What’s Up With Forest Service Law Enforcement and Criminal Referrals?

This post is part of our effort to help journalists by providing expertise or links that may be difficult for them to easily find. This makes for better stories and a better informed public.

The question brought to us is “it has been documented that Forest Service law enforcement is not sending as many criminal referrals forward to the Department of Justice for prosecution since 2001, why would that be the case?” Law enforcement is one of the most important parts of the Forest Service organization, especially as lands get used more by growing populations.

I would ask if anyone has any ideas and/or evidence as to why this might be happening, please comment below.  If you don’t feel comfortable in an open forum, please email me at terraveritas at gmail.com.

From this link to the Forest Service website:

Special Agents are criminal investigators who plan and conduct investigations concerning possible violations of criminal and administrative provisions of the Forest Service and other statues (sic) under the U.S. Code. Special agents are normally plain clothes officers who carry concealed firearms, and other defensive equipment, make arrests, carry out complex criminal investigations, present cases for prosecution to U.S. Attorneys, and prepare investigative reports. Typically there is one special agent stationed in each geographic zone. All field agents are required to travel a great deal and usually maintain a case load often to fifteen ongoing criminal investigations at one time.

In addition, criminal investigators/special agents:

  • Work cooperatively with Federal, State, local and tribal law enforcement agencies
  • Conduct complex criminal and civil investigations involving Drug Trafficking Organizations, domestic terrorism and claims for or against the government
  • Conduct undercover and surveillance operations
  • Testify in court on behalf of the government

Some examples of criminal cases are:

  • Illegal outfitter and guiding
  • Theft of government property
  • Timber theft
  • Investigations of wildland fire origins
  • Manufacture and distribution of controlled substances
  • Assault of Federal employees or volunteers

Criminal investigators occasionally conduct internal and civil claim investigations.

From my own position of very little knowledge, the reasons could be a) there are fewer people in the past (harder to recruit, less funding?, b) they are collaborating with others in a different way so the prosecutions don’t go through the FS, c) wildfire investigations are using more time, d) illegal marijuana grows are using more time. A regional breakdown will be helpful in testing hypotheses, but we don’t have that yet.


1 thought on “What’s Up With Forest Service Law Enforcement and Criminal Referrals?”

  1. Thanks to a knowledgeable person who volunteered an answer:

    Why are there fewer cases going to DOJ for criminal prosecution?

    Some FS LEOs have trouble getting their cases taken by US Attorneys. Imagine that you are the State US Attorney’s office. You have cases of drug smuggling, gun running, terrorism and so on for all the federal agencies in the State, and only so many hours in the day. Someone comes to you with, say, a DUI from a national forest, or timber theft or…, and where does it go in the pile on your desk?

    Some LEO’s, In fact, have been told by the US Attorneys to “let the locals handle it.”

    This can lead to frustration, especially when they essentially have to ask favors of their local law enforcement colleagues to take the cases (essentially transferring federal work to other governments). In the last few years, there has been an increase in local deputization of federal law enforcement officers. This means that FS LEOs can bring their cases themselves into local courts. Now that this mechanism is in place, the decrease in cases brought to the US Attorney probably reflects LEOs’ tendency to take the most certain route toward getting their cases heard.

    The Forest Service could potentially do more to develop better relationships with US Attorneys. One example would be site visits to illegal marijuana grows, so they could see the environmental destruction and have a feeling for what these cases are like on the ground. Still, it seems unlikely that US Attorneys will ever feel that they have enough time to do all their work, nor that they will change their prioritization. Thus it appears that FS LEO’s have developed a workaround that has its own problems, but enables them to get their work done and their cases heard.”


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