Almost four years ago today, Chris Upton was peering through a spotting scope in the darkness for signs of illegal hunting near a popular trail in Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest.
But when a group of hunters shined their lights in the Forest Service officer's direction, they caught the reflection of his scope -- and one of them fired. Thinking he was shooting at the "bright eyes" of an animal, Norman Clinton Hale instead killed Upton, a 37-year-old father.
Several factors led to Upton's death. Hale and his companions should never have been hunting at a developed recreation site. They waited an hour before calling 911. Then they lied to police.
But Jack Gregory, who retired in 2008 as special agent in charge of Region 8, still laments the one thing that seemed within the Forest Service's control: anti-reflective scopes.
Gregory says he made numerous requests between 2002 and 2006 that the agency's Law Enforcement and Investigations, or LEI, division either buy new scopes or treat existing ones with anti-reflective coating. The cheaper option, he says, carried a price tag of $50,000.
Officials told him the money wasn't there. But during the same time period, they spent $100,000 on two drones that today sit unused in a warehouse (Greenwire, Dec. 3, 2013).
"There is not a day that goes by that I don't beat myself up over this," he wrote in a recent email to another officer. "And so, when I see money going for drones, tough books, and all the other BS that LE&I is getting (or was getting when those requests had been made) I just internally explode over it."
Gregory isn't alone in his disdain for law enforcement leadership at the Forest Service.
In interviews with Greenwire and emails among themselves, more than a dozen current and former officials -- ranging from patrol officers to an LEI assistant director -- described a dire situation where top officials micromanage and are ignorant of on-the-ground needs and realities. Setting the tone, they claim, is David Ferrell, who chills any dissent or criticism as the Forest Service's director of law enforcement and investigations.
The Forest Service denied a request to interview Ferrell and declined to provide any comment. Messages left with Ferrell's assistant were never returned. Current employees requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the press and feared retribution.
They describe an agency where each Forest Service officer patrols hundreds of thousands of acres, where supervisors sit in offices hours away from their employees and where investigators work without oversight. The discovery of a 10,000-plant marijuana field is given the same precedence as timber theft, they say, and ambitious agents are left to do long stakeouts without any relief.
"In all the investigations, the problem was manpower -- not that we didn't have it. It was just not being offered by upper management because they don't know what it takes," said Matthew Sheriff, a former patrol officer who quit last year after he was unable to transfer to a position closer to his Georgia home. "There were points where we were working 18-hour shifts on a particular investigation, and we couldn't get any help."
The Forest Service's Law Enforcement and Investigations division has long suffered from morale problems, despite employing many officers who say they love their jobs.
A 2011 internal investigation found that officers in the agency's Eastern Region thought their supervisors were vindictive and incompetent, mishandling arson, theft, assault and other crimes (Greenwire, Nov. 8, 2011). More recently, a broader survey of law enforcement officials in the Washington, D.C., office released by the government watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility found that fewer than 50 percent thought the agency was successful in doing its job. But more than 90 percent agreed that the work they do is important (Greenwire, Sept. 25, 2013).
In other words, the Forest Service has many law enforcement employees who want to do their job well but feel they can't.
Gregory said he often gets calls from officers who are unhappy. They face a daunting task, he said, patrolling large swaths of public lands that are not only prey to the normal spectrum of crimes but also host to drug trafficking organizations, or DTOs, that are planting more large-scale marijuana farms each year.
"Let's throw in rotten leadership, horrible personnel decisions and no funding, no proper funding to have the amount of people they need to protect their back," he said. "It eats you up all the time. ... It wears you down."
Into the wild
With 193 million acres to cover, LEI has a police force that is very thinly spread throughout the country. Some officers are responsible for patrolling millions of acres. Long drives in the middle of nowhere are a staple of the job.
In the field are two types of officers: uniformed officers and special agents. Officers work directly under patrol captains; special agents are under the region's assistant special agent in charge. While the former patrol the forests for illegal activity, the latter pick up cases that call for deeper investigation, such as drug cartel activity or arson.
The Forest Service established the structure in 1993, in response to concerns over officers reporting to civilian managers who had no law enforcement experience. News reports at the time quoted Forest Service investigators who said agency managers were interfering with investigations. At one point, most of the investigators on a timber task force complained of retaliation from managers who did not like their exposure of industry misconduct.
Under pressure from Congress, the Forest Service gave law enforcement its own hierarchy. LEI now acts as an independent division, with its director reporting to the Forest Service chief.
But some employees question whether LEI continues to get short shrift from the broader agency. The division mostly flies under the radar, accounting for less than 3 percent of the Forest Service's discretionary budget.
While it deals with the whole spectrum of crimes -- from arson to speeding -- the division's biggest problem is marijuana cultivation. In 2013 alone, officials discovered almost 1 million plants in national forests in California, according to a recent video from the Forest Service.
Each operation wreaks havoc on the environment, with cultivators leaving behind tents, sleeping bags, trash, and large amounts of pesticides and chemicals. Irrigation systems divert water to as many as 40,000 plants, each of which need upward of 6 gallons a day and together can suck up millions of gallons over a season.
But special agents interviewed by Greenwire say the Forest Service still isn't taking the threat seriously. Resources are rarely given for operations, they say, and investigators are left on their own to solicit help from other law enforcement agencies. What's left is an inefficient operation, they say.
One former official in the Pacific Southwest Region placed much of the blame on the Forest Service and its mother agency, the Department of Agriculture. The Forest Service, he said, needs to "take ownership" of the issue, much as the agency does for forest fires. It must provide adequate resources to LEI to fight the problem and make it difficult for drug trafficking organizations to profit, he said.
That means having enough helicopters, trucks and support personnel to raid marijuana gardens all season long, dismantling infrastructure as soon as it goes up.
"They will spend unlimited funds fighting fires and spend a pittance on marijuana eradication," he said. "As long as it is profitable for the DTOs, they will continue to grow on [national forest] land."
Indeed, the Forest Service struggles to afford fire suppression while funding other priorities. This year, firefighting will account for an estimated 40 percent of the agency's budget, according to its fiscal 2015 budget request.
This year, the agency asked Congress to cut LEI's budget by $18 million. Regions are now freezing all hiring for the foreseeable future, and at least one office is telling agents to stay at their desk for one day a week, according to a memo recently released by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (Greenwire, Feb. 19).
PEER -- which has closely followed LEI for two decades -- also contends that law enforcement officials waste the money they get on unneeded or untested equipment. In the most recent example, the division spent more than $94,000 in 2012 on 527 personal video cameras without any field testing. According to PEER, officers don't wear the cameras because they are too bulky and because they fear managers could use the videos for "gotcha" retaliation.
"Cameras have some valid law enforcement uses but LE&I has no plan, no training, no goals and no idea what it is doing with these recording devices," PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch said in a release the group put out today.
Lack of support
A leadership structure that one special agent called "highly irregular" also means officers and agents often find themselves left to their own devices.
One current special agent, who asked not to be named, said supervision and engagement with agents and officers "is totally lacking."
Supervision is too spread out, he said, and managers are "increasingly disengaged." An investigator can spend all his time on timber theft and never address the growing drug trafficking problem. Or he can give all his cases to state officials, rather than taking them to federal court for more severe penalties.
Another special agent echoed those assertions.
"We're always going to be a remote outfit, but it can be done much better than this," he said.
In an email -- provided by Gregory -- a retired official said the division has too few supervisory positions.
"Captains are spread thin and the agency will not build any supervisory position below the Captain. The Agents have far less supervision and it is often seen in their performance and stats," he wrote. "More supervisory positions are needed to improve performance and provide a career ladder for [officers]."
Officers and investigators also say the agency leaves them ill-equipped for their jobs. Special agents are posted at the Forest Service supervisor's office, often far from courts and the U.S. Attorney's Office. New employees are essentially left to figure out the job on their own, they say, with little in the way of introductions or training.
"When you have leaders, if you will -- managers -- who aren't aware, they don't understand," said a current special agent. "They can't appreciate the extent of an investigation, thus they can't advocate for you with local, state and federal counterparts."
Sheriff began at the agency as a uniformed officer in 2009, moving over from a job as a park ranger for the Army Corps of Engineers. He was excited; he had always wanted to work for the Forest Service.
But problems began almost immediately. No one introduced him to the local sheriff -- a necessity for local-federal cooperation -- so he did it himself. He did not have an office to conduct interviews or a dedicated fax machine for protected documents. His evidence locker was only 2 feet by 4 feet, leaving him unable to seize bigger items such as long guns from poachers.
Sheriff was also concerned that the agency did not practice "active prevention" such as fly-overs for marijuana cultivation, despite a 2009 investigation that revealed a large field in his area and subsequent discoveries of abandoned sites.
During one investigation, he said, the regional office declined to provide him and a special agent with additional manpower, despite the danger of performing a stakeout with only two officers against a drug trafficking organization.
"It's not like it's a petty little deal," said Sheriff, who is back in Georgia working at a slaughter house in the family business.
One of the special agents said his regional office routinely ignores "high priority emails" that ask for resources and advice on cases involving drug trafficking organizations.
Some employees have decided it's easier to only follow cases that require little to no help from higher-ups, he said. With complex cases -- such as drug trafficking -- a special agent may need a new undercover vehicle, specific equipment or more manpower. That means communicating with superiors in the regional office or even in D.C.
"The more you ask for support, the more you're going to be viewed by them as a problem," he said.
A micromanager at the top
In charge of it all is David Ferrell.
Ferrell began his career at a Job Corps Center in Virginia, working as a carpentry student while he cared for his ailing mother. The oldest of five children, he had dropped out of college to come home and take care of the family, according to an interview in the Forest Service's newsletter.
But he managed to get a football scholarship to East Tennessee State University, and then worked his way up the ladder at Job Corps and eventually into the Forest Service. Today, Ferrell sits at the helm of LEI, overseeing a division that includes more than 600 officers across the country.
While once Ferrell was lauded as ambitious and eager, he now faces many staffers who appear to have little confidence in his leadership.
Several current officers and retired employees call him a micromanager who is prone to anger. They question the division's priorities and whether the Washington headquarters knows what officers need.
In 2012, during a regional conference, several employees told Ferrell and other top officials that they questioned their honesty to officers in the field, according to several in attendance. The scene, said one employee present, was "reminiscent of a mutiny."
But Ferrell "essentially told the employees that they should have more hobbies and take some time off," he said.
Several employees also described him as "vindictive," running a leadership team that punishes those who offer criticism.
As an example, Gregory pointed to an email he sent in 2005 to Ferrell and Ron Sprinkle, who was then the director of LEI.
He asked that they not detail one of his special agents to that year's Rainbow Gathering. Organized by a roaming band of anarchists and counterculture bohemians, the gatherings involve hundreds of people who camp out for weeks in national forests. Drugs, bonfires and makeshift homes are staples of the decades-old event.
Gregory was concerned that his special agent -- who was detailed to the gathering the previous year -- would fall behind on his cases.
"[I]t would really mess our situation up by making him available for that long a time again," Gregory wrote. "If you need him for just for a few weeks and we can agree that won't evolve into something longer, then that's fine. But with a full-time dedicated [officer] now on staff who was hired to do this exact job, I think you can see where I'm coming from."
Ferrell took immediate offense, calling Gregory "unreasonable."
"Jack is to do what I tell him to do. I am in charge," wrote Ferrell, who was deputy director of the division at the time. "Him not doing what I say is insubordination to the [Washington office]."
That response is representative of Ferrell's management style, according to a retired top official who worked closely with him for years.
When Ferrell came in as deputy director under Sprinkle, he was tasked with direct supervision of four staff assistant directors in the Washington office, as well as nine special agents in charge managing field operations in each of the Forest Service's regions. He soon became a micromanager, asking for an account of what each supervisor and their employees were doing almost every day and "controlling everything," according to the official, a former LEI assistant director.
While in the past such officials worked together to set goals and then were left to make the day-to-day decisions, they now had to run everything by Ferrell, creating what the official described as a "very chaotic" atmosphere.
"It became literally a day-to-day thing. What's the crisis of the day? What's he worried about today?" the former assistant director said in a recent interview.
The official described the atmosphere as a "climate of fear," due to Ferrell's angry outbursts and disciplinary actions.
"It was a climate of everybody for themself," the official said. "You fought to stay in his good graces because you saw what happened when you were not in his good graces."
The division's penchant for discipline comes up repeatedly in dozens of emails Gregory recently received from officers and special agents, most of whom recently retired. Gregory shared the emails with Greenwire under the condition that the names of employees not be released.
One email asserted that employees under Ferrell are "under constant stress and fear of retaliation from him if they disagree with him." And a retired official wrote that "Special Agents in Charge are not only reluctant, but almost terrified to take any action without either direct approval from Director Ferrell or one of his closest advisors, whether the action makes sense or not."
Though statistics are not publicly available, the law enforcement division also has sometimes disciplined officers for seemingly minor issues.
In 2011, for example, LEI fired an officer after she reported that a colleague let his friends use the agency's all-terrain vehicles while off-duty. The reason for her removal: She said she couldn't remember which supervisor she told first of the incident.
The Forest Service called it "lack of candor." But no one else involved in the incident was removed -- not even the employee who violated ATV policy.
The Merit Systems Protection Board reversed her removal last year, ruling that officials were likely retaliating against the officer because her complaint angered some of her colleagues, according to documents posted by the small watchdog group MSPB Watch. Even her supervisor was displeased; he tried to retroactively place the offending colleague on duty during the time he used the ATVs so he wouldn't be disciplined.
"I am aware of no case in which the Board has upheld the removal of an employee for an unsworn misstatement on a matter as nitpicky as what the appellant was charged with," the judge wrote.
The result of the overall problems within LEI, wrote another official, is retirements, transfers and growing disillusionment.
"[A]fter a while you just get tired of fighting management who just didn't seem to care what you say," he wrote. "Forget trying to build your program, no money, no help and no future. "
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