Arrests down in White River National Forest
ASPEN — Arrests are down sharply in the White River National Forest because budget cuts have sometimes left a single U.S. Forest Service police officer to patrol 2.3 million acres in nine western Colorado counties.
Records obtained by the Aspen Daily News show there has been a 76 percent decline in the number of citations since 2009 for crimes ranging from illegal campfires to smoking marijuana on federal land.
The Forest Service said three of the four law enforcement positions in the national forest have been vacant for most of the past three years, but those vacancies are being filled, the Aspen Daily News reported Tuesday.
However, it takes at least a year to get new officers through the training and certification program
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Federal officials also say they were distracted by competing priorities like wildfires and wildfire mitigation.
The number of citations issued fell from 1,057 in 2009 to just 364 last year. So far, 268 citations have been issued in 2013.
Those citation numbers are expected to improve with the new hires, but not by much.
“Even when we’re fully staffed, that’s still 600,000 acres per officer,” said Dan Nielsen, the Forest Service Rocky Mountain regional commander. “It’s a huge area.”
Forest Service records show that the number of drug-related citations issued on the forest fell from 44 in 2008 down to just five in 2012.
The recent quiet period for pot enforcement in the forests around Aspen stands in stark contrast to the 2009 summer season, when campers in the Aspen area complained that Forest Service law enforcement officers were cracking down harshly on pot smokers during a busy Labor Day weekend.
White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said his officers will continue to enforce the federal prohibition on marijuana and other drugs.
“We don’t go looking for it, said Fitzwilliams. “But there are tickets written, and there will continue to be tickets written.”
Fitzwilliams said the sharp decline in drug enforcement across the forest since 2009 doesn’t reflect a change in his officers’ priorities. He said it shows the impact of a long-term staffing shortage, made worse by high turnover among Forest Service police.
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