Officers Help Keep Forest Safe

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Just like Payson and Gila County, the Tonto National Forest has its own team of law enforcement officers.

Patrol Captain Tom Lister and Officer Dan Smith are stationed in Payson and cover a vast portion of the forest. Lister supervises the six officers who work the entire forest. Smith covers the Payson and Pleasant Valley districts.

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Capt. Tom Lister

The Tonto National Forest covers 2.9 million acres and gets 35 million visitors a year. Smith, alone, oversees two districts that total one million acres.

"It's a lot of land for one person," Smith said. "That's why it's important for us to have good relationships with local law enforcement agencies because we work together so much."

Forest Service officers work primarily on federal land, enforcing federal laws, but Gila County Sheriff John Armer made the decision to deputize the officers who work on forest that lies within the county.

"This is the only county where this has occurred," Lister said. "We are covered under the sheriff's authority so we can back up the county, enforce state laws and assist citizens and other officers. Before, we couldn't do that."

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Officer Dan Smith

"(Forest Service officers) don't have a federal statute in place that covers DUIs or disorderly conduct," Armer said. "They didn't have the ability in campgrounds, when they confronted those issues, to deal with them on a federal level -- so it was in the best interest of our citizens to give (officers) the ability to utilize the justice court. They are not doing traffic enforcement. They are just dealing with hazards they come across on the highways like DUIs."

Most of the time, the officers focus on such things as fire emergency planning and education, investigation of wildland fires, littering, underage drinking, people living illegally in the forest and marijuana eradication, Lister said.

This past October, federal officers from the Forest Service with assistance from agencies including the Gila County Narcotics Task Force and Gila County Sheriff's Office, eradicated an acre of marijuana growing near Young.

More than 19,000 plants worth between $23 and $46 million dollars were seized during operation PB Springs Garden.

"That was huge," Lister said. "I have worked here since 1991 and the biggest grow we have had on the forest since I've been here has been 1,000 plants."

Lister said the most common issue Smith deals with is people living illegally on forest lands.

"The majority of what Dan does is litter and illegal occupancy," Lister said. "We have homeless people who are trying to live in the forest -- along with that comes litter. We have statutes that say you can't use National Forest lands for residential purposes without a permit."

Smith also is called to work on fire investigations and is trained to locate the source and cause of a fire.

"We are trained to look for evidence," Smith said. "Like scorched rocks -- things that are evidence of a fire's origin."

According to Lister, a person who commits a crime on national forest land is subject to federal prosecution and state prosecution.

"The feds only take big charges," Lister said. "But it's which ever we can get the most bang for the buck as to whether we choose state or federal prosecution -- or both. Someone can be prosecuted by the feds and the state for the same crime."

Armer said he believes the Forest Service officers play an important role in making the forests a safe place for visitors and residents.

"Gila County has such a vast area of forest," Armer said. "There is a certain comfort citizens get from knowing the law enforcement officers are out there."

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