House Republicans have taken the first step toward ending federal enforcement of environmental and other laws on Western public lands, where officers have been threatened and attacked by anti-government extremists and militia members.
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, chairman of the House Resources Committee, recommended last month to the House Appropriations Committee that more than $10 million authorized for the Bureau of Land Management’s resource protection and law enforcement programs be “zeroed out.”
Young’s letter to House Appropriations Committee Chairman Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, also asked that the law enforcement budget of the U.S. Forestry Service be sharply reduced from this year’s $63.5 million to $54 million.
Young gave no reasons in his letter, and neither he nor his staff responded to requests for comment. But conservative Western Republicans on the committee and Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, have criticized federal restrictions on mining, logging, livestock grazing and water use.
Rep. Helen Chenoweth, R-Idaho, a committee member, has called for legislation to prohibit federal officers from carrying weapons into any area without the permission of local authorities.
In an appeal to Regula June 5, two environmental advocacy groups asked that Young’s suggestions be rejected. Frances Hunt, a leader of the 60-year-old Wilderness Society, and Jeff DeBonis, director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an organization of state, federal and academic workers who deal with the environment, called Young’s proposal “nothing more than an invitation to steal from the federal treasury and a threat to public safety.”
The 230 law enforcement officers of the Bureau of Land Management - 173 rangers and 57 special investigators - are responsible for patrolling 270 million acres of federal lands in 14 states.
A BLM spokesman in Boise told Newsday that crimes ranging from murder, vandalism, arson and theft to the illegal growing of marijuana and the looting of natural resources have been rising on the isolated public lands.
Such crimes, the spokesman said, threaten the growing number of tourists and campers using the public lands.
The spokesman, who noted that public lands attract 64 million visitors a year, listed more than 100 criminal incidents over the past two years in which BLM rangers needed sidearms.
The suggested cuts in the Forest Service enforcement budget would have a similar effect, reducing the number of forest rangers from the current 1,035 to about 825, said Michael Francis, a Wilderness Society expert, at a time of increasing threats to the 180 million acres of forests from arsonists and timber thieves and attacks on the rangers by anti-government groups.
Young did not suggest cuts in the National Park Service enforcement budget, said Francis, because “they are visible and deal mainly with tourists in the parks, and the parks are politically very popular.”
Hunt said, however, that reducing the enforcement powers of federal agencies “may be part of the stated Republican agenda, which includes the privatizing and sale of federal lands, forests and some parks.” DeBonis said Young’s effort was part of a Republican campaign to roll back environmental regulations.
The letter to Regula also charged that “in the atmosphere of mounting anti-federalist sentiments, the reduction or elimination of funding for law enforcement on … public lands will be perceived as Congress’ abrogating its authority over those lands.”