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Trump’s Bureau chief wants to give authority over federal lands to local law enforcement officials

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Sarah Okeson
Sarah Okeson

Donald Trump’s acting head of the Bureau of Land Management, says local authorities should have primary law-enforcement authority on federal land.

The director, attorney William Perry Pendley publicly undermined the agency’s rangers, saying they should defer to local law enforcement. He could be putting rangers in danger with his words.

Pendley, the acting director since July 2019, wrote in November in the Las Vegas Review-Journal that local law enforcement has the primary responsibility for maintaining state and federal law.

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“Maintaining that deference is essential to making (the bureau) a truly productive and valued partner to Western communities,” Pendley wrote.

The bureau oversees 247 million acres of public land, roughly the size of Texas and California combined—more land than any other federal agency.

Tim Whitehouse, the executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), said Pendley’s pronoucement no basis in law.

“Federal rules and regulations are exactly what … rangers are specially trained and tasked to enforce,” Whitehouse wrote in the Reno Gazette-Journal. “Ceding away their enforcement primacy without a clear act of Congress is wholly indefensible.

The bureau oversees 247 million acres of public land, roughly the size of Texas and California combined, more land than any other federal agency. The bureau has not had a Senate-confirmed director since Trump took office.

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Interior Secretary David Bernhardt sidestepped the Senate confirmation needed for the appointee who runs the bureau and appointed Pendley as acting director in July 2019.

Appointment Challenged

Trump nominated Pendley in June to become the director after PEER and Western Watersheds Project, another environmental watchdog, sued over the appointments of Pendley and the deputy director of the National Park Service.

Pendley’s words could lead to potentially violent confrontations with bureau employees who routinely face threats, harassment and violence from people upset about restrictions on federal land.

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In 2014, armed protesters allegedly pointed their rifles at officers in southeastern Nevada who were rounding up cattle belonging to rancher Cliven Bundy.  The rancher owed more than $1 million in grazing fees. Bundy’s son, Ammon Bundy, led an armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016.

Backward Law Enforcement

The bureau’s 212 or so rangers each patrol an area about the size of Delaware. Researcher Zoe Nemerever wrote in Political Behavior that counties with “constitutionalist sheriffs” who say federal and state government authorities are subordinate to county governments, are 50% more likely to have violence against bureau employees.

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Kane County, where former Sheriff Lamont Smith destroyed more than 30 “restricted access” signs posted on public land in 2003, has the highest rate of political violence against bureau employees in Utah. Nearby Beaver County in Utah has had no political violence against bureau employees.

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