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Internal review coming next week in controversial Taos Ski Valley drug sweep

By   /   March 13, 2014  /   8 Comments

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.

OVER THE TOP?: A drug sweep of the Taos Ski Valley resort by armed U.S. Forest Service officers has prompted an internal investigation.

OVER THE TOP?: A drug sweep of the Taos Ski Valley resort by armed U.S. Forest Service officers has prompted an internal investigation.

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.”

Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson

Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson

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 rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

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Rob Nikolewski is an investigative reporter for Watchdog.org based in Santa Fe, N.M. Contact him at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @NMWatchdog.

  • Elisheva Levin

    I think Poague has not yet gotten the memo that the militarization of the police, and now apparently Ranger Rick, too, has opened the many peoples eyes to the abuses inerent in spending our money to tell us how to live our lives. Just as it did during the 1920’s, prohibition tends to create a police state that feels comfortable and even righteous about violating the constitutionally protected rights of citizens.

  • asantafeskiier

    Thank you Mr. Nikolewski for the great coverage. Would it be possible to include in any follow-up what is also happening at Ski Santa Fe? These officers, wearing green flak jackets+ carrying pistols, have been tormenting people in the parking lots for the whole season so far, weekends typically.

    The officers have issued similar tickets, towed vehicles, and generally intimidate (especially children) everyone with their presence. My relatives visiting from California were shocked after witnessing this activity, and vowed never to return to NM afterwards saying “that was really scary” We now are planning on Wyoming next winter as a result for our annual family gathering on skis.

    This behavior by NM paramilitary forest service police is ridiculous, it must stop immediately.

  • Allen Cogbill

    Mr. Poague states that “the officers were up their doing their job”. If that’s the case, then it seems that a solution to these outrageous actions by the Forest Service thugs is simple: eliminate their jobs. It will save money, make skiers safer, and everyone will be happier, save for the Forest Service bureaucrats.

  • Bloody38al

    Give Barney Fife a bullet and even Andy can’t keep him from firing a shot! Taking the bullet (or his job) away is the only answer. Vote Libertarian Party!

  • Mitch Stillman

    I was going to ski Taos Sat – ill drive to Colorado instead now!

  • ryan campbell

    In a year where we have both a tremendous budget deficit AND soldiers lacking adequate flak jackets, the solution is obvious:

    1) Cut the forestry service federal armament budget – they probably csuhht few poachers & stopped zero forest fires on these weekend jaunts.

    2) Reallocate highly trained drug sniffing dogs to the borders or airports (can they really smell ecstasy taken by a skier?? Wow, that’s serious training)

    3) Reallocate already purchased flak jackets to those (still) on the actual frontblines, taking fire in locations they were supposed to be pulled out of several years ago.

  • http://rclaytonlindsey@yahoo.com Ron Lindsey

    So where does the Brown Shirts start? I’m not suprised that they (supervisors) protect their own- that’s why we have state and federal laws for oversight.

  • http://watchdog.org Bob Baker

    Remove the “National” from the Forest Service. Decentralize the federal land management groups (Forest Service, BLM, etc) and move those lands and responsibilities into the offices of each state’s govenors.

    Allow the state govenor to decide how best to manage and control these lands, not the central planning from WA DC.

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