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Criminal charge dismissed against federal burn manager in rural Oregon

FILE: The 2015 Canyon Creek Complex fire burned more than 110,000 acres, much of it in the Malheur National Forest. In 2022, the Grant County Sheriff's Office arrested a U.S. Forest Service employee for a planned burn that jumped to private property from the national forest.
Brandon Swanson
FILE: The 2015 Canyon Creek Complex fire burned more than 110,000 acres, much of it in the Malheur National Forest. In 2022, the Grant County Sheriff's Office arrested a U.S. Forest Service employee for a planned burn that jumped to private property from the national forest.

A criminal charge has been dismissed against a U.S. Forest Service employee arrested in 2022 by a rural Oregon sheriff after a prescribed burn on federal land unexpectedly spread to private property and burned roughly 20 acres.

In February, a Grant County grand jury indicted Ricky Snodgrass, 41, on a reckless burning charge, a misdemeanor. The case later moved to federal court, and last month Snodgrass’ lawyers had asked a judge to dismiss it. Grant County District Attorney Jim Carpenter did not oppose that motion, and the judge approved it this week.

“Mr. Snodgrass was charged because the State — or more precisely, the local sheriff — took issue with the Forest Service’s decision to conduct the prescribed fire,” defense attorneys for Snodgrass wrote last month in court documents. “But the State cannot charge Mr. Snodgrass with a crime simply because it disagrees with the Forest Service’s decision. The (U.S. Constitution’s) Supremacy Clause controls, and Mr. Snodgrass is immune from prosecution. This case must be dismissed.”

On Oct. 19, 2022, Snodgrass oversaw a planned burn. A release from the U.S. Forest Service, said the weather conditions were safe for the agency to begin a prescribed fire and that it planned to thin 300 acres to help reduce wildfire risk. But afternoon winds caused the fire to jump onto property owned by the Windy Point Cattle Company. The Forest Service crew got the fire under control within an hour before any people or livestock were harmed.

Before the day was over, Grant County Sheriff Todd McKinley arrested Snodgrass.

“I believe that my actions, both before the prescribed burn was ignited and throughout the day, until I was removed from the burn because I was arrested by the Grant County Sheriff, were necessary and proper to perform my duties as Burn Boss,” Snodgrass wrote in a May 10 declaration filed in federal court.

Snodgrass’s arrest was captured on McKinley’s body camera.

“Are you guys wanting to have this prosecuted?” McKinley asks someone with the ranch, according to a redacted transcript of the footage filed by Snodgrass’s lawyers. “Because I’m willing to arrest him at this point, OK, because he’s the burn boss who made the call.”

Just before arresting Snodgrass, the sheriff said there would be a criminal investigation into the fire.

“Snodgrass, you’re not free to leave,” McKniley said.

“Why is that?” Snodgrass replied.

“Because I’m gonna place you under arrest,” the sheriff said.

Snodgrass protested, saying it would be better to let him help put out the fire, since he was in charge.

“You have some very qualified people out there to take it from here,” McKinley said, according to the transcript. “I understand all those implications, trust me. And I don’t know if you realize what kind of a position your agency puts me in by the actions you just took.”

During the grand jury hearing, the sheriff testified that once Snodgrass was in handcuffs, “he took off and ran from me, and went over onto the other side of the road and said ‘I’m standing on federal land, now you can’t touch me,’ which is not true.”

At another point, Snodgrass reportedly said he would go with McKinley, but asked the sheriff to remove his handcuffs.

“I have to take you in cuffed. That’s the way it works,” the sheriff said. “It’s our policy.”

“This looks bad, dude, for you,” Snodgrass replied.

During the grand jury, McKinley testified that the arrest got “huge national exposure.”

That exposure came in part because McKinley’s predecessor, former Sheriff Glenn Palmer, drew national attention in 2016 by declaring his support for armed militants who took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in nearby Harney County in a dispute framed around federal authority in rural Oregon.

“I don’t know if you guys want to know how many hundreds of phone calls I got over this,” McKinley testified. “Either I was a pariah, the enemy, or they’re trying to make me a hero out of it.”

The sheriff also made several false statements during the grand jury, according to Snodgrass’ lawyers. For example, McKinley testified that he tried to subpoena records from the U.S. Forest Service, and the federal government “refused to cooperate at all.” But Snodgrass’ lawyers said the sheriff didn’t follow the process the Supreme Court has outlined for getting documents to be used in court.

McKinley also speculated as to why the U.S. Forest Service authorized the prescribed burn.

“I have my theories like it had been a slow year, hadn’t been a whole lot going on,” the sheriff told the grand jury. “They were looking for something to do.”

Snodgrass’ attorneys said there was no evidence of reckless behavior, but rather a policy disagreement.

McKinley and district attorney Carpenter didn’t immediately return a request for comment. Neither did Snodgrass’ attorneys. But during Snodgrass’ 2022 arrest, the sheriff told the federal employee that the arrest wasn’t personal and said he was a “huge supporter” of the Forest Service.

“I can’t look sideways on something that’s criminal just because we get along and we’re working agencies,” McKinley told Snodgrass in 2022. “My job requires me to hold up the law despite who it was. If you were my mother doing something criminal, I would have to deal with it.”

Copyright 2024 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Conrad Wilson is a reporter and producer covering criminal justice and legal affairs for OPB.