Ski area pot patrol puts Forest Service under scrutiny
SNOWMASS VILLAGE – The efforts of two U.S. Forest Service officers to bust an alleged pot smoker on a Snowmass chairlift recently was an isolated incident but one that creates image issues for the agency, the top official in the White River National Forest said Friday.
Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said the data shows that the agency’s law enforcement officers, or LEOs, aren’t regularly targeting pot smokers on chairlifts. There are three LEOs for the entire 2.5 million acre White River National Forest. The officers visited the four ski areas operated by the Aspen Skiing Co. a total of six times all last season, Fitzwilliams said.
“It’s not a major focus of what we do,” Fitzwilliams said of pot smoker patrol. “Clearly we’re not all that concerned.”
On the other hand, the agency cannot condone a person getting stoned, then skiing, potentially, at a high rate of speed on crowded slopes, Fitzwilliams added. Skiers and riders have an obligation under the Skier Safety Act not to be inhibited by drugs or alcohol.
Even though the data shows LEOs don’t spend a lot of time on the slopes, an incident in late December has influenced public perceptions, Fitzwilliams conceded. Two LEOs in uniform were skiing at Snowmass while on patrol of an unknown origin. They suspected a passenger of the Big Burn chairlift was smoking pot. They questioned and searched the person at the top of the lift, but didn’t issue a citation.
Fitzwilliams, who took over the top post in the White River National Forest last fall, said he has received a “number” of comments from residents of the communities around the forest about the LEOs’ activities, especially citations for marijuana possession.
“I’ve been asked by several people, ‘Don’t you have bigger fish to fry?'” Fitzwilliams said.
His opinion is that the forest needs additional law enforcement officers to focus on issues such as illegal trespass into Wilderness lands with motorized vehicles and illegal camping. Convincing the public of that need in light of the Snowmass incident will be tougher, he acknowledged.
The Snowmass incident was reported to Skico Vice President of Operations Rich Burkley shortly after it happened, according to Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle. Burkley raised concerns at the first opportunity to Jim Stark, winter sports administrator for the Aspen Ranger District of the Forest Service. Stark regularly works with the Skico on review of various projects and issues.
Hanle said the Skico wanted to know more about the Forest Service’s intentions on patrolling for pot smokers.
“We just want to make sure anything being done isn’t an inconvenience to our law-abiding guests,” he said.
Stark passed the complaint to Fitzwilliams, and he has arranged meetings to discuss coordination and protocol with the law enforcement division. Fitzwilliams said the law enforcement branch is autonomous and not under his supervision.
Fitzwilliams said his staff was unaware that the two LEOs were patrolling on Snowmass on the day of the incident.
“That’s part of the problem,” he said.
He wants better coordination and communication between his staff and the LEOs and he wants to discuss the customer service aspects of the Forest Service’s duties. Once those internal meetings are held, Fitzwilliams intends to meet with Skico representatives.
“I called [Skico President and CEO] Mike Kaplan and told him we’re going to look into the concerns they have,” Fitzwilliams said.
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