Forest Service, BLM could lose law enforcement units under new bill

The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management could lose their law enforcement functions, according to a new bill from House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah).

The Local Enforcement for Local Lands Act abolishes law enforcement units at the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. The bill says state and local law enforcement should police federal lands instead. It also requires that both secretaries at the Agriculture and Interior departments give grants to those states to fund their enforcement activities.

Reps. Rob Bishop, Chris Stewart and Mia Love (R-Utah), are also co-sponsors of the legislation,  which currently sits with the House Agriculture Committee.

“Federal agencies do not enjoy the same level of trust and respect as local law enforcement that are deeply rooted in communities,” the lawmakers said in a statement. “This legislation will help deescalate conflicts between law enforcement and local residents while improving transparency and accountability. The BLM and Forest Service will be able to focus on their core missions without the distraction of police functions.”

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Specifically, the bill would get rid of the Forest Service Law Enforcement and Investigations unit within USDA and the BLM Office of Law Enforcement at Interior.

It also requires that both secretaries report to Congress how they’re using the grants development program, and the states must demonstrate that they’re using the funding only for law enforcement purposes in an annual report.

Chaffetz and other lawmakers said the bill is partly in reaction to reported conflicts between federal land officers and local communities. A letter from the Utah Sheriffs Association, which actively supports Chaffetz’s bill, mentions “aggressive and over reactive federal land agents.”

Nate Catura, national president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, said though concerns from groups such as the Utah Sheriffs and Western Sheriffs Associations are valid, conflicts between federal, state and local law enforcement are not widespread across the entire country.

“It’s just pandering to a very small minority group of people that are just anti-government,” he said. “They just hate the federal government. They want as little interference with the federal government as possible, and they see that the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service are causing problems for them in their local areas. Except that probably 85 percent of the United States doesn’t have any problem. It’s just in Utah and Nevada and probably a small part in Oregon.”

Catura also said state and local officers lack the specialized expertise and training that they need to patrol federal lands.

He also predicts that Forest Service and BLM managers could run up against some resistance from state sheriffs to specific programs or decisions federal managers make to help them meet the department’s broader mission and goals.

“If they’re putting together a program, some kind of conservation program that they feel needs to be put in place here, and the local sheriff feels, ‘No, we don’t want that,’ there’s a conflict there,” Catura said.

Between the Forest Service and BLM, there are roughly 1,000 agents who patrol federal lands, Catura said. Those officers can’t cover every acre of federal property on their own, so both agencies contract with state and local sheriffs associations for more officers.

But sheriffs associations have been receiving fewer contracts, Catura said, as both agencies lose more appropriated funding and surveillance technologies improve.

“There’s less funding going to these different local sheriffs associations,” he said. “That’s the problem they don’t like.”

The Forest Service proposed adding more law enforcement officers to its ranks, according to its fiscal 2017 budget request. It asked for roughly $132 million for its Law Enforcement and Investigations unit in fiscal 2017, about a $5 million increase from 2016’s enacted budget. The majority of those additional officers would work with the agency’s growing illegal marijuana site reclamation and drug trafficking operations, the proposal said.

If the bill passes, Agriculture and Interior must get rid of their law enforcement units by the end of fiscal 2017.

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