La Plata County commissioners and law enforcement have asked Congressman Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, to oppose a bill that would delegate responsibility for policing public lands to local agencies.
On Tuesday, commissioners Brad Blake and Julie Westendorff voted to approve the letter, addressed to Tipton as well as Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner. Commissioner Gwen Lachelt was absent.
The Local Enforcement for Local Lands Act, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, would terminate the law enforcement functions of the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management as well as related funding.
Instead, block grants, or grants that can be applied to range of services, based on acreage and employee count would be provided to states for policing federal land. Local officials fear such a funding mechanism would be inadequate.
About 657 square miles, or 39 percent, of La Plata County is federal land. The transition would mean more deputies and record-keeping.
In February, the House Natural Resources Committee referred the bill to the Subcommittee of Federal Lands, on which Tipton serves.
La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith said the bill is “ill-conceived” and doesn’t consider the fact that sheriff’s deputies are not trained to protect natural resources.
“Most of the issues that arise from this bill are because the BLM and Forest Service are not law enforcement agencies; they’re natural resource agencies with a law enforcement component,” Smith said. “For us to say let’s just go add one more layer to what we need to do makes it more difficult.”
Unforseen costs to the county could be a significant byproduct if the legislation passed.
On behalf of Trout Unlimited, Ty Churchwell spoke before the board against the bill.
“We’ve expressed our opposition to Chaffetz and Tipton,” Churchwell said. “Few of us would disagree with the statement that there is not enough law enforcement out there on public lands, but this is not the way you resolve that issue. We’re of the opinion that the way to resolve the issue of law enforcement is through appropriations and for agencies to be better funded.”
Tipton’s critics say his votes, contrary to his words, do not reflect support for public lands, including most recently in January when he voted for a measure that Democrats and conservation groups say will make it easier for states to purchase federal land.
A spokeswoman for Tipton’s office said Tipton will review the county’s letter, and said the U.S. representative has supported or led multiple pro-public lands initiatives.
“He has voted repeatedly for funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and he is an original co-sponsor of a bill introduced by Rep. (Jared) Polis that expands the boundaries of the Arapaho National Forest,” spokeswoman Liz Payne said in a statement. “It seems like these things are either forgotten about or never get mentioned.”
Payne said Tipton has no position on the law enforcement bill.