A number of Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Bureau of Forestry employees added another job title to their resumes Friday.
Judge Bradley P. Lunsford swore in 22 of them as state forest officers Friday morning after a week’s worth of training. Those sworn in are already bureau employees, most of them foresters, and the additional designation gives them the authority to enforce regulations on the forest land where they work.
“They don’t have the power of arrest, but they can issue citations,” Natural Resource Program Specialist Todd Miller said. “State forest officers can enforce state forest rules and also traffic violations involving ATVs and snowmobiles.”
For most of the week, trainees learned about the rules and regulations they are now able to enforce, involving things like fishing in prohibited areas or cutting firewood without a permit, and other law enforcement skills, like how to write citations, gather evidence and deal with the people they are citing.
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Before the swearing-in Friday, Lunsford taught them about court procedures and and how to appear in court, followed by a series of mock trials with Lunsford presiding. After each, they received critiques from the judge, their peers and trainers.
Most of the time, a state forest officer would deal with district judges, and then only if the cited person decided to fight the offense. That’s not to say they’d never be called as a witness to a trial or proceedings in the higher Court of Common Pleas in an area they serve, and the training prepares them for that possibility as well.
Training usually takes place once a year in Centre County, because of its central location in the state and its proximity to state forests and facilities, like Penn Nursery in Potter Township, Miller said. Employees who work in forests all over the state received training this week. Others won’t have to go far to use their new skills. Employees at Rothrock, Bald Eagle and Moshannon state forests were sworn in Friday.
The training is an immense help to the chief law enforcement officers in state forests, DCNR forest rangers, who have the same powers afforded to police officers and carry guns and badges. There are more than 2 million acres of state forest in Pennsylvania, and only about 40 rangers to patrol the area, Chief Ranger Stacy Duffield said Friday.
There are hundreds of employees who have completed the forest officer training to assist the rangers, Miller said. Preparation as potential witnesses for the rangers is also useful.
“To have the extra set of eyes out there to help us with the violations is paramount,” Duffield, who has assisted in training state forest officers for years, said. “There’s a lot going on out there, and I’ve relied on them for prosecutions.”
Rangers conduct the yearly training, and teaching has an added benefit for them, Ranger Gregory Eitner said. Eitner said he is often asked questions about rules and situations that he never thought of before.
“I learn something from every class,” Eitner said. “I learn from them as they learn from me.”