June 2007

Playing catch during the release

By David Grant Long

There's pot-hunting on public lands, and then there's pot-hunting on public lands.

One kind is the looting of ancient crockery artifacts from the plethora of Anasazi ruins across the Four Corners. The other kind involved BLM lawenforcement rangers allegedly hunting for the smokable kind of pot amongst the personal possessions of campers along the lower Dolores River the weekend of May 11-12, according to some suspects now charged with possessing a controlled substance on federal lands.

The impromptu raids netted the officers alleged grounds for numerous citations — along with a large raft of ill will — when a rare release of water from McPhee Reservoir attracted dozens of boaters to the Bradfield Bridge area on the lower Dolores.

What some didn't count on was being rousted by the BLM officers as they settled into their campsites late the night before the release.

Three of the boaters who received pot-related citations told the Free Press they thought the rangers had unfairly targeted the rafting community, lying in wait to catch them committing what they see as a minor infraction in a state where pot possession is a petty offense.

Federal law treats possession of small amounts of marijuana more harshly than state law in any of the Four Corners states, providing for up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine for a first offense, and a 15-day mandatory jail stint and a $2,500 fine for a second offense.

In comparison, the maximum penalty is only up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine in conservative Utah for a first offense. In Colorado, a first offense nets a $100 fine and no jail time.

The boaters also accused the rangers of being overzealous and “skating the edge” in terms of legal searches.

Although rumors had the number as high as 40 or 50, BLM Ranger Keith McGrath, who along with Ranger Logan Briscoe was patrolling the campgrounds that weekend, said actually a total of 10 citations related to marijuana possession were written.

McGrath denied any illegal searches were conducted and said all the incidents for which tickets were issued involved contraband in plain sight.

McGrath, who along with Briscoe is responsible for patrolling 800,000 acres of BLM land in Southwest Colorado, including Canyons of the Ancients, said the issue was clearly defined in his mind, and denied the boaters were singled out for special scrutiny. “No, they were not,” McGrath said, “but [controlled substances] are illegal. If you’ve got them you can't have them — it's pretty cut-and-dried.”

The bulk of law-enforcement problems on BLM lands involve public safety, McGrath said, including drug and alcohol abuse, but he also stoutly maintained the officers were “absolutely not” targeting potheads.

“Those people were all contacted because they were in a fee campground and they did not pay their fees — they were given warnings for that and cited for possession of controlled substances,” he said. “There were no searches or anything like that — everything [confiscated] was in plain view, no people were searched, no vehicles were searched, nothing.

“That's about as much as I can tell you right now because all this stuff hasn't gone to court yet.”

‘Kind of aggressive’

However, an area resident who's been boating along the lower Dolores for 15 years and was among those cited for possessing less than an ounce of pot told a different version of the events that weekend. “John,” who like the other two boaters in this article agreed to talk to the Free Press on the condition of anonymity, freely admitted he had been indulging in the weed on the second night he was contacted, but questioned the officers' conduct and priorities.

“John” said on Friday night, May 11, about 20 people were sitting around a campfire at Bradfield Bridge, just below the breast of the dam.

“We had not paid the $8 campsite fee — I never even knew you had to pay a campsite fee at Bradfield — and apparently this gave them probable cause to come into our campsite and harass us.

“That night we were not actually 'misbehaving',” he said. “We were smoking cigars, and they basically came in and accused us of smoking pot, which was not true.

“They were kind of aggressive — shining flashlights into tents where people were sleeping and going through our kitchen.” They asked one person what was in his toilet kit and asked to search it, he said.

“This person is so far to the right there's no way he would have anything illegal in there,” he said, laughing. “They were pretty insistent about wanting to search it and he was like, ‘No’.”

They then searched a bag of cooking spices in the kitchen area, he said, and pulled out the Italian seasoning.

“They were like, 'What's this?' and I was like, 'basil and oregano’.”

That night, he said, “Once they realized they weren't going to be able to arrest us, they left,” but proceeded to issue citations to some other boaters, including three groups from Telluride.

It was the following night when “John” and his friends got busted.

“They came into our camp at the Dove Creek pump station [further downstream] at which time we were misbehaving, and wrote three of us tickets, two for possession and one for paraphernalia,” he said.

He said that night they had paid the campground fee and weren't being loud or boisterous, just kicking back at their camp about 10 p,m.

“Their tactic is they lurk in the shadows and watch what you're doing and they saw us smoking pot,” he said.

“I'm not saying we weren't doing anything wrong,” he added, but he believes the limited manpower of the BLM could be put to better use protecting resources rather than hassling campers. He said, for instance, the campground was so littered with broken glass and other debris when they arrived his group spent more than an hour cleaning it before they could use it.

Another boater cited Saturday agreed.

“Andy” said he was with the group around the table at the pump station at 10 or 11 p.m. when he was handed a glass pipe and a lighter.

“From out of the darkness to my side comes this voice: ‘Give me that pipe’.”

“Andy” admitted he responded belligerently, first refusing to turn over the pipe, then plunging it in some cheese dip before handing it over. “I was furious,” said “Andy,” who was cited for paraphernalia. He said it was the middle of the night and they weren’t bothering anyone. “River-runners are a peaceful lot.

“I wondered, is this based on revenues or really trying to save the community from the drug-runners taking drugs down the river from Dolores to Las Vegas to make the big hit?” he said sarcastically, adding, “They [officers] weren’t out there at the Jeep Jamboree in Arch Canyon [Utah] going through people’s campsites.” ‘A conservative drum’

Another boater from Durango, “Robert,” said he and his girlfriend's belongings were searched when they were contacted by BLM officers at the Bradfield campground Friday, after they arrived late that night.

Around 11 p.m., he said, “I noticed people in the shadows watching us, so I basically started walking over and three cops walked up, very aggressive with their headlights shining in our faces — it scared us, because we didn't know what in the world was going on.

“One of them of them talked to her and one of them started to talk to me, asking why we hadn't paid our fee, and we explained we had gotten there after dark and were going to do it in the morning, and I offered to pay them on the spot if they wanted the $8 then.

“As those two were talking to us, the other one was over there at the table just going through our stuff, basically looking through everything we had, including my bathroom bag,” he recounted. “At that time he locates a small amount — maybe two grams — of marijuana on the table and, of course, their attitude changed drastically.

“We were more than cooperative,” he added, “but I probably said something I shouldn't — I said, 'I know it's illegal, but where I live in Durango, and in Telluride, people don't care, and obviously people in Cortez and Dove Creek beat to a different drum — a more Republican and conservative drum,' and he did not like to hear that.”

And even though he took ownership of the pot, “Robert” said, both he and his girlfriend were cited.

“I said, 'It's no big deal, it's mine, write me the ticket,’ but they proceeded to say, 'No, we're writing both of you tickets,' so they wrote two tickets for two grams of pot. So now we both get to go to court and pay the $1,000 fine or whatever it is.”

They have retained lawyers, he said. “We and our attorneys feel there was no reason for a search — we weren't drinking or smoking weed or anything.

“It was very militant, very sneaky.”

‘Getting a line’

But McGrath emphatically denied he or Briscoe acted aggressively or rudely.

“No, they're lying to you,” he said. “I'll be blunt — you're getting a line because they're upset about getting their dope taken away and they've got to go to court — it's just that simple.

“We were very professional, very polite [and] in several instances left with, ‘Hey, you guys enjoy the river' — we talked about the river and only having one weekend of this release.

“We left on very good terms, but obviously when they got themselves worked up on their web site afterwards that's not the story they're saying,” he said. (Numerous negative comments about the busts have been posted on a boating web site.)

BLM field office manager/San Juan National Forest district ranger Steve Beverlin, who does not directly supervise law enforcement on these public lands, supported the officers' actions.

“I applaud our law-enforcement rangers for doing that,” Beverlin said. “If people choose to disobey the law, then they have no reason to be upset about getting a citation.

“What if there were families down there camping next to people and they were doing the same thing?” he said. “It seems a little inappropriate and by any means it's illegal.”

The use of marijuana “certainly doesn't represent the river crowd, and I hope in your article you're not equating that illegal drug use goes with river-running, because that's not a correct assumption,” Beverlin said.

“To me it's no different than a speed limit — if it’s 55 mph and you go 56 you're breaking the law,” he said.

Regarding the allegations about the officers' conduct, Beverlin said people getting cited would naturally be angry and likely to exaggerate.

“We encourage all our employees to be cooperative, work with people and be respectful in their dealings,” he said.

Bervelin said he read the comments on www.mountainbuzz.com, but otherwise, “I've gotten nothing but positive comments about our law-enforcement rangers and their ability to assist people and their presence in the field.”

Still, he said, the allegations of unprofessional conduct would be checked.

Bevelin said the focus on patrolling the campgrounds didn't show any change in priorities, but was related to the anticipated heavy use that weekend.

“That's why [the officers] were there, because we knew the public was going to be using those areas and that there's a potential for usage to occur that shouldn't.

“We're not setting out to catch people doing something,” he said, “but the more people you have in a certain area the more potential there is for resource damage or illegal activity.”

Unpleasant encounter

Jimmy Nash, a painting contractor and columnist for the Free Press, was not involved in the May sweep, but recounted two experiences with BLM officers along the river last summer that he deemed unpleasant.

Nash said he was with his wife and 6-year-old daughter one afternoon last July at a picnic table along the river when two BLM rangers “sped up.”

“They pretty much harassed me about helping my daughter fish when I didn't have a fishing license,” Nash said, though he repeatedly told them he'd only been helping his daughter cast. (Children are not required to have fishing licenses.)

The two officers also “accused me of wanting to camp there for the night,” he said, even though no tent was set up. “It was just nit-picking— looking for a reason to write me a citation.”

“‘Unpleasant’ would be a nice word” to describe their attitude, he added.

“I felt like they were looking for a reason to arrest me,” he said. “It ruined my day, my wife's and daughter's days, and I'll never go back there.”

Nash said he found this particularly offensive in light of what had occurred the weekend before, when his family was camped near the pump house, and drunken rowdies began firing weapons a few hundred yards from his campsite.

“They were spotlighting our tent, shooting their pistols and scaring the crap out of us,” he said, yet when he told an officer about it the next morning, no action was taken.

“I said I was scared for our lives, and this guy looks at me and says, 'Hey, this is Dove Creek. I'm not going to do anything about it,' is basically what he was telling me,” Nash said. “But after my experience the next weekend, I saw they had no problem harassing hippies who might be smoking a little pot.”