In early December, a Bureau of Land Management ranger at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, in southern Utah, had a casual office conversation with a colleague about his frustration with how a holiday party was disrupting his day’s work. Two days later, he was in a Garfield County jail cell, purportedly for what he had said.
The ranger, Jeff Ellison, was in his second year working with the agency. He came to Grand Staircase-Escalente in 2014, and stepped into a hornet’s nest. In 1996, President Bill Clinton used the Antiquities Act to designate as a national monument the 1.8 million acre swath of slickrock, verdant canyons and piñon-juniper mesas. Because of the impacts the extra level of protection might have on grazing and coal mining, not to mention an ingrained disdain for federal control, many of the locals in this rural, Mormon-dominated area were furious. Most of those individuals still are. That makes being a federal employee a dicey proposition in this isolated area, and reports of locals and even elected officials intimidating or harassing BLM employees are not uncommon.
Whether Ellison’s arrest was a form of intimidation or a simple misunderstanding is not yet clear.
During the conversation in question, Ellison brought up improvised explosive devices, the weapon of choice for insurgents trying to do harm to U.S. military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The co-worker apparently was uncomfortable with the banter, and two days later, Ellison’s supervisor called him at home to let him know that he had to apologize. The supervisor also said he’d been informed two sheriff’s deputies were on their way to Ellison’s home.
Sure enough, the lawmen were soon at his door, and the ranger was arrested that evening. Ellison recalls that one of the deputies said the sheriff wanted to “make an example out of him.” He also says he was not informed of the exact charges — class B misdemeanor of threats and violence and infraction of disorderly conduct — until the next morning, as he was paying about $950 in bail.
Those charges have yet to be confirmed with the police report. Ellison says he asked multiple times to see the report, but the sheriff refused to provide it.
While some witnesses interviewed by a deputy were not clear about the tone of the conversation, most said it appeared to be light-hearted. Pat Shea, a former BLM national director, and Ellison’s lawyer, also spoke with witnesses, all of whom said they did not think Ellison’s actions warranted the reaction.
Sheriff James “Danny” Perkins was not available for comment at the time of this publication. A representative at the sheriff’s office told HCN last month that the police report could not be released because the incident is still under investigation. But both Ellison and Shea have been told the charges were dropped.
The incident was largely unknown to the wider public for at least a month after it occurred, but this past week was unveiled by Robert Weinick, a local conservationist and acquaintance of Ellison’s, in an op-ed in the Independent out of St. George, Utah.
Newcomers — even those who have been in the area for decades — and those with an environmentalist bent have told HCN that such intimidation tactics are not uncommon in the area. One person, who asked to remain anonymous, said locals have had precious water turned on and let to run while they’re away. There are other reports of pets being killed. Who is behind these types of incidents is unclear. But federal employees are often on the receiving end of this harassment.
“That was the most frightening experience of my life,” Ellison says of being jailed. “I have been shot at, blown up, threatened and everything else that goes along with war and public service (the former ranger is a veteran), but all those things pale in comparison to someone trying to willfully ruin my life and trample upon my rights.”
Many counties in the West struggle to see eye to eye with officials working for national bureaucracies that receive mandates from Washington, D.C. But an especially intense antagonism exists between BLM and local law enforcement officers in southern Utah and Garfield County, where over 90 percent of the land is managed by the feds. In 2014, Sheriff Perkins testified to Congress about the BLM law enforcement overstepping its bounds and blatantly disrespecting his department’s authority. As of 2014, at least four Utah counties, including Garfield, had passed resolutions that federal agents were not welcome.
Southern Utah is home to a handful of sheriffs who operate on the belief that they are the ultimate law enforcement agents in their county, and that federal agents must therefore answer to them. (See “The Rise of Sagebrush Sheriffs” by Jonathan Thompson.)
Last month, Rep. Mike Noel, Utah-Kanab, proposed legislation to rein in the feds and require BLM to defer more to local law enforcement. “I don’t believe they have the right to be out there except as a proprietary officer for protecting their own resources (such as timber and artifacts),” he told the Salt Lake Tribune. “I definitely don’t believe they have the right to arrest you or me for traffic citations or violations on county roads.” In 2013, Noel-sponsored a similar bill that passed but was repealed by the state legislature.
The monument’s public affairs officer, Larry Crutchfield, however, says that relations between the BLM and Sheriff Perkins are mostly positive.
Yet the Ellison events serve as a reminder that southern Utah is in many ways ground zero for the ideological forces at play that created the recent occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Several locals traveled from Utah to support rancher Cliven Bundy at the Nevada standoff in 2014. Lavoy Finicum, a central figure in the Malheur occupation who was shot and killed during the confrontation with Oregon State Police and FBI last month, was born in Kanab, Utah.
“This is our issue,” says Robert Weinick of issues around county supremacy and anti-federal sentiment. “Don’t give it up to Oregon.”
Ellison now lives in California and has taken a new job. At the time of his arrest, the ranger had already planned to move away. But he says local antagonism toward federal management contributed to his decision.