CORTEZ — Montezuma County Sheriff Dennis Spruell is waiting for his conscience to tell him: Should he start handing out tickets this week to U.S. Forest Service agents who are closing backcountry roads? Should he cut locks on gates that shut off access to public lands?
The fact that a county sheriff is considering such actions against the federal government is a good indication that more than a run-of-the-mill dustup over road and trail closures on public lands is erupting in the far southwest corner of the state.
Spruell and others are upset about road closures in the San Juan National Forest. But their ire over not being able to use certain trails is overshadowed by a broader issue. They cite various interpretations of the Constitution to argue that the federal government shouldn't have jurisdiction over forest lands in the first place and that the Forest Service is not a legitimate agency.
"When I ran for office the No. 1 question I was asked was 'what are you going to do about the encroachment of the federal government?' The people here have just had enough. They are really tired of the federal government telling them what to do," said Spruell, who sits in his office beneath a sign reading, "People Protected by Pit Bull Spruell." The sign was given to him by members of the conservative 9-12 Patriots group.
In recent weeks, protesters have marched on the local Forest Service and BLM office located between Cortez and Dolores, calling Forest Service officials "government pukes." Armed detractors of the federal agencies have set up a large display of signs near the office denouncing forest regulations and drawing attention with a stuffed, rifle-toting bear dangling from a rope. More than 170 residents last week jammed into a talk by two Utahns who claim in three self-published books that the federal government has far exceeded its original mission spelled out in the Constitution.
The idea that federal land should be turned over to the states or the counties has gained traction with everyone from businessmen who have little direct stake in the issue to the three dozen or so folks who spend four hours every other Saturday sitting through a Constitution class led by Minuteman Mike Gaddy. Gaddy has a theory that the Forest Service or BLM might be restricting access to lands because the federal government has promised mineral rights to the Chinese in lieu of paying off the U.S. debt owed to that nation.
The outcry and resulting conspiracy theories is the result of three plans put forward by the Forest Service to implement travel management plans on three sections of the forest as required by a 2005 federal mandate. The intersection of those plans are what Steve Beverlin, Dolores Public Lands Office manager, calls "a perfect storm" for controversy. Beverlin knows. He was just transferred from his job late last week amid of all the controversy.
He explained that at the same time workers began closing and reclaiming roads on two of the areas, a plan was publicized that called for the closure of 155 miles of an estimated 700 miles of unauthorized motorized routes in the Boggy Glade area near Dolores.
Boggy Glade is a popular high-country area where the elderly, the disabled and hunters have long used the trails that now branch out across the map of the area like a bad case of varicose veins. Many of those slated for closure were made by ATVs veering off established trails. Some were created for logging or mining decades ago and never closed until now.
Many of those protesting the closures cite an 1866 law they refer to as RS 2477, which they argue gives local governments authority over roadways. The law was designed to promote settlement of the west by granting rights of way to people who wanted to build roads across public lands. It was repealed in 1976, but already-established rights of way were allowed to continue.
The term RS 2477 is commonly bandied about here in coffee shops and government offices. There are many differing ideas about exactly what it means, but the bottom line is that its adherents think the law can be used to take some roads and trails from federal jurisdiction and put them in the hands of counties.
"The misinformation about this is just daunting," said Veronica "Ronni" Egan, national director of the Great Old Broads for Wilderness and a resident of nearby Mancos. Her organization is going to begin running full-page ads in local papers soon to try to dispel some of what they believe is wrong information about what's happening in their forest.
Doug Maxwell doesn't want to hear any of that.
"The Forest Service has no right to enforce any laws. They can't enforce laws unless they are deputized by the county sheriff," said Maxwell, a retiree who has been sitting down the road from the public lands office outside Dolores since mid-January with anti-Forest Service signs like, "Road Closures = a Step Toward Tyranny."
Jerry Martin, sheriff of Dolores County for 21 years, said he fears that all this rhetoric coupled with rampant rumors could lead to something as horrific as the incident in 1998 when three angry anti-government misfits shot their way through the Four Corners, killing one deputy, wounding three others and leading 500 officers on a massive, extended manhunt.
"We've had heated problems over grazing in the past and disputes over logging. But I've never seen anything of this magnitude," Martin said.
Spruell has been criticized by some residents as contributing to the unrest by aligning himself with the anti-federal-government crowd and by making threats to arrest or ticket Forest Service workers.
The sheriff said he is simply following his conscience. He said that will help him decide what to do when he encounters workers closing roads he doesn't think should be closed or reclaiming roads by first ripping them up with heavy machinery. He has already told his deputies not to cite citizens who are violating federal regulations he doesn't believe are legitimate, such as camping too far off the road in a restricted area.
"I'm not a radical," he said. "But when I see something I think is wrong, it's my responsibility to do something."
Nancy Lofholm: 970-256-1957 or [email protected]