In short, the agency is catching some serious grief for an operation in which four agents with a drug dog issued several citations and confiscated “possession amounts” of marijuana in a “saturation patrol” that included the ski valley parking area and nearby roads.
And the Forest Service is doing some serious backpedaling.
We’ve had “many, many complaints,” said Kathy DeLucas, a Carson National Forest spokeswoman.
She said her office had no prior knowledge of the Feb. 22 operation and that the impetus for the sweep came from Forest Service law enforcement in Albuquerque. The ski valley operates on Carson National Forest lands.
Robin Poague of the Albuquerque office and special agent in charge for Forest Service’s Southwestern Region said he’s “not sure who actually made the decision” to conduct the drug sweep. That individual may be away on a training assignment, he said.
“I don’t agree with the tone that was set by the officers there,” said Poague.
Asked what he meant, he said, “I think there were too many officers up there. … We are taking a look at it and the unintended consequences of public perception.”
Poague described the operation as a “saturation patrol” and it was his understanding that, prior to the raid, “they had some issues up there,” apparently some sort of altercation.
“I am definitely conducting an inquiry as to what happened up there,” he added. He said he’s aware of the number of complaints to the Taos office “and that’s led to my concern.”
“Our goal is that people have a safe experience on Forest Service land,” said Poague.
Ski valley marketing director and vice-president Chris Stagg said he didn’t witness the officers in action but employees and guests complained to him and other ski valley officials.
“They didn’t show respect to people,” said Stagg. “Clearly, I thought the officers, their demeanor was rude and out of line.”
One consequence of all this, according to DeLucas, was that a Taos employee of the national forest “went into the grocery store in her Forest Service uniform and was called a Nazi. So it’s affecting all of us.”
Apparently, “there was a cancer fundraising event and youth event” going on at the ski valley when the officers and their dog made their appearance on a Saturday, she said.
“A father who had his 11-year-old daughter with him there said ‘Skiing is supposed to be fun,’ but he was subjected to this,” DeLucas added. She said she’s forwarding complaints to Poague.
Johnson: ‘Police state’
Former Gov. Johnson, who lives at Taos Ski Valley, said he was outraged.
He was on the ski hill the day of the drug sweep but didn’t see what happened when the officers showed up.
“This is a police state,” said Johnson, a former Libertarian Party candidate for president and advocate for drug legalization. “These are jackbooted thugs.”
He wanted to know “who is ordering this and why?”
Johnson said he got first-hand accounts of the raid from a dozen people. He was told the officers had to muzzle their “dog because this dog even bit one of its handlers. This dog was in the face of young children.”
Poague said the dog was a “drug and protection dog,” and it sniffed vehicles for drugs and did not sniff people.
Five pot tickets
The Forest Service officers issued five violation notices for marijuana possession, one for illegal possession of prescription drugs and others for traffic or vehicle equipment violations. There also were verbal warnings for things like cracked windshields, said Poague. No “traffickable amounts” of pot were found, he said.
Stagg said the Forest Service raid had stirred up bad feelings similar to those stoked by a State Police drug task force roadblock at the ski valley in the 1990s. Skiers and visitors on their way to the valley on NM 150 were subjected to drug dog searches.
That event was condemned by the then chief of the New Mexico Tourism Department, the late Michael Cerletti. A travel writer from the East who got caught up in the roadblock alleged that he was intimidated into making “a contribution” to a local crime fighting group.
Current tourism secretary Monique Jacobson, who is originally from Taos, could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.