This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Rep. Mike Noel's latest effort to rein in federal law enforcement in rural Utah sailed through a legislative committee Wednesday.
The Kanab Republican alleges the Bureau of Land Management has become an unbearable police presence, encroaching on the authority of elected county sheriffs and intimidating local residents.
"It is a problem brought to me numerous times by the Utah Sheriffs' Association," said Noel, whose son is the Beaver County sheriff. "This jurisdictional issue needs to be resolved. I don't believe they have the right to be out there except as a proprietary officer for protecting their own resources [such as timber and artifacts]. I definitely don't believe they have the right to arrest you or me for traffic citations or violations on county roads."
Noel's critics say in many cases the county roads are merely rights-of-way counties have claimed across federal lands, nothing more.
"Federal law enforcement are clearly empowered to do patrol federal lands and enforce federal laws on those lands," said Steve Block, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "So much of Rep. Noel's arguments are unsubstantiated rumor and innuendo. We hear these alleged horror stories of federal overreach from local politicians but there aren't any facts offered to back them up."
His HB391 would help ensure that federal land agencies rely on local law enforcement to the maximum extent possible, as required under the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act of 1976, Noel told the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environmental Quality, which unanimously advanced the bill to the House floor.
No one representing the U.S. Forest Service and BLM spoke at the meeting, and a BLM spokesman did not immediately return a phone message.
"They have really militarized this law enforcement. They have 10 times the equipment that local law enforcement has. They are dressed to the tens with flak jackets and automatic weapons. It's a little intimidating when you're out there backpacking and you run into these people as opposed to your county sheriff," said Noel, echoing complaints long leveled by southern Utah county commissioners. He did not identify any specific instances of federal officers overstepping their authority.
The state's most outspoken critic of federal land management, Noel said that federal agencies are improperly exercising "concurrent or exclusive" jurisdiction on BLM lands and national forests. The agencies used to contract with local sheriffs to patrol these lands, but that spirit of cooperation began evaporating several years ago.
"It's a real problem. We have one individual who is a bad actor. The governor's office asked he be removed, that hasn't happened," Noel complained, referring to Dan Love, the BLM's special agent in charge of Utah and Nevada.
Two years ago a federal judge invalidated another law Noel had sponsored that would have essentially handcuffed federal land agencies' law enforcement functions. His latest bill is much less intrusive. It would establish a process where a chief county executive or sheriff may determine whether BLM law enforcement is operating within the limits of FLPMA. If the agency is found to be operating outside this scope, the sheriff could put the it on notice with a deadline for to cease and desist. If BLM fails to abide with the demand, the county may then "pursue all available legal remedies."