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Tina Casey headshot

Bundy 'Cowboy Campers' Leave a Mess in Malheur, Move in on U.S. Congress


The armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon has been over for a month, but the after-effects continue to ripple out from one state to another with the arrest of Ammon Bundy, his father Cliven, and dozens of their gang. Now it looks like Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-Third District) is raising the stakes. In support of the Bundy position on public land use, last week Rep. Chaffetz introduced legislation that would make county sheriffs responsible for all law enforcement on federal lands.

Ammon and Cliven Bundy have served as the voice of grassroots support for the land-privatization position espoused by the powerful business lobbying organization ALEC, and the new legislation puts Chaffetz squarely in the same camp.

New legislation backs Bundys on local sheriff authority

Last week, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service released 28 photographs charting the destruction left behind by Ammon Bundy and his Oregon occupiers. The photos clearly demonstrate that ad-hoc groups of private citizens, operating under their own made-up rules, are unfit to set their own standards for behavior in public parks.

Cliven Bundy himself has proven that point over a 20-year period during which his destructive "trespass" cattle ran wild over federal lands in the Gold Butte area of Nevada, a designated Area of Environmental Concern. Bundy has finally been called to account for an armed standoff with federal agents and he is being held in jail pending his trial, but continuing tension in the area has precluded attempts to remove the cattle.

Despite the reckless behavior exhibited by Ammon and Cliven Bundy, the new legislation would eliminate federal oversight of federal land. It would strip the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service of their law enforcement authority, and provide federal block grants to local law enforcement instead.

In a brief press release announcing the new legislation, Chaffetz and his co-sponsors in the Utah delegation offered this explanation:

"Federal agencies do not enjoy the same level of trust and respect as local law enforcement that are deeply rooted in local communities. This legislation will help deescalate conflicts between law enforcement and local residents while improving transparency and accountability. The BLM and U.S. Forest Service will be able to focus on their core missions without the distraction of police functions. This is a win all around."

The bill itself does not mention the word "sheriff," but in a section of the press release titled "What the Bill Does," Chaffetz and his co-sponsors elaborate on what they mean by "local" law enforcement:
"[The bill] restores responsibility for law enforcement to elected officials who are accountable to the local community."

In an interview cited by the Salt Lake Tribune last week, Chaffetz was much more forthcoming about the actual intention of the bill:
"The first line of defense should be the sheriff," Chaffetz said Tuesday.

Sheriff or not, here we come

As for why the Chaffetz legislation focuses on county sheriffs, it's critical to the "states rights" movement advocated by the Bundys on behalf of ALEC.

According to the Bundy's (and ALEC's) offbeat interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, the county sheriff is the only constitutionally-authorized law enforcement on federal land outside of Washington, D.C.

Whether or not that makes sense to constitutional scholars, the concept of the constitutional sheriff provides local citizens with direct access to a constitutional center of law enforcement authority.

In a perfect world that might work out nicely for every local stakeholder, but in reality it would provide the most powerful local citizens with even more power than they currently exercise -- and it would empower others from outside the community as well.

That reality is once again amply illustrated by the Bundys. Weeks before leading his gang of armed thugs into the Malheur refuge, Ammon Bundy met with the local sheriff to advocate for two local ranchers who were headed for jail on arson charges.

Bundy demanded that the sheriff do something to prevent the ranchers from jail, and when the sheriff refused, Bundy warned that there would be "extreme civil unrest."

In other words, the whole "constitutional sheriff" concept is a smokescreen for being able to do whatever you want. Rather than respecting the ultimate voice of local authority espoused by his own stated philosophy, Bundy pushed forward with his own agenda.

Despite the threat of violence, the intimidation of Malheur refuge employees and local citizens, and the open display of weaponry, now that they are facing serious felony charges, Bundy and his supporters are trying to portray the Oregon occupation as an act of civil disobedience by peaceful "cowboy campers."

The ALEC connection

As for ALEC, the constitutional sheriff concept provides the organization with a powerful law enforcement foot in the door for business interests, local or not.

The ALEC influence was clearly at play from the earliest days of the Oregon occupation, throughout which Ammon Bundy claimed to champion the cause of local ranchers, miners and loggers. As it happens, mining and logging -- and, to a lesser extent, ranching -- are of great interest to one of ALEC's main funders, the Koch brothers.

ALEC appears to be behind a movement to organize sympathetic sheriffs to promote its causes, and it is not shy about demonstrating its influence by show of force.

In one notable episode last summer, an NBC affiliate in Atlanta, Georgia described ALEC as a "shadowy organization that uses off-duty police officers to keep the public out of meetings between legislators and corporate lobbyists." That commentary came after the station's investigative team was kicked out of a resort hotel where ALEC was meeting:

"Chatham County Sheriff's deputies, directly hired and paid by ALEC, were used to remove us from the entire hotel even though we had paid for a room."

Given this scenario, it seems that the Chaffetz legislation is aimed at enabling powerful stakeholders to pick and choose who gets access to public parks.

Photo: "Damage at Malheur NWR" by USFWS-Pacific Region via flickr.com, creative commons license.

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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