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Los Angeles Times

LAS VEGAS — James Perkins sees the federal Bureau of Land Management more as a belligerent occupying army than a government agency serving U.S. citizens, including those like him in south-central Utah.

Perkins is the sheriff of Garfield County, a rural bastion about the size of Connecticut with only 5,500 residents, where 90 percent of the land is maintained by the BLM. The relationship between local law enforcement and often heavily armed federal officers has always been tense, and now threatens to reach a breaking point.

He and others attribute the deteriorating relations to what he calls BLM’s culture of elitism, which provoked Garfield County to join two other Utah counties this year to pass a resolution restricting or banning federal law enforcement within their borders.

“I don’t know any sheriff who doesn’t want a good relationship with the BLM,” he said. “We’re a rural agency and we’d like a partnership, but it seems they have a hard time recognizing our authority. They’d rather be independent.”

The BLM has faced a string of challenges. In April, it called off a cattle roundup after rebellious Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy was backed by an armed citizen militia that stood its ground with semiautomatic weapons. The BLM looked, in turns, overzealous and ineffectual.

Then, in May, citizens of rural San Juan County in Utah staged a protest, driving all-terrain vehicles into a canyon the BLM had closed to such traffic.

BLM officials say they’re trying to manage a mammoth swath of the West as best they can while seeking common ground with local authorities. In some of those states, though, BLM workers have felt so threatened that they patrol in unmarked vehicles, without uniforms.

Perkins and others recently addressed a House Natural Resources Committee public lands subcommittee that was collecting testimony about concerns over the BLM, including claims about bullying ranchers and refusing to respond to emergency calls.

They didn’t mince words.

“Over the past decade or so we have observed and experienced a militarization of BLM’s officers,” said Leland Pollack, a Garfield County commissioner. “Right or wrong, some equate BLM’s law enforcement operations to the Gestapo of the World War II era.”

BLM officials in Washington call the claims “vague and inaccurate.”

“The agency is not elitist,” said Bob Abbey, who led the BLM from 2009 until 2012. “Everything the BLM does is based on public input or a direction from the courts, so it’s frustrating to hear criticism like this. The way I see it, we have much more in common with local law enforcement than differences, but we’ve allowed those differences to block pursuing common goals.”

Perkins testified that he has a good working relationship with other federal agencies such as the FBI and National Park Service, but not the BLM. In recent months, he said, the BLM has refused to renew law enforcement contracts with several Utah counties, citing legal deficiencies.

In an interview, he described an incident this year in which a county detective was investigating whether a BLM officer had failed to report a traffic accident, as required by law.

“I was told by the chief of BLM law enforcement in Utah that we had no right to investigate one of his officers and that the matter should have been turned over to their internal affairs division,” Perkins said. “When I’m told by the federal government that I don’t have the authority to investigate crimes in my county, well, that’s just troublesome to me.”

He said his county, which includes most of Bryce Canyon National Park and parts of Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, has spent more than $70,000 this year assisting federal officials with search and rescue operations. “Yet we’ve not seen one penny from them,” he said. “There have been times when we can’t even get them to come out and assist us.”

Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT), told the House subcommittee that televised images of the BLM’s tense, heavily armed standoff with Bundy “looked like they were taken in Afghanistan or Iraq rather than the American West.”

In an interview, Stewart said the incident could have been avoided if federal officials had allowed the sheriff to take charge.

“They’re just more morally justified to intervene — these local sheriffs know people in the community and are more aware of what’s going on with them,” he said. “They’re also going to be held accountable more than federal agents who don’t live in the community and don’t have to answer to the people there.”

Abbey said the BLM can do its part to bridge the divide with sheriffs.

“I’ve always said that it’s important for BLM people to get out into the field,” he said. “You can’t do your job by sitting behind a desk and wait for someone to come in with a complaint. There is a real need for better local relationships.”

But Perkins isn’t sure if the wounds can be healed.

“We just have to respect each other,” he said. “These people can’t just come in and think they’re going to walk over local authorities. That doesn’t do anybody any good.”

Photo: Los Angeles Times/MCT/John M. Glionna

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Poll: Most Parents Oppose Rapid School Reopening

Numerous local school systems around the country are plowing ahead with plans to resume in-person instruction despite growing evidence that children are just as capable of spreading the coronavirus as adults.

Classes were set to begin on Monday in Baker County, Florida. Masks for students will be optional, not required. "It looks like it's back to normal this morning, honestly," a local television reporter observed as parents dropped their kids off in the morning. Many students wore no face coverings.

The Trump administration and the GOP have pushed for full reopening of schools for months."Schools in our country should be opened ASAP," Donald Trump tweeted in May. "Much very good information now available."

"SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!" he reiterated on July 6.

"The science and data is clear: children can be safe in schools this fall, and they must be in school this fall," demanded Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) on Aug. 1.

"I believe our schools can, and should rise to the occasion of re-opening for in-person education this fall," agreed Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) two days later.

"The CDC and Academy of Pediatrics agree: We can safely get students back in classrooms," tweeted House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) last Tuesday.

But while Scalise, Mike Pence, and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have all cited the American Academy of Pediatrics in their arguments for reopening, a new study by the group and the Children's Hospital Association raises red flags about how safe that will be.

Their report found 338,982 reported coronavirus cases in children as of July 30 in the United States. Between July 16 and July 30, the nation saw a 40% increase — 97,078 new infected children.

Last week, a high school student in an Atlanta suburb posted a photo online showing few students wearing masks in a crowded school hallway. Since that time, at least six students and three adult employees in the school have reportedly contracted the coronavirus, and the school temporarily has switched to online classes.

Another Georgia school district has already seen at least 13 students and staff members test positive since reopening a week ago.

A recent study in South Korea found that children aged ten and older spread the coronavirus at the same rates adults do. A separate study in Chicago suggested young kids might also be effective spreaders.

These contradict the false claims made by Trump and his administration that kids have an "amazing" near immunity to COVID-19.

"If you look at children, children are almost — and I would almost say definitely, but almost immune from this disease, so few. They've got stronger, hard to believe, and I don't know how you feel about it, but they have much stronger immune systems than we do somehow for this," Trump told Fox News on Wednesday.

"You got to open the schools. They have a stronger immune system even than you have or I have," he told Barstool Sports on July 23. "It's amazing. You look at the percentage, it's a tiny percentage of one percent. And in that one case, I mean, I looked at a couple of cases. If you have diabetes, if you have, you know, problems with something, but the kids are in great shape." Children have made up nearly nine percent of all cases, even with schools mostly closed.

And DeVos incorrectly said in a July 16 interview, "More and more studies show that kids are actually stoppers of the disease and they don't get it and transmit it themselves."

In early July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines for how schools could operate more safely during the pandemic.

Trump publicly ridiculed the guidelines, dismissing them as "very tough & expensive" and "very impractical."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.