WASHINGTON - June 26 - Attacks and threats against U.S. Forest Service employees reached an all-time record in 2005, according to a compilation of agency incident reports released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Even as the level of violence grows, the Forest Service continues to reduce its law enforcement staff.
In 2005, the Forest Service experienced 477 assaults, threats or attacks on its personnel or facilities, more than five times the total for 2004 (88 incidents) and greater than the totals for the previous seven years combined. Violent altercations with off-road vehicle (ORV) operators, drug dealers and intoxicated campers appear to propel the skyrocketing number of incidents.
“Due to the spiraling use of all-terrain vehicles and a road network that has grown to more than 350,000 miles, people and all their problems are penetrating deeper and deeper into what were previously peaceful and pristine forests,” stated California PEER Director Karen Schambach, whose organization obtained the assault records through the Freedom of Information Act. “The toll of violent incidents occurring in our National Forests looks like a slow motion riot.”
The number of violent incidents reported by the Forest Service also dwarfs numbers reported in previous years by all other federal resource agencies during the past decade. PEER maintains the nation’s only database of incidents against federal resource employees.
At the same time, Forest Service law enforcement staffing has continued a steady decline, losing nearly one-third of its total patrol force since 1993. Today, the Forest Service law enforcement program has a total of 660 rangers, investigators and special agents – this translates into one position for every 291,000 acres of forestland and for every 733,000 annual visitors.
Despite a rising tide of incidents, the Forest Service spends less than 2% of its total budget on law enforcement, a percentage far lower than other federal land management agencies, such as the National Park Service or the Bureau of Land Management.
Besides Homeland Security and border issues, ORV management is one of the biggest unfunded challenges facing the Forest Service.
“Law Enforcement Officers and other Forest Service employees all have ORV horror stories; while most ORVers are law-abiding, too many others are tearing up the backcountry in violation of forest trail rules,” Schambach added. “The Forest Service obviously does not have the resources to protect its own people let alone the natural and cultural resources that the American people have entrusted to its care.”