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Forest patrols an endangered species

ST. REGIS, Mont. – When accused murderer and kidnapper Joseph Duncan needed a place to hide, investigators say he found the perfect spot in the Lolo National Forest, near the Montana-Idaho border.

There, he is believed to have camped for weeks with the two children he kidnapped from a Coeur d’Alene home. One of the sites where Duncan allegedly camped – and where investigators suspect he killed one of the children – is perched on a ridge with an eagle-eye view of the Two Mile Creek Valley. Duncan could have spotted possible intruders or law officers from miles away.

Not that anybody would come looking.

The U.S. Forest Service has a special law enforcement branch charged with patrolling the region’s lonely, dark and deep backcountry, but the agency has only one local officer assigned to nearly a million acres in the St. Regis area – an area roughly the size of Spokane County. Continued budget cuts at the Forest Service threaten to gut the already small force and make national forests even more appealing haunts for those on the run.

At full staffing, 42 officers cover about 17 million acres of federal forest and grassland in North Idaho, Montana and the Dakotas. But positions are being left vacant because of budget cuts, bringing the number of officers down to 37. By next year, the total force for Montana and North Idaho could be down to 32 officers because of retirements and transfers, said J.W. Allendorf, patrol commander for the region.

“With the war on, we’re not able to fill in behind them,” Allendorf said. “Even at full staffing, we unfortunately are in the reactive mode. This is just going to increase that.”

The patrol commander for national forests in Washington, Barb Severson, did not want to reveal the number of officers in her region or the number of positions being left vacant. “I don’t want to list numbers. If I have only one officer on a national forest … then it’s going to be a clue” for those looking to hide out, Severson said.

The Inland Northwest’s forests have always been popular with campers, anglers, hunters and hikers. The isolated terrain has also appealed to those wishing to be left alone, from teenagers holding beer parties to violent sex predators and separatists; although this group represents only a tiny fraction of forest users, a series of sordid crimes in recent years have cast a cloud over the notion of national forest as a refuge from big-city problems.

In 2000, grouse hunters stumbled across a jaw bone containing silver fillings on a national forest hillside about 30 miles northwest of Coeur d’Alene. The remains were from 14-year-old Carissa Benway, who was murdered and raped by her boyfriend’s father while camping along a nearby river. Two years later, woodcutters found the body of 20-year-old Brendan Butler in a national forest campground on the east side of Hayden Lake. Butler’s throat had been cut by a rival marijuana trafficker.

Then came the July arrest of Joseph Duncan and the allegation by investigators that he had been camping out and molesting two young children in the Lolo National Forest. If that wasn’t enough, weeks after Duncan’s arrest, a manhunt was launched on national forest land near Wallace for an ex-convict, John R. Tuggle, accused of raping and stabbing his daughter while the two were camping.

“The very remoteness of the country is an attractant to those kind of people,” said Allendorf, the Forest Service’s regional patrol captain based in Missoula. “This country lends itself to somebody with those kinds of aspirations. … Many people that are on the lam, they go to national forest land. They know we have a whole lot of land and few officers.”

The Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department has a contract with the Forest Service to patrol some of the heavily used federal lands surrounding Coeur d’Alene – about two-thirds of the county is public land, Sheriff Rocky Watson said. But Watson said he has few officers to spare. His department is already well below recommended staffing levels, and the Forest Service only pays $8,400 per year to the department for its patrols. Watson also noted that the Forest Service does not pay property taxes to support local services.

“It’s a neat asset,” Watson said of the national forests, “but give me something to keep it safe. We want to provide service up there. We need to provide service up there.”

There will never be enough federal officers to fully patrol the nation’s 191 million acres of federal forest land, according to both Allendorf and Severson. But fewer officers will only make it easier for criminals to go unnoticed. Apart from reminding potential troublemakers they are not out of reach of the law, the presence of the Forest Service officers is also meant to protect agency employees and the forests themselves from crimes such as timber theft, illegal off-road use and arson.

According to a national watchdog group, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, there are at least 200 law officer positions within the Forest Service that have been left vacant because of budget cuts. The current size of the force is 660 officers, or about one for every 290,000 acres.

In North Idaho, the force is stretched more thinly, with six officers covering about 2.5 million acres of the Idaho Panhandle National Forests, said Ginger Swisher, patrol captain. Maintaining a presence on so much terrain requires creative thinking, including occasional “emphasis” patrols, where officers from across the forest will focus on cleaning up a problem spot, Swisher said.

The agency also depends heavily on the good will of legitimate forest users to report suspected criminal activity. This often means officers spend more time educating and talking to the public, Swisher said. “We’re not real ticket happy. We’re about changing behaviors.”

But Swisher also noted there will always be a need for backcountry police.

“Bad guys take vacations, too,” she said.