HARD FEELINGS: An internal review of a Forest Service crackdown at the Taos Ski Valley calls for better coordination between the agency and ski valley officials but a former governor of New Mexico says the report doesn’t go nearly far enough.
By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE – Former Gov. Gary Johnson says he’s “still mad as hell” upon reading an internal review of a crackdown conducted back in February by armed officers of the U.S. Forest Service at the Taos Ski Valley.
“Nothing has been resolved by this,” said Johnson, an avid skier and harsh critic of the operation that featured four Forest Service agents in bullet-proof vests and a drug-sniffing dog.
“The upshot from this review is, (the Forest Service) is going to do this again. And if these things are going happen again, somebody’s going to get hurt. It’s either going to be the person they confront or vice-versa … I really thought they were going to come up with a policy change,” Johnson said in a telephone interview.
The review found the operation was justified, although the agency promises to coordinate with the ski resort and local police “in the future to more effectively and efficiently work through employee and public concerns.”
In addition, a Forest Service supervisor will have to OK future “saturation patrols.”
“They’ll coordinate with me,” Aban Lucero, Forest Service Regional Patrol Commander, told New Mexico Watchdog. “If I feel it’s warranted, we’ll go ahead and proceed.”
The Forest Service officers descended on the ski resort on Feb. 22, saying they were working on tips about possible drug deals, as well as reckless and drunk driving. The searches didn’t yield much — citations and warnings were issued for violations ranging from “possession amounts” of marijuana to cracked windshields — but angered a number of patrons who said the operation was heavy-handed. Several people accused the officers of being rude.
In the immediate aftermath of the sweep, Johnson went so far as to call them “jack-booted thugs.”
In response, an “after-action review,” conducted by four Forest Service officials, was ordered.
The report recommended the Forest Service set up a meeting with officials at the ski resort, local law enforcement, Taos businesses and the community to “work together on potential solutions to reduce criminal activity.”
But, at the same time, the review stressed that “Forest Service, state and local law enforcement agencies retain full authority to inspect, investigate and enforce all regulations and laws upon public lands.”
Portions of the Taos Ski Valley sit on U.S. Forest Service land, and the resort has worked as partners with the Forest Service since it was founded in 1954.
According to the review, six officers were supposed to take part in the sweep but two Forest Service officers pulled out, citing “higher priority assignments.” If the two officers had been there, they would have been “patrolling the mountain on skis, looking for violations of distribution, possession, and use of illegal drugs.”
“MAD AS HELL”: Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson says a patrol of the Taos Ski Valley shows the U.S. Forest Service has “too much funding.”
That nugget of information infuriated Johnson.
“If the Forest Service has enough money to send four armed officers and a drug-sniffing dog halfway across the state to spend a Saturday at a family ski area in the hope of busting a handful of folks for minor drug possession, they clearly have too much funding,” Johnson said Tuesday in a news release.
“Adding insult is the admission that their original plan was to have two more officers on skis cruising the slopes. Congress needs to take a very close look at the appropriations for not just the Forest Service, but the whole range of agencies who conduct these kinds of operations. They may have some legitimate law enforcement responsibilities related to their statutory missions, but harassing skiers, families, and employees at a relatively crime-free ski area isn’t one of them.”
As for complaints about the Forest Service officers being armed and wearing military attire, the review said the uniforms and equipment were standard and noted that the drug-sniffing dog was muzzled.
Regarding accusations that the officers were rude, the review did not come to a conclusion, saying only the use of “personal video recording devices by officers would have assisted the Forest Service in responding appropriately to complaints.”
“The officers were clearly within their authority,” Lucero said. “However, we have communicated and expressed … that in future saturation patrols, we need to coordinate within our internal and external partners.”
The report did not discuss whether Forest Service officials should defer investigations about drug activity to other federal entities, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration.
“U.S. Forest Service land is our primary responsibility, it’s not the DEA’s,” Special Agent Robin Poague told New Mexico Watchdog in March.
There has been speculation the drug sweep came in response to reports of a quota system on the part of forest service administrators, but Poague said that wasn’t the case and the review made no mention of it.
Johnson said the saturation patrol was an example of government overreach.
“Better coordination and public relations does not make an abuse of power any less abusive,” Johnson said. “It is difficult to believe that, in granting federal agencies such as the Forest Service some degree of law enforcement authority, Congress envisioned armed officers conducting drug sweeps in parking lots and busting people for cracked windshields.”
“I think the key to the lessons learned is, we have a need for frequent and positive communications, coordination and relationship-building efforts between us and the local community businesses and organizations,” Lucero said, adding, “I think we’ll have better results.”
Here’s the entire 11-page after-action review:
Forest Service After-Action Review of Taos Ski Valley Saturation Patrol
Contact Rob Nikolewski at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski