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For the nation’s forest rangers, the serenity of the woods increasingly is giving way to confrontations with unruly visitors.
Attacks, threats and lesser altercations involving Forest Service workers reached an all-time high last year, according to government documents obtained by a public employees advocacy group. Incidents ranged from gunshots to stalking and verbal abuse.
The agency tally shows 477 such reports in 2005, compared with 88 logged a year earlier. The total in 2003 was 104; in 1995, it was 34.
Among the more serious incidents, a Forest Service worker was run down by a man in a snowmobile in California’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management area. The man pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon.
Also, Forest Service workers were shot at while trying to confiscate a marijuana plantation in California’s Angeles National Forest. Two loaded shotguns and more than 78 kilograms of processed marijuana were seized.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility obtained the documents through a Freedom of Information Act request and provided them to The Associated Press.
The nonprofit environmental advocacy group said the government’s methods for collecting the data have not changed over the years. It said some of the blame for the growing violence in the woods is due to greater access to remote lands and waterways by motorized equipment.
“Things like off-road vehicles are taking people into the backcountry to get away from all rules of civilization, and trouble appears to be ensuing,” said the group’s executive director, Jeff Ruch.
Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who oversees the Forest Service, did not disagree entirely with that assessment. He said Friday that while he had not seen the report and could not confirm its accuracy, it was true that a huge increase in the use of off-highway vehicles had likely contributed to a rise in the number of assaults.
“It doesn’t mean the policy is bad or OHV users are bad people,” he said.
Forest Service officials also put some of the blame for the growing violence on increasing border enforcement and drug-related activity. They say they suspect public lands have become more popular for marijuana gardens because of the vast remote locations patrolled only intermittently by law enforcement personnel.
Rey said, however, that the group’s 2004 report unfairly manipulated Forest Service data to make a political point and it was unfortunate the report seemed to be pitting one kind of forest user against another.
“It doesn’t assist law enforcement. It complicates it by singling one group out. That’s unfair,” Rey said. “Most of the assaults in 2004 were as a result of encounters with drunks, drug users or deranged environmental protesters.”
Don Amador, Western representative of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, an Idaho-based group that advocates motorized recreation, took umbrage at what he described as an absurd report.
“To try to lump off-roaders with drug dealers and other ne’er-do-wells is just ridiculous,” he said.
Most ATV riders are responsible and use designated trails, Amador said, adding there is no evidence that off-roaders are more violent than any other group that uses national forests.
The only increase in crime in national forests he has seen is the growing presence of pot farmers. “That’s my biggest concern. It’s a serious issue and it needs to be addressed,” Amador said.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility also warned about a steady decline in Forest Service security officers, which the group said is endangering employees and the public. Last year, the group said, there were about 660 rangers, investigators and special agents in the nation’s 155 national forests and 20 grasslands _ down by nearly one-third from 1993.
The figure translates into one position for every 291,000 acres of forest land in the 192 million acre forest system.
The Forest Service spends less than 2 percent of its total budget on law enforcement, a figure that is lower than other federal land management agencies such as the National Park Service or the Bureau of Land Management, the group said.
Rey said the Forest Service requested a $12 million increase for law enforcement in the budget year that begins Oct. 1, a recognition of the increased crime in national forests.
On the Net:
Forest Service: http://www.fs.fed.us
© 2006 The Associated Press