GAO: Armed Smugglers and Marijuana Growers Threaten the Safety of Americans on Federal Lands

Edwin Mora | December 22, 2010 | 6:15pm EST
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Border vehicle fence in New Mexico (El Paso district). (Photo courtesy of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol)

( – The safety of the public and of government employees on public lands is endangered by armed individuals involved in illegal border activity and marijuana cultivation, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office.

The report, released on Dec. 17, states, “Law enforcement officials told us that some remote federal lands along the U.S. border are often used to smuggle drugs or humans into the country. According to these officials, such illegal activities can damage sensitive wildlife habitat and threaten public safety.”

The report continued, “Officials at the three [federal land] units we visited in Arizona – Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, Coronado National Forest, and Sonoran Desert National Monument – observed that smugglers are often armed and pose a risk to public and employee safety. The officials said that, while few violent encounters between smugglers and the public have occurred to date, many illegal immigrants or smugglers have been murdered or raped on federal lands.”

In reference to how marijuana cultivation on federal lands threatens the safety of the public and employees in those areas, the GAO said, “According to officials at several federal land units we visited and [the Justice Department’s] National Drug Intelligence Center reports, marijuana is increasingly grown on federal lands. Law enforcement officials told us that although most such marijuana cultivation has historically occurred on the West Coast, intensive cultivation – in many cases by large-scale international drug-trafficking organizations – has spread to other regions of the country in recent years.”

“Moreover, marijuana growers are typically armed, posing a threat to public safety and agency employees, according to agency law enforcement officials,” added the report.

“Hunters, hikers, and other members of the public, as well as agency employees, have been shot, shot at, kidnapped, and threatened with violence. Although such violent encounters are rare, law enforcement officials at several units we visited said that marijuana growers have become more violent in recent years,” the report said.

The GAO further reported, “Law enforcement officials also said that the public is increasingly aware of the danger and that some people avoid areas where marijuana cultivation is likely. In some areas, the threat posed by marijuana growers has also affected the agencies’ ability to work in remote areas.”

The GAO’s assessment of the public and employee threat posed by illegal activity on federal lands is based on interviews with law enforcement officials and land managers from 26 agency units in the U.S. Department of Interior (Interior) and in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Sonoran desert in Arizona.

Those agencies include USDA’s Forest Service and Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service.

Together, those four agencies are responsible for managing “more than 670 million acres of federal lands across the country,” according to the GAO.

But, the GAO noted, “The four land management agencies did not have comprehensive information to determine the level of and trends in illegal activities occurring on the federal lands they manage.”

Nevertheless, officials from those agencies identified a variety of illegal activities on federal lands that can impact “natural and cultural resources and public and employee safety,” the GAO said.

Concerning those activities, the GAO grouped them into categories and listed them “roughly in order of severity.”

That order, from most severe to least severe, is as follows: violent crimes, illegal border activity, marijuana cultivation, and traffic violations.

Under the violent crimes category, the GAO said “public and agency employees can also be the victims of violence, including assault, rape, and homicide, on federal lands. Although land management officials stressed that this kind of violence remains rare, several units we visited reported some violent incidents.”

To counter “illegal activities occurring on the lands they manage, the agencies employ uniformed law enforcement officers who patrol federal lands, respond to illegal activities, and conduct routine investigations,” said the GAO. “In addition, the agencies have investigative special agents who investigate serious crimes in more detail.”

The GAO acknowledged that, in recent years, most of the federal agencies have augmented their permanent law enforcement presence.

“In an environment of constrained budgets, land management agencies will likely continue to face challenges in protecting natural and cultural resources, the public, and agency employees from the effects of illegal activities on federal lands,” the audit concluded.

“The limitations of available information on illegal activities on federal lands, and the agencies’ lack of systematic approaches to identifying law enforcement resource needs and distributing those resources, hamper the agencies’ efforts to target their resources effectively,” the report said.

“Without a more systematic method to assess the risks posed by illegal activities and a stronger framework for managing them, the agencies cannot be assured that they are allocating scarce resources in a manner that effectively addresses the risk of illegal activities on our nation’s federal lands,” said the GAO.

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