The law of the land 

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Users of our federal public lands — such as nearby Pike National Forest — understand that, to a certain degree, they're on their own while in the great outdoors.

But there's an exception: In the event of criminal activity, capable and well-trained federal law enforcement personnel will handle the problem. For example, when hikers complained about target shooters too close to popular Mount Herman, U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officers worked to ban shooting in that area, making hiking safer.

When the Waldo Canyon and Hayman fires occurred, Forest Service officers brought in their specialized training, expertise and resources to investigate the fires. Much as it is in our cities and counties, law enforcement on our federal public lands is a vital, necessary function of government.

A bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives could change that. House Resolution 622, introduced on Jan. 24 by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, seeks to "... terminate the law enforcement functions of the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management and to provide block grants to States for the enforcement of Federal law on Federal land under the jurisdiction of these agencies, and for other purposes."

A press release by Chaffetz's office says the bill "... establishes a formula to reimburse local law enforcement based on the percentage of public land in each state," but it doesn't reveal the details of the formula, or how the grants would be used.

The press release quotes Chaffetz as saying, "It's time to get rid of the BLM and U.S. Forest Service police. If there is a problem your local sheriff is the first and best line of defense. By restoring local control in law enforcement, we enable federal agencies and county sheriffs to each focus on their respective core missions." The statement appears to focus on the first responder functions of USFS and BLM law enforcement, and not on long-term investigations or routine duties. Attempts to contact Chaffetz to obtain more information were unsuccessful, and news reporting on the bill's history reveals the congressman may have an ax to grind with the USFS and BLM.

No one knows how far this bill will progress, but the implications to users of Pike National Forest may be significant. As I noted in the Independent over the summer ("Our public lands, used and abused," Cover story, June 29), law enforcement in Pike National Forest is already thin, and there is no guarantee that local law enforcement agencies could adequately pick up the additional responsibilities. Even if they were willing to take on those duties, the job of protecting federal land isn't much like traditional law enforcement. (The U.S. Forest Service regional office declined comment for this story saying they won't speak about pending legislation.)

Federal law officers receive specialized training for their agencies. City, county and state law enforcement agencies focus on responding to car wrecks, burglaries, chasing speeders or other crimes. While the USFS and BLM do much of the same, they are responsible for much more, such as enforcing federal laws and regulations, something that local agencies are not trained in. Additionally, both agencies have investigators that work on cases of theft, misuse of lands and other crimes. There is no indication of whether this bill would provide training for local agencies for these functions.

The El Paso County Sheriff's Office has been contracted by the Forest Service in the past to provide "extra duty" patrols in the nearby Pike National Forest, according to Janet Huffor, the chief of staff for the Sheriff's Office. According to Huffor, the EPSO will provide patrols when contracted, but the initial responder for calls for service in the forest still rests with USFS Law Enforcement. However, as with any other neighboring agency, the EPSO does respond to any calls for assistance by the USFS.

Although the EPSO is taking a "wait and see" position on HR 622, the bill's proposal to fund local law enforcement to assume these duties via grants is a concern. According to Huffor, it's impossible to fund ongoing expenses with money that may be available one year, but not the next, because of the need to hire people to take on the extra responsibility. What happens if, at some point, politicians decide to do away with the block grants?

This ill-conceived proposal could turn our much-beloved federal lands into a modern day Wild West.

To comment on HR 622, contact Rep. Jason Chaffetz at 202/225-7751.

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