By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE — The popular image of the friendly forest ranger has taken a major hit after a drug sweep at the Taos Ski Valley angered skiers at the popular resort and infuriated a former governor of New Mexico.
Now the special agent in charge of U.S. Forest Service’s Southwestern Region tells New Mexico Watchdog an “after-action review” will be conducted next week in the wake of the operation in which four officers carrying side arms, wearing flak jackets and accompanied by one drug-sniffing dog descended on the ski resort Feb. 22.
According to reports, the officers conducted a patrol of the resort’s parking lot and surrounding roads that lasted a few hours. The searches didn’t yield much — citations and warnings to skiers for violations ranging from “possession amounts” of marijuana to cracked windshields were issued — but angered a number of patrons who felt the operation was heavy-handed.
“I do have concerns about the tone of the law enforcement activities up there,” special agent Robin Poague, who is based at the Forest Service office in Albuquerque, told New Mexico Watchdog.
Poague said a patrol captain is being brought in from Arizona to conduct the review next week, but didn’t say how long it will take for the findings to be released.
“The bottom line is I’m responsible for what went on,” Poague said of what was called a “saturation patrol” of the resort.
Gary Johnson, New Mexico’s governor from 1994-2002 and an avid skier who lives in Taos, is livid, calling the officers “jack-booted thugs.”
“The whole notion of an ‘action review’ is BS because they know what went down,” Johnson said in a telephone interview. “People here are 100 percent pissed off.”
The chief operating officer of the Taos Ski Vallery, Gordon Briner, was more careful with his words, saying, “The manner in which the mission was done was not done in a manner consistent with a great partnership,” referring to the long-standing agreement between the forest service and the ski resort, which partially sits on federal land.
A Taos Ski Valley employee who preferred not to be named said the officers’ attitude “was at the very least annoying, if not intimidating.”
With feelings among some Taoseños still raw, Poague said he wanted to stress three things: “One, I’m the person responsible, not the officers doing their jobs. Two, as to the people who have expressed their concerns, I hear their concerns. And three, the after-action review will look at what went right and what went wrong.”
Briner said he’s spoken with Poague and was impressed with the agent’s demeanor. But when asked if he’s confident the review will be fair, Briner said, “Let’s use the word ‘optimistic’ rather than confident.”
Johnson was much more blunt, saying, “If (Poague) says he was responsible, he deserves to lose his job.”
The former 2012 Libertarian Party presidential candidate said the Taos operation points to what he said is a disturbing trend in militarization of federal agencies since the 9/11 attacks.
“What are these guys doing wearing bullet-proof vests?” Johnson asked. “Law enforcement on the forest service is separate from Ranger Rick. It’s driven by I don’t know who but let’s find out who … Do we need Homeland Security as another layer of so-called protection? Well, we’re getting it. It’s here. In the name of (preventing) terrorism and drug enforcement, they can do it. Where is the due process?”
There has been speculation the drug sweep came in response to reports of a quota system on the part of forest service administrators, but Poague said that wasn’t the case.
“We had some previous law enforcement incidents up there,” Poague said, including DWIs and selling of Molly, a drug similar to Ecstacy.
“The officers were up their doing their job,” Poague said. “That said, we try to balance our mission with public perception. Sometime we don’t get it right. That’s why we have this after-action review.”
Asked what he’d like to see from the review, Briner said, “What I’d like to see happen is a high likelihood that such instances such as this one does not happen on forest service land — not just at Taos Ski Valley, but across the country.”
“These guys were not in a gray area. This was way, way over the line,” Johnson said, adding, “I was on the mountain (at the time of the sweep). I didn’t see any of this or I would have been in their face and I would have gotten arrested.”
Contact Rob Nikolewski at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski