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City crime spills into Arizona forests

By Laurel Morales

Flagstaff, AZ – Mark Camisa is a law enforcement officer on the Coconino National Forest. On this Labor Day weekend he spends most of his Saturday cracking down on negligent all terrain vehicle riders like this one.

CAMISA: The next time I see this machine on the road, I'm going to seize. That's what's going to happen because this is the second time in 5 minutes.

ATVs, like ants, crawl all over the forest roads and trails. Some campsites have 50 to a hundred people.

CAMISA: On a busy weekend it just seems like we have mass crowds that come to the national forest. For me it seems like a free for all a Mad Max.

Camisa says people traveling on Interstates 40 and 17 often stop in the forest to take a break or to commit a crime. Forest officials say lately they're seeing seemingly petty crimes turn into more serious crimes. Crimes like methamphetamine use, car burglaries, vandalism and domestic violence. National Forest spokesman Jim Payne says so-called urban crime has spread into the forests all over Arizona. He says part of the problem is population growth in Phoenix, Tucson and Flagstaff.

PAYNE: They go out on the national forests or the adjacent public lands to recreate. That just puts more people out. Then you have more potential for both criminal activity and accidents and all kinds of things to occur on public land.

But forest officials say they don't have enough officers to deal with the criminal activity. Recent budget cuts have forced forests across the country to slash jobs. In an effort to consolidate a few jobs in northern Arizona patrol supervisor John Nelson was put in charge of three different forests - the Prescott, Kaibab and Coconino National Forests. That's 4.5 million acres.

NELSON: We are understaffed probably in most national forests in northern Arizona that we cannot respond to every incident. And sometimes we have to prioritize to only respond to the most serious incidents because of the lack of officers we have.

Nelson has a total of eight law enforcement officers covering all three forests. Nelson says when someone takes a day off or helps another forest fight a fire, they're left even more short handed.

That's why Jim Payne says on forests like the Kaibab the number of reported incidents has actually gone down.

PAYNE: One of the reasons those numbers are down is we have law enforcement officers responsible for hundreds of thousands of acres unfortunately because of budget constraints budget being spread thin they're not being able to provide the coverage they used to do.

Forest officials say that's where other agencies come in. The Yavapai County Sheriff's Office worked with the forest to investigate the latest pot farm found in the Prescott National Forest. Scott Reed is a spokesman for the Yavapai County Sheriff's office. Reed says the large marijuana operations pose the biggest threat to both forest employees and the public.

REED: One of the reasons it takes us so long to go through one of these sites is because we're being very careful we're being aware of possible booby traps but if somebody innocently wandered in there like a hiker or a hunter they could find themselves in trouble and actually be very seriously hurt or even killed.

Authorities say since the country's border security has increased, Mexican marijuana cartels have moved their operations to this country's forests. A forest patrol officer once accustomed to litterbug fines and hiking advice now encounters everything a city cop sees. And unlike city police these officers work alone.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.