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COLUMN: Local Enforcement for Local Lands

April 11, 2016
Weekly Column and Op-Ed

It may be news to many Americans, but as individual land owners, ranchers, and farmers in Washington already know, the federal government is one of the largest property managers in the nation, and especially in the West. According to a 2014 government survey, federal agencies manage 640 million acres of land, or one million square miles nationwide. That number accounts for 28 percent of land in the country. To put that enormous number in further perspective, it is just a bit smaller than the size of the land area of the three largest states, Alaska, Texas, and California, combined. However, in our 11 western states, the federal government manages about 50 percent of all land. Two agencies, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Forest Service, manage a combined 440 million acres of public land. With vast tracts of public land under federal management, federal agencies have the tremendous responsibility to maintain public access as well as maintain strong relationships with the citizens and local communities they serve. Accountability and transparency are critical to maintaining trust that at times becomes strained.

I firmly believe that local decisions are the best way to manage land in a way that promotes economic growth for local communities. The simple fact is that federal bureaucrats are less accountable than state and local officials. The recent high-profile standoff in Malheur County in Oregon was in part a symptom of frustration with, and distrust of, federal agencies managing public lands.

In addition to promoting state and local land ownership over federal land ownership, one way to improve trust would be to restore the responsibility of law enforcement on federal lands to locally-elected and accountable officials. I am an original cosponsor of legislation introduced by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) that would do just that. H.R. 4751, the "Local Enforcement for Local Lands Act of 2016" would transfer law enforcement duties from the Forest Service and BLM to local officials in order to protect individuals and property on federal lands. This legislation would not create an unfunded mandate for locals to pick up the tab: it would transfer the current federal agencies’ funding for these functions to allow block grant funding for local law enforcement to be performed by local entities. These changes would go a long way to restore trust by ensuring that law enforcement officials have roots in the communities that they serve.

I recently hosted a land management and wildfire roundtable in Okanogan in North Central Washington, and it was an opportunity for the community to bring direct concerns to federal agency officials. That kind of direct accountability should be the rule, not the exception. The closer authority is to the people, the more accountable the authority. Members of the local community feels like they have more of a voice when officials are accountable to them. I believe that when it comes to federal lands, restoring local responsibility for enforcing the law would be a step in the right direction to build trust within local communities.