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Forest Service Hopes For Understanding With Militia

Associated Press

Sometime this summer, before helicopters begin patrolling the dense forests of western Montana, U.S. Forest Service officials hope to sit down with local militia leaders.

They want to explain that the flyovers are aimed at spotting forest fires - not to harass innocent Americans.

Militia members have voiced misgivings about low-flying aircraft, and Militia of Montana leader John Trochmann has theorized that foreign troops might one day invade his territory disguised as firefighters.

Against that background, pilots might simply steer clear of militia hot spots on private property this summer, said Chuck Brooks, operations staff officer for the Kootenai National Forest.

“We’d rather burn up an extra acre of trees than get in a situation where someone gets hurt,” Brooks told the Great Falls Tribune.

After last month’s bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City, anxious Forest Service employees have begun locking their back doors, traveling in pairs and taking pains to check in with superiors at the end of the day.

“There’s heightened awareness throughout the Forest Service of anything that could have an impact on employee safety or the safety of the public,” said Alan Polk, a spokesman at Forest Service headquarters in Washington, D.C.

For veterans like Bob Muechel, who joined the agency in 1960, it is hard to accept the idea that working for the Forest Service could, in and of itself, be hazardous.

“We were thought of as the good people, the helpful people,” said Muechel, program officer for the Lolo National Forest.

Tom Wagner, the Darby district ranger in the Bitterroot National Forest, has found himself fielding all sorts of hairsplitting questions from anti-government types.

“I’ve had militia members in here asking me if I believed in the Constitution and did I take an oath of office,” Wagner said. “I tell them my job is not to interpret the Constitution, but to enforce the law Congress passes. They’re not satisfied with the answer, but I haven’t had any personal attacks.”

Still, he worries the militiamen may mistake federal employees as part of “some large government plot.”

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