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Above the Law

Siskiyou County Sheriff Jon Lopey sees his purview extending well beyond the pursuit of criminals and scofflaws. Indeed, Lopey has explicitly stated his disinclination to enforce state and federal laws that pertain to environmental protection.
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Joe Arpaio, the sheriff of Arizona's Maricopa County, styles himself as "America's toughest sheriff"; in reality, he's a Foghorn Leghorn caricature, more obsessed with illegal immigrants hiding under his bed and Barack Obama's citizenship than street crime.

Sheriff Jon Lopey of California's Siskiyou County is another outlier lawman, but his message is more nuanced than Arpaio's. Unlike his Arizona counterpart, Lopey is no shoot-from-the-hip loudmouth. He is a former California Highway Patrol Captain and Assistant Chief, and a retired Army Reserve Colonel who served in Afghanistan. By all accounts, he is intelligent, amiable, and highly charismatic. But like Arpaio, he sees his purview extending well beyond the pursuit of criminals and scofflaws. Indeed, Lopey has explicitly stated his disinclination to enforce state and federal laws that pertain to environmental protection.

Lopey is particularly incensed about an agreement that could ultimately result in dam removal along the Klamath River and restore its once-mighty salmon runs. At a "Support Rural America" rally in nearby Tehama County that was attended by Lopey and seven like-minded and admiring sheriffs from neighboring jurisdictions, Lopey lambasted the Klamath agreement and federal and state resource and environmental protection agencies, and urged his followers to fight for their water rights. He also bemoaned the loss of timber industry jobs, placing the blame on dastardly environmentalists and the cosseted spotted owl.

Finally, Lopey darkly declared that he was "... sworn to defend America against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and it seems we have more enemies that are domestic these days... "

The Klamath accord is complex, and even its supporters nitpick it; some feel it doesn't go far enough in assuring protections for the fish. But Lopey conveniently ignores the fact that the "water rights" of some of the signatories to the agreement -- Yurok and Karuk Indians -- likely supersede those of the ranchers who are dewatering the Klamath tributaries the fish need for survival. After all, the Yurok and Karuk have lived along the Klamath for several thousand years.

Lopey also misrepresents the decline of the timber industry. The timber harvest on northern California's national forests has crashed for a simple reason: all the big trees have already been cut. I know -- I was there. I lived in Trinity County in the 1970s, working as a firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service. The Big Cut was going full blast, and part of our job was burning the slash on massive clear-cuts after the timber was harvested. The mountains, to put it bluntly, were scalped. The mills were shutting down due to a paucity of logs well before the spotted owl brouhaha.

True, a rational argument can be made for opening up the national forests to regulated selective logging to thin stands and provide some merchantable timber. But the glory days that make Lopey wax so nostalgically are long gone, for the simple fact that the resource base -- big, old-growth trees -- has been liquidated. The timber Industry will never "come back," even if Lopey is declared Emperor of Northern California -- given his grandstanding, a title he apparently covets.

In a letter sent to the California Department of Fish and Game, Lopey demanded that Fish and Game wardens and biologists "coordinate" with him and other local officials before they enforce state regulations in Siskiyou County; his object, of course, is to derail any serious application of the Fish and Game codes or the state and federal Endangered Species Acts.

Fish and Game Director Charlton H. Bonham brushed off Lopey's ultimatums, noting in a letter that his staffers would pursue their mandate to preserve fish and wildlife as required by "... the California constitution, many statutory provisions and in judicial decisions rendered throughout the state's history. I understand you may object to resource protection laws under policy grounds, but as a law enforcement matter, the department looks forward to your continued cooperation as an officer of the law."

As Bonham intimates, the most disturbing aspect of Lopey's campaign is his apparent belief that he has the right to interpret as well as enforce the law. By deciding what regulations are "appropriate" for Siskiyou County, he has overstepped his authority to an alarming degree.

Moreover, he has convinced credulous sheriffs in neighboring counties to follow his lead, and he has signaled local citizens that "fighting the government" might be something they'll have to do in a literal rather than figurative sense. At a Support Rural America rally Lopey led in the Siskiyou town of Yreka, a rancher noted that he hoped violence could be avoided, but that he and other locals were ready to take matters "... as far as the state wants to take it."

Following Lopey's incendiary rhetoric, Fish and Game Assistant Chief Mike Carion has noted that wardens working Siskiyou County have received "vague threats," and Karuk tribal members have expressed fears about driving county roads in vehicles displaying the tribal emblem.

God knows Lopey has plenty of real work to do in Siskiyou County: lock up wife beaters and child molesters, break up the county's numerous meth labs, uproot commercial-scale pot plantations, get drunk drivers off the roads, and arrest the usual gamut of murderers, strong-arm thieves, burglars, and embezzlers. If he wants to engage in civil disobedience, fine -- but he must take off his badge. Cops are invested with great power over their fellow citizens. When they seek to extend that authority, they risk demagoguery. Lopey now walks that razor's edge.

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