Urban crime hits national forests

Rangers are clashing more with drug smugglers, armed robbers, and alienated city dwellers.

Fighting fires isn't the only big problem facing Smokey the Bear these days. Urban-style violence against forest rangers is intruding more than ever into the nation's public forests.

Drug smugglers, armed robbers, and hard-partying or alienated city dwellers are setting up camp in the deep woods and clashing more with rangers, US Forest Service personnel say. What such incidents have in common is an urban grittiness, they say.

Two law-enforcement forest rangers in Lolo National Forest in western Montana last August tracked into the deep forest a man who had beaten his wife at a camping area. When cornered, the man unleashed his pit bull, which attacked the rangers, and bit one of them several times, according to a forest service report. They finally subdued the dog and arrested the man.

"It's really a microcosm of where we are with society," says Jack Gregory, a special agent who heads the Law Enforcement and Investigations Branch of the US Forest Service's southern region, which includes 13 states and Puerto Rico. "We've even had stickups in our campgrounds - these guys are doing armed robbery right there in the woods."

Many incidents, he says, relate to drugs and problems along the US border. In the West, Mexican cartels have moved into central California to grow marijuana on public lands, especially in the Sierra and the Stanislaus National Forests, he says.

When law-enforcement rangers in the Angeles National Forest in southern California entered a marijuana plantation in October, two suspects approached them. The men were ordered to surrender, and one did while the other fled. Shots were fired. In the end, authorities seized 78 kilograms of processed marijuana, shotguns and other guns.

Some violence stems from city life migrating into the woods. Domestic quarrels and altercations with intoxicated visitors on motorized vehicles aren't unusual anymore, according to forest service reports.

Over the past decade, violent incidents involving forest service personnel have increased – but just how much is in dispute due to varying data. The number of cases logged by forest service law- enforcement officers rose 9 percent from 431 cases in 1995 to 477 last year, according to just released US Forest Service data.

But these data differ significantly from other forest service data on violence collected for years by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a Washington advocacy group. Citing PEER's data, The New York Times reported last month that 34 incidents took place in 1995, rising to 477 in 2005 – a 13-fold leap.

The Forest Service in Washington says there never was a huge leap in incidents, adding that those incidents categorized as "serious" and "less serious" have actually declined. There is an increase in total incidents over a decade, though not a huge leap, when a third category of "other" incidents is added, officials say.

"Law-enforcement issues are always serious, and we're not trying to understate that, but the figures pretty much speak for themselves," says Christie Achenbach, a forest service spokeswoman. "The job's a dangerous job, and we don't want to minimize that."

The US Forest Service has fewer officers and smaller budgets than it used to, which may explain why Mr. Gregory and other officers say the action in the woods has intensified for them even though the rise in incidents may be more gradual.

The number of forest-service law-enforcement officers has dropped by one-third since 1993 as a result of a "steady decline," PEER reported recently. Today there are 660 forest service law-enforcement officers – one officer for every 291,000 acres of US forest service land and for every 733,000 visitors each year, according to PEER.

Forest service personnel are also stretched thinner than the law- enforcement staffs in the National Park Service or Bureau of Land Management. To police its 193 million acres, the US Forest Service in 2004 devoted 2 percent of its budget to law enforcement. In comparison, the National Park Service allotted 6 percent.

"They do an incredible job with the little resources they have," says Karen Schambach, PEER's California director. "Their budgets are so miserly that they can't begin to properly manage the public lands, maintain the environment and the public safety."

If Congress allocates the $12 million forest service budget increase that the Bush administration is seeking, it would be a significant boost for law enforcement, Gregory says.

"Believe me it would really help to put maybe six to eight more officers in places we really need them," he says.

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