The leader of a U.S. Forest Service crew conducting a prescribed burn in the Malheur National Forest was arrested Wednesday on charges of reckless burning, according to the Grant County Sheriff’s Office.
Ricky Snodgrass, 39, confirmed to OPB that he was arrested Wednesday but declined to comment further, saying he wanted to talk to a lawyer before speaking publicly.
In a statement, Grant County Sheriff Todd McKinley said the fire burned 20 acres of private land near Malheur National Forest in Grant County.
The extraordinary arrest potentially reignites longstanding tensions between rural Oregon Sheriffs and the federal government. Some sheriffs in the state have long sided with ranchers and rural communities in challenging the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management’s rights to control national forests. Several sheriffs, including McKinley’s predecessor Glenn Palmer, have frequently espoused extreme, anti-government rhetoric and escalated conflicts.
“The Forest Service employee referenced in recent reporting was conducting an approved prescribed fire operation on the Malheur National Forest,” U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Jennifer O’Leary said in a text message. “It would be inappropriate for us to provide further comment as this is a pending legal matter.”
Malheur National Forest Supervisor Craig Trulock told the Blue Mountain Eagle the portion of the fire on private land was contained in about an hour.
McKinley told OPB Snodgrass was released without bail but declined to provide any details explaining why he was arrested.
“I want to give the full investigation its chance to run without putting anything else out there to muddy the waters,” McKinley said.
A Forest Service press release announcing the prescribed burn said firefighters planned to burn 300 acres in Bear Valley, an area about 17 miles south of John Day.
In the early 2000s, so-called patriot groups (early incarnations of what would go on to become a resurgent militia movement) emerged in southern Oregon challenging the federal government’s right to own land. Then Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson led the pack, threatening to bust through the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service gates.
In 2016, Palmer, lauded the armed militants occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, calling them “patriots” as they barricaded themselves inside government buildings. That armed takeover itself had its origins in an arson charge against Harney County ranchers who illegally set fire to Bureau of Land Management land.
Palmer became an icon in the constitutional sheriff movement, an extremist ideology asserting the sheriff is the highest legal authority in the country. He became notorious, in large part, for challenging the federal government’s authority over the forests, which they see as prototypical government overreach.
The tensions between local residents and the Forest Service are particularly raw in Grant County, where many residents still blame Forest Service mismanagement for the 2015 Canyon Creek Complex fire which burned 110,000 acres of forest and destroyed 43 homes.
McKinley, who oversaw the Canyon Creek fire response as a deputy under Palmer, ran against him and won in part on a platform promising less extreme bombast.
“I actually got elected to try to make some things better in here and work well with others,” Mckinley said. “(The arrest) was something that just needed done.”
The Forest Service developed a complicated relationship with prescribed burns this summer when two got out of control in New Mexico, sparking a 341,000-acre inferno, destroying hundreds of homes and displacing thousands. That prompted the agency to temporarily halt prescribed burns, drawing ire from forestry experts and firefighters who say the controlled burns are critical to managing forests.
Some firefighters say the agency has a history of going silent when mistakes are made or even blaming firefighters.
“Historically the Forest Service has a terrible record of not defending employees,” said Timothy Ingalsbee, a veteran wildland firefighter who now runs Firefighters United For Safety, Ethics, and Ecology, a group that advocates for more responsible fire management. “They’re regularly thrown under the bus for the greater good of the agency.”
Ingalsbee said he would expect the Forest Service to voice support for its employees.
“This employee was doing this at the behest of his agency for the benefit of the lands they manage,” Ingalsbee said.