Monday, August 01, 2016

Friction in the forest

For four miles on a winding two-lane highway through New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, U.S. Forest Service patrol officer Christopher Mandrick contends that he was dogged by a brown Ford truck tailgating his marked law enforcement vehicle. All he could see was the front grille in his rear view mirror until the truck passed him and another car on a blind curve in a no-passing lane on U.S. Highway 180, south of Luna, Mandrick recently testified. He flipped on his siren and flashing lights that wet January afternoon. It took another one and a half miles, he testified, before the driver pulled over – right next to a Catron County sheriff’s deputy parked on the opposite shoulder of the road. “You don’t have any authority to pull me over,” Mandrick quoted the driver as saying when he approached and asked for his identification. Friction between the Forest Service and residents in mostly rural New Mexico counties is nothing new, especially in Catron County in southwest New Mexico. But the traffic stop by officer Mandrick in January 2015 – and the ensuing 18-month legal battle that ended this month – arose at a time when some say there is more hostility than ever toward the federal government in the West. The law enforcement arm of the Forest Service is under attack in Congress and its law enforcement presence in New Mexico is shrinking due to budget cuts. Since 2011, the number of law enforcement officers assigned to protect natural resources and investigate crimes on the more than 8.3 million acres of national forest in New Mexico has been cut by nearly 39 percent. The force of uniformed, armed patrol officers has gone from 15 to 9. The number of criminal investigators, who handle the more complex investigations of illegal tree-cutting and other crimes, is down to two from three. Meanwhile, the ability of federal forest law enforcement officers to enforce state crimes through cross-commissioning by New Mexico sheriffs has been dramatically curtailed – in part because of a New Mexico Supreme Court ruling last year. When civil actions are filed, counties are now potentially liable for other agencies acting under sheriffs’ commissions. Only Bernalillo County and Sandoval County commission Forest Service officers to make arrests under state law...more

An excellent article on a timely subject. Not mentioned, though, is the federal law governing this issue. Section 303 of FLPMA (Federal Land Policy & Management Act) states:

"When the Secretary determines that assistance is necessary in enforcing Federal laws and regulations relating to the public lands or their resources he shall offer a contract to appropriate local officials having law enforcement authority within their respective jurisdictions with the view of achieving maximum feasible reliance upon local law enforcement officials in enforcing such laws and regulations." and "While exercising the powers and authorities provided by such contract pursuant to this section, such law enforcement officials and their agents shall have all the immunities of Federal law enforcement officials."

Congress contemplated that the feds rely to the "maximum feasible" extent on local law enforcement officials to enforce both federal and state law.

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