WASHINGTON - A Congressman from Utah wants to eliminate hundreds of federal police officers who patrol millions of acres of America's national forests and grasslands, but some groups are fighting back.
Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz introduced the "Local Enforcement for Local Lands Act'' in January that calls for eliminating all U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management officers.
Instead, Chaffetz' bill, H.R. 622, would provide federal block grants for local sheriff's offices to expand their patrols to cover the areas now covered by the federal officers.
That includes the 3.9 million-acre Superior National Forest and 655,000-acre Chippewa National Forest in Minnesota and the 1.5 million-acre Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in Wisconsin.
Currently the Superior National Forest has four law enforcement officers, the Chippewa has two officers and the Chequamegon-Nicolet has four officers.
The bill is one of several efforts by western state lawmakers aiming to reduce federal control over millions of acres of federal land in those states. More than 70 percent of Utah is federal land.
Chaffetz said his bill gets the federal resource management agencies out of a mission, law enforcement, he says they shouldn't be in.
"It's time to get rid of the BLM and U.S. Forest Service police. If there is a problem, your local sheriff is the first and best line of defense. By restoring local control in law enforcement, we enable federal agencies and county sheriffs to each focus on their respective core missions.
Chaffetz said in a statement announcing the bill in January.
(Chaffetz at the same time introduced legislation to sell more than three million acres of federal public lands to the highest bidder but has since abandoned that bill after vehement opposition mounted.)
Critics say the law enforcement bill would leave hundreds of millions of acres vulnerable to abuse and lawless behavior, taxing state and local authorities and "fundamentally compromising American's safety, both in and around public lands."
Critics said the bill is anti-fishing, anti-hunting and anti-camping, an effort to push citizens off their own lands to hand control over to poachers as well as mining, logging and ranching interests. They said the bill caters to local extremists such as the anti-government group that took over a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon last year.
Critics of the bill said federal officers of forests are experts on crimes involving archaeological resources, tribal treaty rights, endangered species, timber theft, poaching and wildfires. Eliminating federal officers would only encourage more illegal behavior, they said.
"To us, these are the folks (federal officers) who are on the front lines of conservation, making sure that our resources are not only taken care of but that laws are taken care of,'' said Land Tawney, president and CEO of Montana-based Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, a group that advocates for public lands. "Having local sheriffs handle (natural resource) laws is like having your dentist perform gallbladder surgery."
Local, state and federal officers enhance each other's efforts, not overlap, several retired officers said in a telephone press conference Wednesday. Federal agents can cross county and state lines to solve cases, they added.
It's not that local and state officers don't already work in the national forests, but federal officers generally handle issues that pertain to federal laws. In many cases, when state laws are broken, local and state officers already handle cases on federal lands.
Moreover, land being patrolled by federal officers doesn't belong to residents of just one county but everyone in the nation, critics said.
"Turning the function of federal law enforcement officers to local departments just doesn't work,'' said Pat O'Carroll, executive director of the 26,000-member Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association. O'Carroll said federal officers are free from local political pressures that can impact how cases are approached.
St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman said the bill would only work if enough extra money flowed to local agencies to hire new staff. But, even then, he noted, his officers can't enforce federal laws.
"Generally speaking, we do work very well with all'' federal officers, Litman said. "If we are assuming their responsibilities, it means more work for us. If the funding doesn't come along for additional staff, that would be a bad deal for our office and the taxpayers of this county. The other consideration is we are (state) peace officers. We don't have the authority to enforce federal laws."
The House bill has other western state co-authors. No similar bill has been introduced as of yet in the Senate.