Owyhee County Sheriff Tim Nettleton, famous for helping apprehend outlaw Claude Dallas, is getting a different kind of attention these days, now that he’s trying to kick armed federal Bureau of Land Management officers out of his county.
Nettleton’s stand is applauded by local-control activists including Rep. Helen Chenoweth, R-Idaho. But Idaho’s U.S. attorney says the law is clear: He can’t do that.
For the 8,000 residents of this vast county, the issue is local control vs. what many see as a far-off bureaucracy influenced by environmentalists and other outsiders. Here, as in much of the West, distrust of the federal government is growing.
Folks here deal with the federal government a lot. More than 70 percent of the county - millions of acres of sagebrush, mountains, rangeland and buttes - belongs to the BLM.
“They’re my worst absentee landlord,” said Nettleton. “They have no offices in this county, no managers living in this county, no social presence, no business presence. If you want to do business with them, you drive to Boise and sit in those hallowed halls.”
The BLM does have land-management people working in Owyhee County, including two rangers who patrol a district that includes that county along with much of the rest of the southwestern part of the state. Run-ins with the rangers have reinforced some local residents’ fears that someone is trying to keep them from using all that land.
This spring, the resentment came to a head when Nettleton told the BLM that he’s rescinding the law-enforcement authority, including deputy cards, he had given BLM rangers years earlier. “An armed federal employee is only making the situation more unstable,” he wrote. His office can supply whatever law enforcement is needed, he said.
But Idaho U.S. Attorney Betty Richardson says the rangers have law-enforcement authority on BLM lands with or without Nettleton’s say-so.
Old West sheriff
Nettleton, 56, is an Old West sheriff, who still chases down horse thieves (he trailed one with a plane in 1992) and keeps a collection of old guns in his office. A Democrat, he’s in his 25th year as the county’s elected sheriff.
His biggest claim to fame is having helped catch Claude Dallas, who had shot to death two Idaho Department of Fish and Game officers.
People also still are talking about how he survived a fiery plane crash in December that broke his heel and severely sprained both his ankles. He wouldn’t let rescuers cut off his best boots.
Nettleton’s workload has gone way up over the decades, from 100 arrests his first year in office to more than 250 so far this year. He has eight deputies and some reserve officers to help out.
His days are filled with domestic violence cases, disputes between neighbors, thefts, people lost in the mountains or desert.
When the BLM’s chief lawenforcement officer in Idaho came to him 20 years ago to discuss cooperating, Nettleton deputized him. He also has signed contracts with the BLM several times over the years to conduct extra patrols on their land.
“I cooperate with them,” he said. “I’ve put men in jail for starting range fires on BLM land.”
But in recent years, Nettleton hasn’t liked the way a BLM ranger has approached folks in his county about minor problems.
“To me, it was misuse of the badge and authority,” he said. “I don’t want to wait until we have another Ruby Ridge or Waco, Texas, before I disassociate myself with a bunch of authoritarians.”
Nettleton said he did two things: He took back the deputy authority he’d granted BLM rangers and he “looked ‘em right in the eye and said, ‘What authority do you got to be in the state of Idaho as policemen?”’
“I must have really wrung their tail over that,” he said.
Jack Sept, BLM deputy state director for external affairs, said the agency always has tried to work cooperatively with the county. “I’m sure there are some differences in approaches on how to do business,” he said. But, he added, “we have not had any major run-ins with him at all.”
Sept said Nettleton’s concern over authority “seems to be a misunderstanding of roles, perhaps.”
Nettleton sees it as analogous to counties and cities. As sheriff, he has authority throughout the county, including in the cities. But most cities have their own police forces. “It’d be like me going in against the wishes of my city, running over the top of them enforcing laws … in a different style than what the chief of police is doing. You just don’t do it.”
Among Nettleton’s complaints: He says a BLM ranger was overzealous in telling off-road vehicle users they couldn’t go into certain areas. Another time, a woman gathering rocks for a rock garden was told she needed a permit.
BLM people also removed a notrespassing sign a farmer had placed illegally on public land along a right of way leading to his farm. “There was no contact made with the man to try to get things ironed out,” Nettleton said.
“This is the type of stuff I just don’t do, and I don’t tolerate my men to do. I don’t want any association with it.”
In another case, a miner working a claim which had been in his family for generations was visited by a ranger and a geologist and told to bring his operations up to standards or lose the claim.
“I don’t doubt that the guy is not handling it properly according to the law,” Nettleton said. But he disagreed with the BLM’s “threatening” approach.
Dan Hughes, special agent in charge for the BLM in Idaho, said, “We have a little different perspective.”
In each case, Hughes said, “We feel that our actions were totally in line.”
The sheriff’s stand has been popular locally. Calls and letters to the county have been overwhelmingly in support.
“I really feel like it belongs to the sheriff, what goes on in their county,” said Loretta McDaniel, who has lived in the Murphy area for 30 years and is the local postmaster. “I don’t think it’s quite right the way they have taken over so many things.
“It’s not like it used to be,” McDaniel said. In earlier days, she said, “you were friends with all the people and they weren’t quite so bossy.”
With the Sheriff’s Department, “they’ve (already) got a lawenforcement agency out here,” said John Tyson, a 35-year resident who ranches and works for the county road department.
Tyson said he worries that environmentalists want to “control everything.”
Chenoweth has met with Nettleton and supports his stand. She is working on legislation she hopes to introduce in Congress this year to require all federal agents to obtain written permission from the local sheriff before they can engage in any law enforcement activity.
Nettleton said he has nothing against most federal agents. “I’ve got along good with them,” he said. “The FBI has been outstanding to work with.
“I haven’t had any problem with any of them till this thing cropped up.”
Sheriffs oppose bill
At the last meeting of the Idaho Sheriffs Association, however, sheriffs from around the state agreed they can’t support Chenoweth’s proposed legislation.
“We support the idea of improved communication between federal officers and local law enforcement,” said Sheriff Brent Bunn of Bear Lake County, association president. “I don’t know that you can legislate that.
“They have their job to do; we have our job to do. If conflict arises, then we need to sit down and work those things out.”
Idaho’s police chiefs, at their June meeting, reached the same conclusion.
Owyhee County Commissioner Harold Tolmie, a Republican who owns an appliance store in Homedale, said commissioners back Nettleton but don’t believe he can order rangers off BLM land. “This is what our attorneys tell us,” he said.
Nettleton had granted deputy status to the rangers countywide. “All he did is rescind that authority,” Tolmie said. “They still have authority on government lands. Tim cannot rescind that.
“I don’t think it changes a heck of a lot,” Tolmie said. “It means they can’t enforce laws on county roads and such without going through the sheriff.
“We don’t want him to pick a fight with the BLM,” Tolmie said. “We’re trying to get along with them, really.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo Graphic: BLM no more?
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