By Thomas Cribbins
Thomas Cribbins is a junior at the University of Michigan studying political science.
The terms “national forest” and “national park,” usually evoke pleasant summer memories or, at the very least, a postcard-worthy image. That’s how the overwhelming majority of us think about public lands. For a select few, however, they provide an impenetrable haven from law enforcement in which to perpetrate crime. That is why the federal government employs specialized law enforcement officers to protect these unique lands. However, the U.S. House’s Local Enforcement for Local Lands Act of 2016 jeopardizes all federal policing of Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands. This is a terrible, terrible idea.
The bill, if passed, would completely eliminate the law enforcement divisions of the USFS and BLM agencies. The gap in spending would then be allocated to the states or directly to the local government specifically for law enforcement of federal lands. The money would be allocated based on the percentage of all federal land contained in that state or locality, with an exception for highly visited areas. I at least applaud that small, plastic policy exception. The federal government also retains the right to investigate crimes on its own lands. Other than that, there must be reporting of how the grant money was spent. 
While the Utah coalition of representatives deserves credit for drafting a comparatively clear and straightforward bill, this is a grave mistake waiting to happen. Luckily, it looks like the bill had more or less died in committee; however, this issue demands attention. We need natural resources law enforcement officers. Vast tracts of public land are entirely different from traditional policing: different challenges, different people and different deviants. Even if the differences are overcome, public lands demand special focus. It would be an immediately regrettable folly to dilute law enforcement on public lands.
In recent years, the complexion of crime on public lands has changed and intensified. “Urban” crime has seeped out onto our rural public lands. In 2014, there were 387 violent crimes handled by three U.S. Department of the Interior law enforcement agencies. The three agencies are the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management. The Bureau of Indian Affairs also falls under the Department of Interior umbrella; however, I left their statistics out so the numbers were not artificially ballooned. The 387 violent crimes between these 3 agencies consisted of 24 murders, 87 rapes, 64 robberies and 211 aggravated assaults. Beyond the violent crimes: 675 burglaries and 78 arsons.  There were also thousands of cases of vandalism, larceny and other nonviolent crimes, but there is no doubt a lot of crime on federal lands, and these numbers don’t even include the U.S. Forest Service, which has 192.9 million acres under its jurisdiction. 
Beyond just the staggering numbers of crime on public lands, a survey of U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officers revealed that 46% of U.S. Forest Service officers have noticed a significant increase in methamphetamine labs on National Forests. 47% cite an increase in the theft of both personal and public property. 67% say that criminal damage has increased and perhaps the most curious, 48% of U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officers say indiscriminate shooting has significantly and noticeably increased. In fact, one study even found that from 1989 to 1992, crime on the National Forests increased 100%.  So certainly crime is increasing on National Forests as well.
In turn, the danger of policing these lands has also intensified. Among the 3 DOI law enforcement agencies, 57 officers were assaulted in 2014 alone.  In 2012, 1 National Park Service Ranger was even killed in the line of duty.  Surely, these officers didn’t join a land management agency to put their lives in imminent danger.
So if the number dump above has lost you on my point, let me clarify: our public lands in the United States need law enforcement, more specifically specialized law enforcement that understands the unique needs of the unique setting. The intrinsic crimes of public land demand not only unique policing, but special attention. Burdening local police with a huge increase in jurisdiction and work load will only spread thin what has already been watered down. Natural resources law enforcement officers at the federal and state levels across the country receive copious training in how to care for the lands they protect. All of those officers have dedicated, and sometimes lost, their lives protecting these places. We should thank these officers for the often overlooked job they perform and let them know we are cognizant of the sacrifice they make.
 "H.R. 4751." U.S. House of Representatives. March 3, 2016. Accessed June 20, 2016. http://chaffetz.house.gov/sites/chaffetz.house.gov/files/blm & forest service law bill.pdf.
 "Offenses Known to Federal Law Enforcement-DOI Agencies." FBI UCR 2014. Accessed July 8, 2016. https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2014/crime-in-the-u.s.-2014/additional-reports/federal-crime-data/federal-crime-data.pdf.
 "Federal Land Ownership: Overview and Data." Congressional Research Service. December 29, 2014. Accessed July 8, 2016. Federal Land Ownership: Overview and Data.
 "Forest Service Law Enforcement Officer Report: Nationwide Study." United States Forest Service. August 2007. Accessed July 8, 2016. http://www.fs.fed.us/psw/publications/documents/psw_rp252/psw_rp252.pdf.
 "2014 LEOs Killed & Assaulted-Department of the Interior." FBI. 2015. Accessed July 06, 2016. https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/leoka/2014/federal-officers-killed-and-assaulted/federal-agency-subtopic-pages/interior_-2014.
 "2014 Federal Officers Killed and Assaulted." FBI. 2015. Accessed July 06, 2016. https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/leoka/2014/federal-officers-killed-and-assaulted.
Photo Credit: Flickr User Allan Urban
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