SHERIDAN — What happens when a private landowner takes a chunk out of public lands while creating a road on his property?
U.S. Forest Service Law Enforcement Capt. David Hartley said the federal agency determines discipline on a case-by-case basis, but in one particular case involving an existing trail receiving unauthorized extensive maintenance on federal land a $230 fine did the trick.
The owner of Beckton Ranch conducted extensive maintenance on an existing trail mostly on the privately owned property next to Soldier Creek Trail, but cut into a small area of public land.
“I haven’t measured the distance so I can’t say exactly what it was, but the impact on public land was very minimal,” Hartley said. “After talking to the U.S. attorney’s office, they said to issue the collateral fine instead of making a mandatory appearance.”
Hartley said the case was resolved with the small fine due to the minimal impact on public lands.
“More of the impact is on the private land,” Hartley said. “We issued out the fine for the violation that was on the Forest Service property and we went on from there.”
The minimal response and small fine upset some involved in the civil case.
“It’s pretty minimal response from us, but there are other folks out there that are ‘Well, that land belongs to you guys.’ Well actually most of it doesn’t,” Hartley said.
John Yeager voiced concerns about the low fine given to Cam Forbes of Beckton Ranch for the violation.
“(Cam) Forbes built a road through a roadless area on the Bighorn National Forest and was fined $230,” Yeager wrote to The Sheridan Press.
“I am against any of this, but the opportunity is there and use this $230 fine levied against Forbes as an example of what the fine would be,” he continued.
Hartley said he’s spoken with Yeager and explained this particular situation.
“This is a good way to think of it: It’s like you have a car driving down the road and they back into Farmer John’s fence. If he knocks down one fence post, usually the impact is minimal and the repair is minimal. But if he knocks down half a mile of fence row, then there’s a different impact,” Hartley said.
The U.S. Forest Service law enforcement initially deals with violations on USFS lands, but fines are established by the Department of Justice and the U.S. attorney’s office.
“Essentially, the only difference there was if it had been a major event, if there had been a lot of restitution to be made, then there would have been a mandatory appearance instead of a fine being issued,” Hartley said.
In general, Hartley advised community members to watch and report any damage or vandalism to the USFS.
“(Consequences are) determined by the level of the impact to the resource,” Hartley said. “Is there restitution to be made? Are things going to have to be rehabbed? There’s a lot that goes into the scope to determine whether or not we’re going to have to repair that particular area.”
Hartley said damage to timber, potential for erosion and the impact to wildlife are all factors that go into the decision-making process of how a case is handled.
Note: The original article was edited to reflect a more accurate description of the maintenance done on Forest Service lands. The article originally called the maintenance a road, but clarification from District Ranger Amy Ormseth indicated it was actually an existing trail that received unauthorized extensive maintenance.