Forest protection officer ensures safety, compliance during a busy summer

Jeff Smith, U.S. Forest Service forest protection officer in the Bighorn National Forest, rubs on Pyrenees mix Ronan during a stop in a campground. Ronan’s owners didn’t have him on a leash, which is required in forest service campgrounds. Smith said he doesn’t like to issue citations or tickets. He would much rather give warnings and help educate people so as to build a stronger relationship. (Photo by Jessi Dodge, Buffalo Bulletin)

BUFFALO — Already on the morning of Friday, Aug. 22, the road leading to the West Tensleep Trailhead was littered with vehicles, and the dispersed campsites along the road were all occupied.

“This is normal for 2020,” said Jeff Smith, forest protection officer for the U.S. Forest Service, as he observed the traffic. “Normally, we only see this kind of traffic on the Fourth of July and Labor Day. It’s every day now.”

This year has been an abnormally eventful year for the Bighorn National Forest – defined by a surplus of out-of-state visitors, crowded dispersed camping areas and an especially dry fire season. 

It has also been an especially busy year for Smith, who has the big task of patrolling hundreds of miles of forest roads in order to ensure that dogs are leashed, campfires are extinguished and camper trailers are moved every 14 days.

“When summer kicks in, I hit as many roads as I can to look for unattended fires, ATVs off-road, trash laying on the side of the road," Smith said. "I'm checking ATVs for stickers, writing warnings where I need to. So that's a day. 

“I've got from Powder River Road all the way to the bottom of the canyon and all the roads in between,” he continued. “So that’s my territory. On an average day, I drive 150 to 200 miles a day.”

It's a big responsibility, but Smith takes it all in stride.

“I love what I do,” Smith said. “The forest is my office. So, you know, I can't complain." 

Smith, a Buffalo resident, is in his fifth summer as a forest protection officer in the Bighorn National Forest. Before his time in the forest, Smith spent 15 years as a golf course superintendent in Pennsylvania. 

When he and his wife decided they were ready for a change, they decided on a whim to move to Billings, Montana.

"When we saw Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Glacier, we were like 'Oh, geez, what else did we miss?'" Smith said. "So we traveled for eight years in the RV, and then I found out about camp hosting up here in the Bighorns." 

While camp hosting, Smith met the forest's natural resource specialist, Brian Boden, and law enforcement officer, Forrest Tellock, who encouraged him to become an FPO.

"If it wasn't for Forrest and Brian, I don't know what I would be doing right now," Smith said.

There is no such thing as a "typical" day in the forest - especially in 2020 - according to Smith. But Smith's loop through the West Tensleep area on the morning of Aug. 21 provides a primer on some of the things he deals with.

Smith stopped first to ensure that a man cutting firewood had the proper permits and the required fire extinguisher and shovel. Later, while passing a dispersed camping site, he checked in on Georgia resident Clifton Lawley, who had removed a sign from his fire ring.

Due to fire restrictions in the forest, campfires are not permitted right now, Smith said. And if the sign is removed from the fire pit, it probably means that somebody has broken the rules.

"I have a stake in each fire ring saying that you can't have campfires," Smith said. "So if I see the stake, I just kind of keep going. But if I don't, I need to investigate." 

Lawley had simply removed the sign for aesthetic reasons, but he quickly put the sign back in the fire ring upon Smith's request.

Afterward, Lawley asked one this summer's most frequently asked questions: Why are there so many unoccupied camper trailers in the forest these days?

"I was going, 'What's going on? Where are all these people?'" Lawley said. "I was told that people would come up on the weekends but just leave their campers there during the week.”

"We have the same problem here," Smith replied. "It's slowing down a bit because school has started, and also because of the fire restrictions. But it is an ongoing issue, and it is something the Forest Service is trying to address.”

Next stop is the West Tensleep Trailhead, which Smith said is "like a small city on the weekend." He checked in with a large group of Summit Church congregants to ensure that they wouldn't be traveling in groups larger than 10, which could damage the trail.

A drive through the campsites nearby revealed a few unleashed dogs, so Smith talked with their owners.

Smith didn't issue citations or warnings during any of these visits. In over three hours of driving around the mountain, he only gave two written warnings to vehicles that blocked a road in Tensleep Canyon.

For the most part, warnings and citations are a last resort for Smith. They are a valuable tool in his toolkit, Smith said, but he would much rather educate than punish.

"That's basically my job is to educate and help folks comply," Smith said. "I don't want the Forest Service to have such a bad rap. Some people don't like us, so I want to develop that good rapport with folks. So I'm trying to do that while also enforcing the rules that I need to enforce." 

This approach has earned Smith many friends in the forest, and he is often greeted by a friendly wave as he drives by. The best stops become lengthy conversations, Smith said, and more than a few campers have invited him to their campsites for dinner.

"My local campers that camp up here - you know, they're always inviting me to dinner or something," Smith said. "They're a great crowd.”

But Smith can also be an enforcer when he needs to be, and violations of the 14-day-stay limit for camper trailers and the campfire regulations justify automatic citations, he said.

"All fires during a fire restrictions year, there is zero tolerance for that," Smith said. "Length of stay on campers, we don't warn them anymore. They know the rule, and if they say they don't, they're lying. So we don't give warnings to campers anymore - not on my side of the mountain. We give them citations.”

Smith keeps track of every camper trailer on the mountain and their GPS location, license plate number and first time he sees them in a new location. On his paperwork, he marks every camper trailer that has observed the 14-day-stay-limit with a black marker and those that haven't with an orange marker. 

The black lines still outnumber the orange ones on most of Smith's pages, but noncompliance has been more of an issue this year, mainly due to the large number of first-time visitors

in the forest, Smith said.

“Last year, on just my side of the mountain, I had a total of 14 citations (for camper trailers staying over 14 days),” Smith

said. "This year, I'm at 12 or 13 right now, and we still have the rest of August and September to go." 

Smith takes no pleasure in writing a citation, but it's an important part of the job, he said.

"We hate writing tickets," Smith said. "I don't want anybody to get the impression that we go out looking for tickets. We don't. We hate writing tickets, because nine times out of 10, it's to good people. We hate it. I hate it. I don't want to lose that rapport with folks, but sometimes it has to be done.”

Not every day brings a citation or warning, Smith said, and the vast majority of visitors in the forest are conscientious, gracious and friendly. Smith works to return the favor, and nothing makes him happier than spending a few minutes on the mountain answering campers' questions.

"I was a little shy when I was younger, but I've gotten accustomed to talking to people, especially the ones I know," Smith said. "I will sit and stop and take my 30-min - ute stop at a campsite. It's fun to be around people like that. Being there for people - that's what makes my job worthwhile. That's what I look forward to every day."