WASHINGTON, DC, May 15, 2017 – There are now fewer law enforcement officers and special agents patrolling our national forests than ever recorded. At the same time, assaults on and threats against U.S. Forest Service employees increased by nearly a third in the past year, according to official data released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
“More people are discovering our national forests but they increasingly visit them at their own risk,” stated PEER Advocacy Director Kirsten Stade, pointing out that in addition to understaffing, officers cite a growing lack of training, equipment and organizational support. “On the ground, Forest Service officers and agents see a disinvestment in both resource and visitor protection.”
U.S. Forest Service law enforcement is responsible for protecting the safety of both visitors and staff. It also is charged with safeguarding forest resources on matters ranging from off-road vehicle violations to crimes involving wildland fires, artifact looting, commercial timber theft and illegal mining. In addition, national forests are beset by a growing network of criminal drug gangs trafficking on 72 national forests in 21 states, with an estimated 80% of marijuana on federal public lands grown on national forest lands.
Forest Service law enforcement resources to respond to these challenges have shrunken, however:
- Overall, the force of Forest Service law enforcement officers and agents has dropped by one-sixth since 2010 (from 635 to 526) and the number of special agents has fallen by more than a fifth (from 115 to 89) in the same period. The Forest Service stated that it does “not have the data for previous years” in response to a PEER Freedom of Information Act request; and
- As of this fall, the Forest Service determined that its “optimal personnel” level would be 666 positions, given its budget, but at the moment it is still 78 positions short of that goal.
Compounding law enforcement shortfalls is a sharp upturn in reported threats and assaults against Forest Service staff and facilities. Reported incidents rose from 155 to 204 during 2016, a more than 30% jump from the prior year. In 2016, the Forest Service recorded more than six times the number of such incidents as the other three main federal land management agencies (BLM, Park Service and Fish & Wildlife Service) combined. In contrast to the jump in Forest Service incidents, the other agencies reported decreases or little change during the past year.
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“From what employees tell us even these figures underreport what is really going on out in the field,” added Stade, whose organization has been tracking threats against federal resource employees since 1995, noting current legislation to abolish both the Forest Service and BLM law enforcement programs and turn those responsibilities over to local sheriffs. “Local sheriffs cannot protect the federal lands, resources and wildlife and they certainly have no means or inclination to protect federal employees.”