Anticipating an influx of visitors over the Labor Day weekend, the El Dorado County sheriff and U.S. Forest Service officials seek to assure the public that, despite recent tensions between their agencies, they are working together to ensure public safety and protect natural resources.
In June, Sheriff John D'Agostini announced that he was suspending the authority of Forest Service officers to enforce state laws in the county. A Sheriff's Office spokesman said D'Agostini had received complaints from citizens about the officers.
The suspension took effect July 22, a week before Laurence Crabtree assumed the post of forest supervisor for the Eldorado National Forest.
D'Agostini announced last week that he had met with Crabtree and Capt. Frank Aguilar of Forest Service law enforcement to get acquainted and discuss issues.
Crabtree, in a telephone interview, said he has worked in many places where peace officer authority was not granted to Forest Service officers. That was the case in Plumas County and the Plumas National Forest, where he was deputy forest supervisor before being named to his current post.
Crabtree said he respected the sheriff's right to suspend that authority, and stressed that the agencies can cooperate to protect resources and public safety.
"We are still committed to work together," Crabtree said.
In a news release issued last week, sheriff's officials noted that although D'Agostini took away Forest Service officers' ability to enforce California laws, "those officers still maintain the authority to enforce federal laws, within El Dorado County, through the federal court system."
Crabtree said there was concern among Forest Service personnel that the sheriff's action had given some people in the community the mistaken impression that Forest Service officers had no enforcement authority.
The California Penal Code states that officers of the U.S. Forest Service "have no authority to enforce California statutes without the written consent of the sheriff or chief of police in whose jurisdiction they are assigned."
Under federal law, however, Forest Service officers are authorized to enforce laws regarding fire, timber and other forest products, fish and wildlife, protection of property and disorderly conduct laws that typically pertain to property crimes and protection of natural resources.
Crabtree said the Eldorado National Forest draws far more visitors than do other forests where he's worked in which Forest Service officers were not authorized to enforce state law. Crabtree said he would like to see that authority restored in El Dorado County.
"It is the style and manner, over time, in which they enforce this (federal) authority that will be the litmus test to determine if the Forest Service will regain their authority to enforce state laws in El Dorado County," D'Agostini said in a written statement.
Crabtree said he understood that the sheriff was concerned about the demeanor and conduct of Forest Service law enforcement officers and said he would work with employees to see whether there are areas where improvement is needed.
"We like to think we're a learning culture," he said.
As for the coming holiday weekend, D'Agostini said, "More people in the national forest often means more opportunity for disputes between people and violations of state laws. My deputies will continue to respond to incidents requiring peace officers in the Eldorado National Forest."
Crabtree said the biggest concern for the Forest Service is the fire situation.
"The forests are very, very dry," he said, and the Forest Service's resources are stretched when it comes to fire response. "All of our incident command teams are committed, and people are getting worn down."
Crabtree urges people visiting the forest to be particularly cautious, and to remember that campfires are not allowed outside established campgrounds.
As forest supervisor, Crabtree said he intends to redouble efforts to make the forest more resilient and resistant to fire.
"With the changing climate, the forest is going to be under some stress," he said.
Crabtree said he is looking to focus fuel reduction and vegetation management projects in areas where they can be the most effective in stopping fire.
Call The Bee's Cathy Locke, (916) 321-5287.