The federal Bureau of Land Management has unilaterally terminated long-standing contracts with county sheriffs to provide law enforcement on Utah’s public lands, a move that is seriously eroding interagency cooperation and possibly public safety, according to testimony Wednesday before a legislative committee.
Under these contracts, the BLM compensated sheriff’s departments for patrolling vast swaths of public lands, responding to emergencies and rescues, and enforcing the law on busy weekends at recreation hotspots, such as Little Sahara Sand Dunes.
But in recent months, the BLM has refused to renew contracts with Utah counties, citing legal deficiencies — such as a failure to list what "deliverables" the sheriffs were providing, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox told the Interim Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee.
"It was discouraging to our local sheriffs who are dependent on them, especially to our rural communities that don’t have funding to provide law enforcement," Cox said in an interview. "To their credit, our local sheriffs put their public duty first. They work well with the [BLM] officers on the ground. This is a problem that is higher up the chain in Washington. There is a wedge that continues to grow between these different agencies and we can’t afford that."
He argued the agency’s refusal to renew the contracts is "retribution" for Utah’s actions to assert control over public lands, such the 2012 law demanding the transfer of 30 million federal acres to the state. For proof, he claimed similar contracts are renewed in other states and between Utah counties and the U.S. Forest Service.
As a Sanpete County commissioner, Cox signed such agreements, which served the public well, he said.
They typically allocated a set amount of money to the sheriff’s department, which would provide law enforcement and emergency services as needed. Because it is not possible to accurately predict the amount of work this would require, the contracts were open-ended and based on averages over past years, Cox said.
Speaking on a panel with Cox at Wednesday’s committee meeting, BLM state director Juan Palma rejected the claim that the contract cancellations were political payback. But the decision to nix the contracts was not made by Palma. It was made by Daniel Love, special agent in charge for Nevada and Utah, who reports to the BLM’s Office of Law Enforcement and Security in Washington, DC.
Cox described his conservations with Love last spring as a contest "to see who can pee the farthest" and said the agent has yet to provide documentation explaining the cancellations.
Love is vilified by some in Utah for leading federal actions against artifact collectors suspected of looting around Blanding, which a lawsuit alleges led to the suicide of a prominent physician, and against Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy. He declined the committee’s invitation to participate on Wednesday’s panel discussion.
"Constructive collaboration and dialogue are the only ways to address law enforcement concerns and issues on public lands. Unfortunately, today’s event was clearly not a forum for serious, positive conversations aimed at finding a path forward," he said in a prepared statement in response to a media query.
This spat could mark a new low in Utah’s relationship with the BLM, which administers nearly 23 million acres covering 42 percent of the state. State and local leaders complain the agency is failing to accommodate grazing and energy development on public lands, allowing wild horses to proliferate and encroaching on county jurisdiction.
Utah counties are now formally declaring federal authority a threat to "the health, safety and welfare" of their citizens. Three counties — Iron, Garfield and Carbon — have passed resolutions restricting or banning federal law enforcement within their borders.
Such actions only lead "to unnecessary public confusion — confusion that is detrimental to both public safety and the protection of Utah’s unique resources and treasured landscapes," Love said. "Despite these resolutions, we will, of course, continue to work closely with our state and local partners to pursue cooperative relationships that ensure public safety."
Love’s Forest Service counterpart, Kevin Rice, did join Wednesday’s panel, where his tone was conciliatory.
"Our No. 1 goal is to better our relationships not just with state but with local sheriffs," he told the committee. "No agency should be an island. We may wear different uniforms but at the end of the day the goal is the same. We are there to protect the citizens and the resources as well."
Many committee members blasted the BLM for overstepping its authority, but Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, argued the state owns some of the blame due to its "arrogance" in filing numerous lawsuits and enacting laws of questionable legality aimed at curbing federal authority.
"As of Dec. 31 of this year we have demanded the government turn over all this federal land not in national parks," Dabakis said. "That’s a preposterous position and we knew it when we passed it. When we sit down to negotiate, to go with bellicose demands doesn’t set the kind of temperament we need ...If we are going to settle these law enforcement issues, we need to go to the table as serious participants rather than ideologues."
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