Taser Time for America’s Public Lands

At about the same time University of Florida student Andrew Meyer was getting tasered by overly heated campus security guards during an appearance by Sen. John Kerry, TASER International Inc. announced that it had received an order from the United States Forest Service for 700 TASER (r) X26 electronic control devices and related accessories.

“We are excited about this new additional federal agency purchasing TASER technology to protect life,” said Tom Smith, Chairman and Founder of TASER international (website), a market leader in advanced electronic control devices. “Traditionally, we have focused law enforcement sales at the local and state level, but we are now seeing acceptance of TASER technology at various federal law enforcement agencies.”

“We have seen a continual marked increase in TASER technology purchases at the federal level following our initial U.S. military approval of a five-year indefinite delivery indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contract. We are proud that law enforcement within the Departments of Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Interior, and Agriculture are now relying on TASER devices to protect life.”

John C. Twiss, director of the service’s law-enforcement branch, said that after years of studying the devices, it would give its 700 officers, who police 153 national forests, “an option other than deadly force in certain law-enforcement situations.”

The order will likely be shipped between the third and fourth quarter of this year.

Is the Forest Service expecting an influx of anti-war protesters? Will the tasers be used against environmentalists protesting excessive logging? Are the animals in the wild in for some stunning surprises?

“The Forest Service will likely justify this order by saying that the forests are a dangerous place filled with marijuana growers, meth lab workers and illegal aliens,” Scott Silver, the executive director of Wild Wilderness, an Oregon-based grassroots environmental organization, said in an e-mail interview.

“I’d say that the Forest Service is simply looking to further build up its police capabilities and to be better positioned to act violently, albeit non-lethally, when it feels justified in so doing,” Silver pointed out.

An agency losing its bearings

Silver sees the TASER purchase as another indication of how the agency has lost its bearings during the Bush Administration. Over the past few years, “the Forest Service has become more of a policing agency,” Silver maintained. “It has all but written off providing the public with services and has set their recreation program on a glide-path to near total privatization.”

“It has focused so narrowly upon contracting out their fire program, and their latest effort aimed at selling ecological services such as carbon credits, that they really don’t, as an agency, have much of a function other than to oversee and police.”

As access to America’s public lands becomes more expensive for the average family, the Forest Service has “become more confrontational, putting itself in a position of excluding the public from enjoying the forests,” Silver noted. “More and more Forest Service resources are being used to patrol recreation sites and to issue tickets to those who have failed, or refused, to pay to be in the forest. Perhaps these Forest Service Law Enforcement Officers will feel better protected knowing that they can taser a disgruntled member of the public and not be forced to draw their gun on the person.”

Silver is concerned that the tasers could “increase the level of violent reaction from Forest Service personnel, giving them a tool that is less than the ‘nuclear option’; a tool that can be more easily pressed into service.”

Since the taser can be used “more easily” it is likely to be employed “in situations where a totally non-violent response would have been appropriate; precisely the way that the University of Florida police attacked and tasered student Andrew Meyer.”

While the leadership of the Forest Service has willingly submitted to the Bush Administration’s privatization/motorization policies, career Forest Service employees are deeply concerned about the direction stewardship of our national parks is going.

“Forest Service employees are confused about the future direction of the agency, upset with the increased emphasis on firefighting and have a dim view of the political leadership in Washington, according to an agency survey,” Greenwire‘s Dan Berman reported in early September.

Dialogos, a Cambridge, Mass.-based consulting firm, interviewed more than 400 Forest Service employees under condition of anonymity, “and their responses were brutally blunt,” Berman reported. “The agency is experiencing confusion and drift in its central identity and direction, and ambiguity in the way it allocates power and responsibility,” the Dialogos report stated. “Together these are leading people to be both unsure of where they stand, and unsure of where the agency is heading.”

Dialogos has a $987,000 contract that runs through September 2008, said Forest Service spokeswoman Allison Stewart. “Safety is our number one priority and we’ve been having issues with that in recent years,” she said. “We thought maybe we need some external help to look at ourselves differently.”

According to Berman, “Fire-related costs now account for nearly half of the Forest Service’s annual budget, and employees said the agency spends more time and resources related to wildfires than managing forests. They described firefighting as a burden and said it is unfair the Forest Service has to fight fires for other federal and state agencies.”

“Individuals that raise difficult issues can be accused of being negative and subsequently feel their input is not welcome,” Dialogos wrote. “They may even get ejected from the system. Employees do not feel safe to speak up in such a climate, adding to the perception of suppression.”

Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell — who, unlike the heads of most other land-management agencies, did not need Senate confirmation and serves at the pleasure of the administration — said the Dialogos report “is not easy for most of us to hear” but urged senior officials to distribute and discuss the findings in a June memo.

“Perhaps most painfully, our can-do mindset is diluting our effectiveness, overtaxing our workforce and resources, and contributing directly to fatalities and injuries,” Kimbell, the first woman to head the Forest Service, wrote. “Every time we say ‘that rule does not apply to me,’ we are exacerbating operational challenges that put our coworkers and the Forest Service itself at risk. As Einstein once noted, ‘Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.’ Our culture creates the results we get; we cannot expect different results until we do the hard work to change it.”

Gail Kimbell

On February 1, a few days before Kimbell officially took over as Chief of the Forest Service, PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) cited documents from PEER and GAP (the Government Accountability Project) and charged Kimbell with being “responsible for the largest reprisal action ever undertaken against agency whistleblowers.” According to the PEER press release, Kimbell “purged 44 whistleblowers while she was Supervisor of the Bighorn National Forest in Wyoming … eight [of whom] ultimately won a $200,000 settlement with the agency in 2003, while Kimbell was promoted to Regional Forester.”

“The promotion of Abigail Kimbell sends a chilling message to the scientists, law enforcement officers and other specialists working within the Forest Service,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “Ms. Kimbell can either allay these fears by taking affirmative steps to protect honesty or she can reinforce these concerns by inaction.”

In an open letter to Kimbell written at the time of her appointment, Dick Artley, a retired Forest Service employee from the Intermountain West, pointed out that given President Bush’s lack of regard for the environment, he was “not surprised” by her “selection.”

Artley knew Kimbell at Oregon State University from 1979 to 1980 when they “were pursuing master’s degree[s] in logging engineering.” Artley wrote “I could not understand at the time why you were never able to envision a tree as anything other than several logs.”

It never occurred to you that these trees you wanted so desperately to log were part of a forest picnic site for a family…or a critical piece of wildlife habitat…or that these trees might shade a blue ribbon trout stream.

I never said anything to you at the time. I felt you might grow out of it. I thought that once you left academia and actually started walking alone in the forest, you would see the majesty of the natural world without human tinkering. I was wrong.

The open letter detailed her work after she became “the forest supervisor for the Bighorn National Forest in 1997.” According to Artley, prior to Kimbell’s arrival she “knew that in 1994 some Bighorn N.F. employees wrote a letter to their regional forester stating that the Bighorn forest supervisor had created a hostile work environment for his employees and was mismanaging the forest in several ways.”

Artley pointed out that “within a year” of her arrival Kimbell “abolish[ed] 14 positions with forest reorganization”; five of the abolished positions had been held by six of the “people who signed the letter of complaint that were still working on the Bighorn National Forest.”

While Kimbell claimed that the reductions were because of budgetary constraints, Artley maintained that her act was aimed at punishing the whistle blowers.

Over the next two years, you used the WRAPS process (Workforce Reduction and Placement System) to reassign four of the 1994 letter signers to other stations. One of these 4 people was reassigned to a position in Arkansas that he had never performed and had no prior experience in. One letter signer had his job abolished and was able to be re-employed on the Big Horn only after various members of Congress spoke on his behalf.

By the year 2000, only 2 people remained on the Bighorn who had signed the 1994 letter to the Regional Forester pointing out massive mismanagement of public land.

In an e-mail exchange, Artley told Media Transparency that “After 30 years with the USFS, I would testify under oath that their commercial timber sale program is intended to accomplish one thing: to please Republican Reps. and Senators from the west.” Artley, who has visited 200+ timber sales prepared by the USFS “both during and after logging and associated road construction, [and] of this total, I would estimate that only three or four had either benign or slightly positive effects on natural resources of the forested ecosystem. The rest had either adverse or massively negative effects on the ecosystem that might never heal.”

Dan Berman reported that “Andy Stahl, executive director of the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, said outside pressure on the agency has increased since the mid-1980s when the Reagan administration attempted to boost logging levels.”

Stahl told Berman that “Ever since, there has been a battle between the foresters and the administration of the day, as each successive administration has attempted to solve what they see as political problems, but Forest Service professionals see as technical problems.”

“There are so many reorganizations, this [safety initiative] is another one,” an employee said. “Each chief has their own — I suppose safety is Gail’s initiative.”

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. Read other articles by Bill.

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  1. hp said on November 3rd, 2007 at 11:36am #

    Opening day of deer season in Pa., there are one million men and women in the woods armed with high power weapons.
    Something to think about?