They say law grants wider local control
Suspicion of big government is no stranger to American political discourse. Recently this theme has manifested in the speech and actions of county sheriffs from Northern California and Southern Oregon, dubbed the “constitutional sheriffs,” who have assumed a broader view of their responsibilities as elected officials.
Del Norte County Sheriff Dean Wilson, left, listens as Tehama County Sheriff Dave Hencraft speaks Saturday. Del Norte Triplicate/Adam Spencer
The sheriffs, Del Norte County Sheriff Dean Wilson included, have made a name for themselves with town hall-style gatherings where their views are publically shared. The fifth and most recent one took place at the Del Norte County fairgrounds on Saturday afternoon with six sheriffs and about 250 concerned or curious citizens in attendance.
As elected officials, the constitutional sheriffs see a responsibility to take a proactive role in dealing with state and federal agencies, to ensure the health and public safety of their communities.
Certain issues surface at each event, including opposition to the agreements that would remove four dams on the Klamath River, opposition to U.S. Forest Service travel management plans that would limit access on some roads in national forests and an overall distaste for the role environmental regulations and agencies have played in limiting the economic health of rural communities.
National media outlets like the Huffington Post have recently dismissed the sheriffs as rabble-rousers that come close to overstepping their boundaries.
“You’re nothing until you get an attack from the Huffington Post I guess,” Wilson said.
Considering the group confrontational is hard to avoid with oft-quoted lines like that of the unofficial leader, Siskiyou County Sheriff Jon Lopey:
“As a sheriff we are all sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States and the California state constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic ... unfortunately, recently there have been more domestic enemies than foreign.”
Off the bat, Lopey assured the audience that the sheriffs are “not anti-government,” “not extremists,” “not militia leaders” and “not advocates of extremist ideas, violence or lawlessness.”
For the most part, they say they want “coordination,” a reference to a clause in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 that gives local governments a little more clout when dealing with federal and state government agencies. Just how much is open to debate.
The act says that when the federal agencies are developing land-use plans for public lands, they must “assure that consideration is given” to local plans. They must also “assist in resolving, to the extent practical, inconsistencies between Federal and non-Federal Government plans, and shall provide for meaningful public involvement of State and local government officials.”
It’s not exactly concrete language with subjective phrasing like “to the extent practical” and “meaningful,” but the constitutional sheriffs have seized on the idea of “coordination.”
“If we want timber management and we want to still harvest timber in the county, that is a conflict and that conflict has to be resolved,” Wilson said, as an example of how coordination should be used with the U.S. Forest Service.
Del Norte County government officials complained about being lumped in with the public comment period when the Six Rivers National Forest was pursuing a travel management plan to limit access on roads in the National Forest.
The “coordination” clause, the sheriffs and others contend, will force federal agencies to work with local governments prior to the public scoping period, instead of just being on the receiving end of decisions affecting lands within county boundaries.
“It’s a pretty good trump card in bringing people to the table,” Wilson said to the Saturday crowd.
Wilson pointed to budget problems in Josephine County and the resulting downsize of county law enforcement as an omen for what was to come locally — unless counties fight back.
Recently adopted marine protected areas (reserves where fishing is limited or banned) “will shut down our fishing industry,” Wilson said.
The Southern Oregon/Northern California Coast Coho Recovery Plan was highlighted as another big concern, because of its potential to impact farmers and ranchers along the Smith River.
“That will turn the salmon into the new spotted owl for Del Norte County,” Wilson said.
A pro-active stance in the wake of such possibilities is necessary “to preserve our way of life in Northern California,” Wilson said, and that’s why the constitutional sheriffs do what they do.
That’s why Dean Wilson has been reading up on coordination and the “constitution,” to the point where he’ll joke that “my eyes have grown weak in the service of my county.”
Rural counties are “literally under siege,” Lopey said. “Environmental extremism and dumb decisions have elevated the interests of fish, trees, birds and frogs above the interests of hard-working citizens.”
In order to avoid the imminent destruction of rural America’s way of life, Wilson urged people to teach their families about the Constitution and “teach them about our history so they know that free housing, free health care, free, free, free is not freedom,” he said. “Freedom is only given to you by one thing: by God and by birth and not by government or a king.”