nothing has changed. "

Carbon County's resolution, he said, is an attempt to ward off problems being encountered elsewhere in the state.

"We are trying to make sure we don't have those kinds of problems, those kind of heated debates. The BLM has specific duties and their duties are to look after the land. We'll take care of the law enforcement."


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