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By Sarah Foster
Posted 1:00 AM Eastern
July 2, 2011

Josephine County, Oregon -When Gil Gilbertson was sworn in as Sheriff of Josephine County, a rural county in southwest Oregon, in 2007, he had 30 years of law enforcement experience behind him, both in the United States and with various military missions overseas.

So when citizens of the county began coming to him complaining of “harassment” by U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officers (LEO), he said he’d investigate their concerns, figuring he could work things out with the local ranger district. After all, as the county’s chief law enforcement officer he was in the “club” and moreover had gotten along with the “feds” -- though he disagreed with their road closing policies and other efforts to keep the public off public lands which cover 68 percent of the rural county.

“You know, until about a year ago this wasn’t even on my radar,” Gilbertson told NewsWithViews. “It was the miners that were coming to me saying they were being harassed. I said I’d look into it.”

He contacted the local ranger district for information, but instead of answers he was bluntly told that No, they couldn’t, wouldn’t discuss anything about any complaints with him, but he could file a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request and they’d get back to him.

“Go Pound Sand”

As talk-radio host Bill Meyer [of KMED] put it in an interview with Gilbertson, the Forest Service had essentially told the sheriff to “go pound sand.” Federal agencies are notorious for taking months and years to answer FOIAs Meyer said.

“I’m not going to file any FOIA,” Gilbertson told Meyer. “I think that they’re obligated to impart that information to me.”

On May 5, Gilbertson sent a blistering letter to the District Ranger of the Wild Rivers Ranger District in Caves Junction, setting down in no uncertain terms his objections not only to the Forest Service response to his requests for information but his dissatisfaction with USFS policies.

“Frankly, I was somewhat taken aback by your legal department’s position advising you to not discuss issues with me,” he wrote, adding he was “aghast” at the refusal to provide information without a FOIA “to find out what your agency is doing in regards to the citizens of this county.” He continued:

As the CLEO [chief law enforcement officer] of this county, elected by the citizens, saddled with the expectation and responsibility to safeguard their rights, I fully intend to uphold the laws against any threat, inappropriate or unlawful actions against them.

The issues of illegal road closures, grazing, logging, minerals, taking land under the auspices of ‘Monument’ status, citizen complaints against your LEO agents, high unemployment and other socio-economic issues we all face today; coupled with the uncooperative nature presented by the USFS are causing me great concern about our relationship and future cooperation.

The following day he released the contents of the letter to the public at a meeting of the South West Oregon Mining Association, which posted it on their website. He explained he’d been discussing the issue and sharing information with Sheriff Glenn Palmer of Grant County, Ore., who sent a similar letter [dated March 31] to Teresa Raaf, supervisor of Malheur National Forest.

In his letter Sheriff Palmer questioned the USFS's authority to engage in law enforcement within Grant county, declaring: "your jurisdiction as I see it is limited to the Federal Building in John Day" [the county seat]; and that the presence of USFS "Law Enforcement" violates Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution.


“Within the confines of Grant County, Oregon, the duties and responsibility of law enforcement will rest with the County Sheriff and his designees,” he wrote.

Palmer’s letter was apparently prompted by Forest Service attempts to pressure him into signing a "co-operative policing agreement" that would allow the agency to engage in law enforcement activities inside the lines of Grant County.

Palmer said that in the near future, he’ll be raising other issues about USFS's activities in Grant County, including its recent treatment of the local citizenry, illegal road closures, grazing, logging and other concerns that he and his community have. He also expressed concern about the way Forest Service LEOs had treated “treated citizens of this county in Oct. and Nov., 2010,” but deferred giving details until a later time.

Drawing the Line

Sheriffs Gilbertson and Palmer have crossed personal Rubicons to join a growing cadre of sheriffs in western states who are drawing the line against federal agencies like the Forest Service.

For instance, Sheriff Greg Hagwood, of Plumas County in northern California, has publicly stated he will not enforce federal regulations laid down by the Forest Service that demand road closures and restrict vehicle access to the land.

Asked if he agreed with Hagwood, Gilbertson said he was not familiar with Hagwood’s action, but agreed with him and pointed to the famous case of Prinz v. United States (1997).

“The Supreme Court ruled that the federal government cannot force us [local law enforcement] to enforce federal regs, rules or laws,” he said. “They can’t force sheriffs to do that. The sheriff is the highest law enforcement official for that county. My understanding is that there is no other authority that supersedes the sheriff’s office for that county.”

Gilbertson said that he had recently signed a cooperative policing agreement with the Forest Service, “but I will rescind it immediately if I determine that it was a mistake,” he promised.

Since his letter was released Gilbertson has appeared on various talk shows, where he discusses the issues that affect not only Josephine County but the entire country.

Meanwhile, at a meeting of the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association, Gilbertson agreed to head a committee to research the many questions that have arisen regarding federal jurisdiction and the limits – if any -- to federal authority.

“We’re checking to see if things are being done appropriately according to the U.S. Constitution and the laws that govern all this,” said Gilbertson. “So it’s a process right now that we’re in the research phase. … I’m looking at doing all the research before I make a final decision.

Gilbertson also explained that for him the road-closing issue is a safety issue. “If I need to go Search-and-Rescue, or if I need to go look for crime or marijuana grows, I don’t need those roads closed; I need them open so I can get to them.

“You’re not supposed to take any vehicles onto certain federal lands. But guess what. If I’ve got somebody missing, if I need to take a helicopter in I will. That’s my authority as a sheriff and I’m not going to let anyone stand in my way to protect the people of this county.”

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Gilbertson pointed specifically to the “Biscuit Fire” in July 2002, which burned nearly 500,000 acres of Siskiyou National Forest and much of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.

“They had a big tanker loaded with chemicals ready to go, but were told not to dump because it was on a wilderness area,” said Gilbertson bitterly. “Had they been allowed to dump they would have suppressed the fire right there. The same thing is happening in Arizona right now,” he added. “It’s nonsense.”

“They’ve let these forests grow so you have all this fuel that burns and just goes crazy. If they would go in and thin it out – that’s good stewardship. But they’ve gone from being good stewards to being over-lords that think they have unlimited authority.”

Contact Sheriff Gil Gilbertson.

Earlier Stories

Archive of articles by Sheriff Gil Gilbertson

1 - Sheriff wants holders of concealed weapon permits to remain private: 11-28-08
2 - Sheriff Seeking Stable Funding for His Office: 7-22-08
3 - Introducing Sheriff Gil Gilbertson 10-30-07

For More Information

1 - The Mining Law: The Extent of Federal Authority over Public Domain: South West Oregon Mining Association (SWOMA)
2 - Bill Meyer interviews Sheriff Gilbertson, Radio KMED, Medford, OR., May 10, 2011
3 - South West Oregon Mining Association

2011 NWV - All Rights Reserved

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Sarah Foster is a political researcher and freelance writer.

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He contacted the local ranger district for information, but instead of answers he was bluntly told that No, they couldn’t, wouldn’t discuss anything about any complaints with him, but he could file a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request and they’d get back to him.