Ranger Danger

Are national forests becoming war zones?

In Central Arizona's Apache and Sitgreaves National Forests, sheriff's deputies battled a hammer-wielding man apparently drunk and high on mushrooms. Next door in the Coconino National Forest, a female federal officer single-handedly struggled with a drunk camper until reinforcements zapped him with a Taser gun.

Further north in Montana, rangers tracked a man far into the forest, acting on a report that he'd beaten his wife at a campground. When cornered, the suspect turned his pit bull loose on the rangers.

Closer to home, 60 miles of national forest along the Arizona-Mexico border have become a jungle of illicit trafficking, where visitors are warned of the dangers up-front--and enter at their own peril.

Much of this crime is blamed on ever-growing urban areas, which increasingly brush at the forests' fringes. Even as these once-bucolic preserves become crime-ridden enclaves, the Forest Service has seen its law-enforcement staff cut by a third since the early 1990s. Over that time, "the size of the national forests certainly hasn't gotten any smaller," says Bill Dougan, president of the Forest Service Council, a union representing about 20,000 agency employees.

"The agency is struggling to have enough law-enforcement officers on the ground to patrol a national forest, to provide resource protection as well as protection for the public," says Dougan, who is a ranger at Alaska's Tongass National Forest.

He blames the Forest Service for skewing its priorities away from law enforcement, placing the public and employees at greater risk. "This has been a budget issue in our agency for a number of years, in terms of what the agency chooses to spend its money on."

For example, he says the Forest Service "spent well over $100 million in the last four or five years doing studies on outsourcing work" now done by agency employees. "If we hadn't done that, some of that money could have been spent to provide additional law-enforcement officers out in the field, to protect resources and the public."

So just how dangerous have our forests become? In one telling batch of statistics, documents recently obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility reveal that assaults against U.S. Forest Service personnel are far more common than once thought.

Released by the Forest Service under the Freedom of Information Act, the data as reported by PEER shows that 2005 was a record-breaking year, with 477 assaults, attacks or threats against agency facilities or staff. That's more than a five-fold increase over 2004, when there were only 88 incidents, and a larger total than the seven previous years put together.

Behind those numbers, you'll find forest officers receiving more than they bargained for, says Karen Schambach, PEER's director for California. "They went in to be Smokey Bear-type law enforcement. And instead, they're dealing with heavy criminal types. Forget trying to cite somebody for illegal wood-cutting or (off-road vehicles). Those problems are low on their list of priorities."

Reduced staffing just compounds the dilemma, says Glen Pickett, special agent-in-charge for the Forest Service's Southwestern Region, which includes the Coronado National Forest. "We're at the point now where we have to triage calls. If somebody complains about noise in a campground, we don't even do that anymore. We wake up in the morning and go to work, where we already have all these messages. Then we just go from problem to problem."

According to PEER, there are now 660 law-enforcement officers in the Forest Service. That breaks down to roughly one officer for every 733,000 forest visitors--and roughly one for every 300,000 acres of Forest Service land.

Southern Arizona's Coronado National Forest has only six officers to cover 1.7 million acres.

"Right now, there are about 20 positions vacant in the region," says Special Agent Pickett. "We always hope to fill them. And then when we see our funding, we just go ahead and mark them off the list."

From an overall Southwestern Region budget of about $6.5 million, he says $4.5 million already goes to law enforcement. But that money is so tight that "a cost-of-living raise may cost me a position or two. Actually, if somebody retires, then I can't fill in after them. And that's been happening for the last several years."

This shortage hits particularly hard in Southern Arizona, where he says only three officers are assigned along the Mexican line. "We need 35 just on the border itself. We have robberies down there, bandits coming across and raping people. We're unable to fully protect visitors that come down there--we're having a difficult enough time just protecting our employees."

But Dan Jiron, a Forest Service spokesman in Washington, D.C., says the agency does its best under budgets set by the president and Congress. "I don't know a program in the Forest Service or any federal agency where, if you asked them, they'd say they had enough money. But the administration has proposed increases in law-enforcement dollars, recognizing that it is a much more dangerous working situation."

This year, President Bush has proposed a $12 million Forest Service budget increase. How much of that boost will filter down to law enforcement remains unclear. In fiscal year 2006, for example, the law-enforcement budget was just $88.7 million, out of a total agency budget of $4.2 billion.

Jiron also disputes the violence numbers presented by PEER. "In no way am I saying we don't have law-enforcement issues out there," he says, "and in no way am I saying that our law-enforcement officers don't have to deal with some very dangerous individual and situations."

However, he says the advocacy group obtained "a bunch of incidents from the database, and then totaled those all up as assaults to Forest Service employees. They lumped a whole bunch of unrelated incidents together."

But Schambach stands behind PEER's numbers--and the message they send. "The overriding issue is political will," she says, "giving the Forest Service more money so they can hire more officers. I blame Congress. But I also blame the Bush administration for putting us in such bad financial straits that we can't afford to take care of our national treasures."

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