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Summit’s federal lands going unpatrolled

Reid Williams

SUMMIT COUNTY – Most area residents know that Summit County is about 80 percent federal, public land. What they might not know is that there’s no full-time officer enforcing laws on that land.

Since last fall, the National Forest in Summit County has been without a law enforcement officer.

Tom Healy, who patrolled the White River National Forest from the Dillon Ranger District office for about 16 years, transferred to the Pike National Forest in March.

Forest Service officials said Thursday they are working to fill Healy’s post, but exactly when that will happen is hard to say.

The vacancy is presenting challenges for other law enforcement agencies, however, and as Summit County Sheriff’s Office special operations technician Joel Cochran put it, “the work Healy did will quickly unravel.”

The Forest Service’s law enforcement officer is responsible for making sure federal laws related to the land are followed. Those laws cover everything from camping regulations, use of motorized vehicles and the investigation of crimes that occur on federal land.

Officers can also indirectly reduce the number of search and rescue calls by maintaining a presence in recreation areas and talking with visitors about conditions, gear and dangers.

The Forest Service officer’s job also includes investigating wildland fires, a job growing in importance in the eyes of authorities weighing fire danger in Summit County.

“Those are the kind of things that accumulate if you’re not constantly out there,” Cochran said, referring to squatters and to cars abandoned in National Forests.

The Sheriff’s Office is frequently the first place people call when they notice such violations, not knowing it’s the Forest Service’s jurisdiction.

But after budget cutbacks from the county, the sheriff’s special operations unit is at half-staff compared to a year ago – and the sheriff’s office has no authority to enforce federal law anyway.

“It wouldn’t even be appropriate for us to tow a car out of the Forest,” Cochran said. “And with the nearest Forest Service officer being in Meeker, it’s not exactly convenient to give him a call.”

Cochran said the Sheriff’s Office still makes an initial response to document a crime or file an informational report, but without a federal officer, no further action is taken.

Robert Vaitkus is the law enforcement officer for the Blanco Ranger District of the White River National Forest in Meeker.

Vaitkus said some employees of the Dillon Ranger District office have limited law enforcement authority, and he has been checking in with the Summit County Forest Service staff once a week since Healy’s departure.

Vaitkus said he’s dealt with about six cases in Summit County this year, including an investigation of a fire on Keystone’s slopes started by an errant cigarette butt, a suspected arson case at a campground and trespassing and theft-of-resource issues.

Vaitkus said there are three law enforcement officers for the seven ranger districts of the forest, which comprises 2.25 million acres. One officer is currently in training, he added, and the vacancy at the Dillon office is being advertised on federal job Web sites.

“We are pursuing that, but obviously we have a bureaucracy to work through,” said patrol commander Brian Reilly, who manages Forest Service law enforcement in Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas from Denver. “The process timelines vary depending on how timely people submit applications, and it’s also somewhat budget-driven.”

Reilly said law enforcement vacancies are a “chronic problem” for the Forest Service and that many of the national forests are understaffed. Reilly said, fortunately, the agency gets good cooperation from local and other agencies to help protect the forests.

“But, by far, the most help on these things comes from the seasonal and permanent staff,” Vaitkus said. “These are the people who have expertise and are out there on a regular basis.”

Reid Williams can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 237, or rwilliams@summitdaily.com.


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