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Bureau of Land Management considers moving police to a western state

Author: Tom Ramstack - May 10, 2018 - Updated: May 11, 2018

A BLM employee views a distant mountain range across a sagebrush range (Bureau of Land Management)

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is considering a move of the headquarters of its law enforcement program to a western state, one of the agency’s top officials said Wednesday during a U.S. Senate hearing.

The announcement coincides with a reorganization of the BLM that its administrator has said is likely to include moving its headquarters from Washington, D.C. to a Western state. Colorado is a top contender.

BLM — part of the U.S. Department of the Interior — manages millions of acres of federal open land in Colorado and other western states.

Some senators on the U.S Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee have proposed abolishing the BLM’s law enforcement staff and turning over their duties to sheriffs’ officers.

Brian Steed, the BLM’s deputy director for policy and programs, said moving the agency’s law enforcement program to the West “could potentially enhance interaction and communication with the sheriffs on public safety and enforcement of natural resource rules and regulations. It could also better position BLM law enforcement for interaction with external user groups and other BLM staff, the vast majority of which are stationed in the western United States.”

Steed did not say where the law enforcement program is likely to be moved, only that the BLM is “analyzing the benefits.”

The BLM’s roughly 200 uniformed officers and 70 special agents are assigned to enforce laws that protect federal land, wildlife and resources on 247.3 million acres, or one-eighth of the U.S. land mass. About 93 percent of the property is located in Colorado and 15 other Western states.

In recent years, the BLM has become embroiled in controversies that sometimes involved conflicts with local residents and sheriffs.

A high-profile incident resulted from BLM’s effort to seize the cattle of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy in 2014 after he allowed the livestock to graze on federal property without a permit. The BLM tried to bill him about $1 million in federal grazing fees, which the rancher refused to pay.

After a standoff with Bundy and his supporters, the BLM backed off its attempted seizure of the cattle.

The BLM law enforcement officers were led by Special Agent Dan Love, who left the agency last year amid allegations he mishandled criminal evidence and violated federal ethics rules.

Last month, militia leader William Keebler, who participated in the Nevada standoff, pleaded guilty in a separate plot to bomb a BLM facility at Mount Trumbull, Arizona.

Steed acknowledged “challenges” with the BLM’s law enforcement staff.

“These challenges include very serious allegations of employee misconduct, including destruction of records requested by members of Congress, mishandling of evidence in criminal investigations and misappropriation of government funds, among others,” Steed said.

One approach the agency is using to improve its record is seeking to enhance its relationship with the Western States Sheriffs’ Association, he said.

More cooperation would be welcome by Chris Johnson, director of the County Sheriffs of Colorado, who told Colorado Politics that BLM law enforcement needs “probably better public relations skills in some cases.”

Critics of the BLM police — such as Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee on public lands, forests and mining — said the agency’s law officers sometimes inject too much federal control over local issues.

As a result, local police and sheriffs should enforce the laws on the local population, according to some Republican senators.

Colorado Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner is a member of the subcommittee but he did not speak during the hearing Wednesday. However, he has been a strong advocate of moving the BLM headquarters to Grand Junction.

Gardner introduced a bill one year ago that would require the U.S. Interior Department to develop a strategy for moving the BLM headquarters to one of 12 Western states. The bill has not been approved by Congress.

“When you don’t live in the communities that are among and surrounded by these lands, it is easy to make decisions that close off energy development or close cattle ranches because the consequences are felt out West, thousands of miles away from the decision-makers on the Potomac River,” Gardner said in Senate floor comments on Feb. 28.

During the hearing Wednesday, Tracy Perry, the U.S. Forest Service’s law enforcement and investigations director, said his agency last week announced “a strategic plan that will help to increase efficiencies, prioritize work and more closely align [law enforcement and investigations] activities with the mission and priorities of the Forest Service.”

Work of the Forest Service police includes fire investigation, preventing natural resource damage, marijuana eradication on public lands and protection of cultural and historical sites.

The Forest Service — a unit of the U.S. Department of Agriculture — also manages millions of acres in Colorado.

Tom Ramstack

Tom Ramstack