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Utah Sheriffs Threaten To Arrest Rangers If They Try To Close Public Lands

A truck displaying a bumper sticker at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters on Jan. 5 near Burns, Ore. Armed anti-federalists took over the wildlife refuge in Oregon for 41 days. <strong></strong>The occupation ended on Feb. 11.
Rick Bowmer
A truck displaying a bumper sticker at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters on Jan. 5 near Burns, Ore. Armed anti-federalists took over the wildlife refuge in Oregon for 41 days. The occupation ended on Feb. 11.

Even with Cliven Bundy and many of his militia supporters in jail, anger toward the federal government is still running high in some parts of the West.

Clashes between ranchers and federal land managers over grazing rights are continuing. In southern Utah, things have gotten so bad lately that some local sheriffs have threatened to arrest federal rangers who try to close forest roads and cut off access to ranchers and other users.

Sometimes it's hard to tell whether Garfield County Sheriff James "Danny" Perkins is serious or pulling your leg.

"Now you are in a police vehicle, you understand that right?" he asks, while gesturing toward the center console in his pickup truck. "There is a gun in here, if you happen to ever need a gun, I don't think you will."

Garfield County is roughly the size of Connecticut, and it's up to Perkins and a half dozen deputies to patrol all of it.

"The country's big and it's vast," Perkins says. "I mean it's like this for miles and miles and miles."

Federal land makes up 94 percent of this county, so you'd think that Perkins would welcome the help of federal authorities. Think again. In the sage brush hills outside the one-stoplight town of Panguitch, he pulls off the highway and points to a dirt track.

"This is a conflict, and you're gonna see just a little bit of it. Here's a road right here, that was put here with teams and wagons," Perkins says.

"We're talking pioneer wagons here. Boulders lie in front of it and a bulldozer chewed it up so pickups or ATVs can't drive up it anymore. Federal rangers did this recently," he says. Locals have had access here for generations.

"There is an agenda — and don't kid yourself — there's an agenda to get rid of the grazing, there's an agenda to shut down our roads," Perkins says.

Tensions over federal land — who gets to do what on it, and who is in charge of it — are as high as they've been out here since at least the 1990s. Perkins and many others in his position will give you an earful about how they believe federal agencies have been taken over by environmental extremists. But this is more than just a turf battle. Perkins, too, has an agenda. He proudly refers to himself as a constitutional sheriff.

"Because I raised my arm to the square and I swore to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States," he says.

A few miles away, in his office, he swivels back in his chair and starts digging through a file cabinet. He keeps copies of the papers and the Constitution on hand. Nowhere in them, he says, does it say anything about Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service law enforcement officers, let alone whether they have authority to pull people over for driving off-road or arrest people for illegal campfires. He says, as sheriff, he answers to the state of Utah.

"The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined," he says. "I can even understand that!"

There are a few dozen or so sheriffs mostly in rural Western states who refer to themselves as "Constitutionalists." It's not really a movement, but they are outspoken and rarely do they hesitate to get in very public fights with the Obama administration — over everything from gun control to whether the BLM should have law enforcement powers.

It's clear that Sheriff Perkins, who's also a rancher, wants to push some boundaries. He talks openly about detaining, or as he says "Mirandizing," federal rangers. He recalls one case recently.

"I told the Forest Service ranger that if he went out and closed a road that Garfield County has jurisdiction on, I would arrest him," he says.

And then there was the time that his deputies did arrest a BLM ranger they said was illegally issuing citations to campers.

"Wasn't me that pulled the trigger on that deal. Do I think he needed to come to jail? I do, the guy's a fruitcake," Perkins says.

For federal land managers, this was the latest instance of threats and intimidation directed at their field staff in the West. There's been an increase in reported confrontations lately.

But the BLM's second in charge in Washington, D.C., Steve Ellis, downplays the tensions, saying they're actually not that common.

"The key thing is working cooperatively with local law enforcement, with these sheriffs, that's our desire," Ellis says.

Ellis also says that the BLM's mission is inherently controversial.

"This is the national system of public lands, so we manage these lands for all Americans," he says.

Still the BLM is worried, especially after the armed standoffs in Nevada and Oregon. And there are sheriffs in the West who sympathize with the now jailed Cliven Bundy and his militia followers. A lot of the principles these "Constitutional" sheriffs espouse are some of the same things you hear from the Bundys.

Sheriff Perkins told me he was invited, and in some instances pressured, by local ranchers to join the Bundys. But he would have none of it.

"I said it at the time, and I'll stand by it, that is nothing but domestic terrorism," he says. "Yes, there's been a story, a lot of these guys have been bullied around by the BLM, but you don't handle it that way."

So despite all his tough talk, Perkins is being careful, still working within the system. He and other sheriffs have been going to Washington, D.C., a lot lately, lobbying. And in the past few weeks, he says, after Utah Republicans introduced a bill to strip law enforcement powers from the BLM, relations out here are getting better.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.

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