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Locals Level Concerns Against Forest Service's Law Officers

Both Enterprise resident Ron Thies and Wallowa County Sheriff Fred Steen presented reports to the Wallowa County Board of Commissioners Monday morning that shed mountains of doubt upon the enforcement wing of the United States Forest Service.

A trifle of Internet research and it’s obvious this is a trend seen many places in the country, including Colorado and California.

Regional Patrol Commander Dan Hawkes of the USFS, who has 44 people working under him in a jurisdiction that covers most of Oregon, acknowledges the differences between federal and local law enforcement agencies and says strides are being made “to establish a basis of dialogue.”

Thies, who’d earlier been requested by the local commissioners to research the actions of USFS enforcement officers that impact county residents, said he’d found that such officers, “ … were rude and disrespectful on and off of Forest Service land.”

After introducing the fact that such complaints are becoming more and more common here and “in several other counties,” Steen reported that in January he, at a meeting attended by Wallowa County Commissioner Paul Castelleja and Hawkes, met with 24 of the state’s 36 county sheriffs at the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association gathering in Portland. A major topic of discussion, said Steen, was how the law enforcement arm of the USFS was trying to gain for its officers the same policing powers as police officers.

“This greatly disturbs the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association,” said Steen.

Steen spoke about a niche educational online program where, following two hours of study and passing a test, USFS enforcement officers would earn certification to have many of the same policing powers as police officers.

Hawkes, in a phone conversation later in the day, explained the online program Steen spoke of. He said in the early 1990s the Oregon legislature passed legislation allowing USFS officers, in some instances, to make arrests off of federal Forest Service land. He said, basically, that the two-hour course is a refresher course in regard to that authority.

“Principally, we will use our authority on Forest Service land,” Hawkes says. “And yet if we see you getting beat up in Enterprise, we can take steps without having to wait for other officers to arrive.”

Chad Nash, from the audience of Monday’s commissioners meeting, asked Sheriff Steen how much training he put in to qualify for the equivalent authority available for two hours online for such federal officers. Steen answered, “Hundreds and hundreds of hours.”

Concerns about federal USFS officers claiming more and more authority is nothing new. A champion for county sheriff concerns in Oregon is Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson, whose battles with the USFS began less than one year ago.

Gilbertson, whom Hawkes knows, was receiving many complaints about unruly behavior from USFS officers in his southwestern Oregon county – which is covered 68 percent by public lands – and determined it was his responsibility to investigate.

Instead of responding to questions he posed to the local ranger district, Gilbertson was instructed by the USFS to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. At that time, the chief law enforcement officer of Josephine County became incensed. He wrote and published fiery letters chastising the USFS for their secretive practices.

But Gilbertson didn’t end his efforts there. He now claims agencies such as the USFS are overstepping their bounds.

“Congress cannot give an agency the ability to write rules and regulations and enforce them as if they were law,” writes Gilbertson. “Congress has to do that. These agencies write their own rules and regulations as they go along and enforce these as law.”

Hawkes disagrees, claiming only recently the Oregon legislature has strengthened “our authority for enforcement on United States Forest Service land.”

On the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, says Hawkes, there currently are three USFS enforcement officers employed with a fourth soon to fill a vacancy out of La Grande. The current trio of officers is based in Enterprise, Baker City, and Clarkston, Wash., where the primary area of coverage is Hells Canyon.

During the second week of March the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association met once more, this time in Pendleton with both Steen and Hawkes in attendance.

Steen felt, at this meeting, that the USFS enforcement department indicated a willingness to back away from its apparent desire to gain more power.

Both Steen, while addressing the board of commissioners, and Hawkes, in a telephone interview with the Chieftain, urged anyone who has a complaint against a USFS enforcement officer to convey such information to the county sheriff.

The board of commissioners discussed the possibility of implementing a county ordinance that would grant the county sheriff more power when dealing with matters involving USFS personnel.




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