A Long Tradition of Federal Resource Protection

By Steven Martin

The need to protect federal resources goes back to the days when Thomas Jefferson was President.  Though President Jefferson had a vision that the public domain would be surveyed prior to orderly settlement, settlers were moving onto the public domain before surveys were completed, creating conflict and competition for land.  In 1807, Congress authorized the military to remove, fine, and/or imprison trespassers who moved onto unsurveyed public lands, which proved to be an unpopular policy.  Congress relented and enacted numerous preemption laws that gave squatters first right to the public domain lands they occupied.

Unwilling to give up on the concept of orderly settlement, Congress used the power of the Property Clause of the U.S. Constitution to create the General Land Office (GLO) in 1812.  The duties of the GLO were to “superintend, execute, and perform, all such acts and things, touching or respecting the public lands of the United States.”

By the late 1820s, protection of federal resources again became an issue when Congress realized that the vast stands of oak trees necessary for shipbuilding and the piney woods of the Old Northwest were vanishing as lumbermen clearcut the forests and moved on.  In response, Congress enacted the Timber Trespass Act of 1832.  The GLO hired “special timber agents” in 1832 to enforce this law.  Unfortunately, so few agents were hired that timber theft and land fraud continued unabated.  By 1883, the GLO created a law enforcement division staffed with 70 special agents charged with investigating timber depredations and fraudulent land entries.

By 1885, special agents were also investigating violations of the Unlawful Inclosures Act.  In a landmark case, GLO investigators discovered that cattle barons Daniel Camfield and William Drury had constructed a network of fences entirely on private lands that occurred in a checkerboard pattern with public lands.  The fences effectively enclosed 20,000 acres of public lands and barred public access and settlement.  In 1896, the government charged the cattlemen with violating the Unlawful Inclosures Act.  The U.S. Supreme Court sustained the government’s case, affirming the government’s authority to manage and regulate the public domain.  The Court said the government could not “permit any individual or private corporation to monopolize the public lands for private gain.”  The Court also said, “The general Government doubtless has a power over its own property analogous to the police power of several States, and the extent to which it may go in exercise of such power is measured by the exigencies of the particular case.”

In 1897, Congress enacted the Forest Management Act, giving the GLO authority to regulate occupancy and use, develop mineral resources, sell timber, and provide for fire protection in the forest reserves.  The first government employee to hold the title “Forest Ranger” was hired in 1898 in the Battlement Mesa Forest Reserve in Colorado.  The Forest Reserve Manual of 1902 described the work of rangers as “protective duty, guarding against fire and trespass, fighting fires and stopping trespass, as well as assisting the State authorities in the protection of game.”

By the turn of the 20th century, a fledgling environmental movement was taking hold.  President Theodore Roosevelt set large blocks of public lands aside to protect timber, watersheds, wildlife, and cultural resources.  Congress enacted several laws in 1909 to protect these resources.  Enforcement responsibilities were transferred from the GLO to the Department of the Interior’s (DOI’s) Division of Investigations in 1933.  Due to a severely diminished workload and a wartime shift in management philosophy, these agents lost their law enforcement authority in 1942 when they were transferred back to the GLO.  The former agents became “field investigators,” predecessors of today’s BLM resource specialists.

Even after the GLO and the Grazing Service were merged to form the BLM in 1946, resource protection continued to be a challenge.  In 1971, Congress responded to the slaughter of wild horses by enacting the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros (WH&B) Act, which provided “any employee designated by the Secretary of the Interior” with arrest authority for violations of any provisions of the act.  The BLM was charged with the management and protection of wild horses and burros but lacked enforcement personnel, so in March 1974, BLM Director Curt Berkland contacted Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Clarence Kelley to request assistance with enforcement.  Kelley told Berkland the BLM must take responsibility for such investigations, not the FBI, and the BLM realized it needed its own enforcement personnel.

In 1974, the BLM hired its first law enforcement officer, Peter Silvain, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) special agent, who was stationed in Washington, DC.  The BLM then hired a second special agent and began developing a Bureau law enforcement program.  Silvain adapted the USFWS badge for BLM law enforcement.  In 1975, BLM Associate Director George Turcott authorized Silvain to hire special agents in Idaho, Arizona, Utah, Montana, California, Oregon, and Wyoming.  These special agents were commissioned with the authority of the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1965, the WH&B Act of 1971, and the Sikes Act of 1974; however, they could only make arrests for violations of the WH&B Act.

Around that same time, President Nixon had taken notice of uncontrolled off-highway vehicle use on public lands and issued Executive Order 11644, which directed federal land management agencies to manage motorized vehicle use; designate lands as open, closed, or limited with regards to such use; and provide for resource protection and public safety.  The BLM designated the public lands accordingly, but Nixon’s directive failed to provide the BLM with authority to enforce the land use designations. California State Director J. Russell Penny realized the time had come to implement a “ranger force” to establish a visible presence and oversee off-highway vehicle use on the public lands. 

The BLM hired its first ranger, Steve Smith, in 1972 in Bakersfield, California.  BLM’s Riverside district manager, Del Vail, hired Michael Wintch in 1973 as chief of the desert ranger group.  Vail hired six additional rangers that year and 21 more in 1974.  Penny, fully aware that the BLM had no enforcement regulations or authority, said, “The rangers are natural resource specialists first and people managers second.  Our rangers will try to achieve as much of their jobs as possible by education and persuasion.” 

Today, BLM’s law enforcement program continues to include rangers, who provide a visible deterrent on the public lands, and special agents, who are plainclothes law enforcement officers responsible for long-term investigations of administrative, civil, and criminal violations of federal laws relating to the use, management, and protection of public lands and resources.  These investigators are classified in the same job series as other federal criminal investigators such as those in the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, and U.S. Marshals Service.  Like their GLO and DOI predecessors, they investigate cases of land fraud and timber and minerals theft, but with the enactment of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, they now have the authority to make arrests for those crimes.

Steven Martin has been in law enforcement with the BLM for more than 23 years and is currently BLM’s third longest tenured law enforcement officer.  Steven has served as a ranger in California and Utah and as a ranger and a special agent in New Mexico.  He is currently the assistant special agent in charge in Arizona.