It turns out that the White River National Forest over the last four years has been a relatively safe place to break the law.
A nearly four-year shortage of law enforcement officers in the nation’s most visited national forest, combined with the distraction of competing priorities like wildfire mitigation, has led to a 76 percent decline in the number of citations issued since 2009. That has meant fewer tickets written for everything from lighting an illegal campfire to smoking pot on federal property.
U.S. Forest Service records released through a Freedom of Information Act request show that the number of citations issued in the White River National Forest fell from 1,057 in 2009 to just 364 last year. So far, there have been 268 citations issued in 2013.
The main reason for the drop, according to Forest Service officials, is that three of the four law enforcement positions in the White River National Forest have been vacant for most of the last three years.
At times, that has left a single Forest Service police officer to enforce federal law on 2.3 million acres of land spanning parts of nine western Colorado counties.
“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.”
It can take at least a year to get new officers through the Forest Service training and certification process, Nielsen said, but recently all three vacant positions in the forest have finally been filled.
Still, the paucity of law enforcement in the forest in recent years has meant fewer citations for offenses like illegal camping, vehicle abandonment, and drug and alcohol possession.
The drop in drug citations is notable because drug possession — including the possession of marijuana — remains illegal on federal property, despite the legalization of pot across the rest of Colorado with the passage of Amendment 64 last year.
The Forest Service has the ability, under the same statute that it uses for marijuana, to ban alcohol consumption on federal lands, although it’s infrequently enforced.
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. There have been 13 drug citations issued on the forest through late September of this year.
Information provided by the Forest Service shows that citations issued are down since 2009, due to a lack of law enforcement officers on federal land.
That figure includes all drugs, not just marijuana. Yet a separate analysis completed by Associated Press reporter Gene Johnson and shared with the Aspen Daily News shows that the vast majority of drug citations issued on the White River National Forest are pot related.
In 2009, there were 35 pot citations issued across the entire forest, according to Johnson's analysis. In 2012, there was just one issued and none have been issued so far this year.
The lands covered by the Aspen Ranger District in particular have become an increasingly safe place to do drugs since 2008. That year, law enforcement officers in the district issued 37 drug citations, accounting for 84 percent of the tickets doled out across the entire forest that year.
In 2012, by contrast, there was just one drug citation issued in the Aspen Ranger District, along with one warning. None have been issued in 2013.
The recent quiet period for pot enforcement in the forests around Aspen stands in stark contrast to the 2009 summer season, when some campers in the Aspen area complained to this newspaper that Forest Service law enforcement officers were cracking down harshly on pot smokers during the busy Labor Day weekend.
In a recent interview, White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said his officers have continued to enforce the federal prohibition on marijuana and other drugs, even as state pot laws continue to loosen.
“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. Rather, it simply shows the impact of a long-term staffing shortage, exacerbated by high turnover among Forest Service police and a lengthy officer training process.
“Up until literally the last week or so, we were down a law enforcement officer for a long, long time in Aspen, and we didn’t have one until last week in Rifle and Meeker, and then we were down one officer on the east side,” in the Eagle region, he said.
Yet a shortage of police may not be the sole contributor to the recent decline in law enforcement activity. Some Forest Service officials say that dealing with increasingly large and dangerous wildfires also has become a time suck for law enforcement in the White River National Forest.
“Between the fire prevention patrols and the investigations into the cause and origin [of fires], those are relatively time consuming,” said Nielsen.
Many large fires, he noted, also take place during the peak summer tourist season, and officers consumed with fighting fire may have less time to enforce other federal laws.