Stewardship is one of the guiding principles of the Corps of Engineers, which has the responsibility of managing close to 12 million acres of public lands and waters, on more than 400 lake and river projects in 43 states.
For the Corps, stewardship involves two main objectives: managing natural resources to ensure their continued availability and providing a safe and healthful environment for the more than 320 million visits made each year to Corps projects. Corps park rangers interact with the public in several ways to meet these objectives. Rangers judiciously issue citations when necessary to help protect public safety and health.
Compared with other federal land management agencies, such as the National Park Service, Corps rangers have limited authority. Corps rangers don’t have the legal authority to enforce state and local laws on Corps property, have no arrest or search and seizure authority and can’t carry weapons. Their authority is primarily limited to enforcing Title 36 of the Code of Federal Regulations that Congress enacted in the early 1970s.
Title 36 governs the public use of Corps recreation sites and includes things such as vehicle usage on public land and water (cars, watercraft, aircraft), camping, sanitation, animal control (keep your pet on a leash and don’t let your cattle graze on Corps projects), alcohol and firework use and hunting or fishing.
When someone violates Title 36, a Corps ranger can give a verbal or written warning, because the goal is not punishment but compliance at the lowest level of enforcement. If the violation continues or is egregious enough, the ranger can issue a written citation with one of two options: a fine or a Mandatory Court Appearance, or MCA, before a federal magistrate judge. Some violations automatically require an MCA because of their severity, such as destruction of public property like a boat ramp.
Rangers in the District don’t write very many citations because verbal and written warnings are usually effective in dealing with Title 36 violations. In the past five years, 35 citations have been written at six of the District’s recreation sites, with the majority related to the use of restricted substances, such as alcohol. Alcohol is banned at both Abiquiu and Cochiti lakes.
Although not often used, the authority to write citations is necessary because it provides the “teeth” in enforcing the rules. Without it, some of the public will ignore the rules, according to Operations Project Manager David Dutton, at the District’s Abiquiu project.
After a citation is written, it is tracked by the project office. Each office receives a regular report monitoring citations requiring fines and who hasn’t paid them. If a person hasn’t paid, the project contacts the United States Attorney’s office, and a notice to appear before arrest is issued, giving the person 60 days to pay the fine. If the person still does not pay, the court issues a bench warrant for the person’s arrest. The U.S. Marshall’s Office is contacted to pick up the person.
Recently, two lawyers with the District, Regina Schowalter and Jorge Avitia, were appointed Special Assistant United States Attorneys in the district of New Mexico.
This means that instead of the project office contacting the United States Attorney’s office, they may now contact Schowalter or Avitia, who will coordinate the case and may handle the prosecution.
“I am looking forward to partnering with the rangers and seeing issued citations through to the finish,” Schowalter said.
Regarding the importance of being appointed a Special Assistant United States Attorney, Avitia said that “when a case is referred to an Assistant U.S. Attorney (AUSA), the discretion to prosecute shifts to the AUSA, who must then prioritize the case with all others in his or her docket based on policies, interests and concerns specific to the Department of Justice.
This appointment allows the Office of Counsel to devote more resources to the case to address the Corps’ imperatives, including giving legitimacy to our rangers’ citation authority and deterring repeat offenders – and issues important to the rangers, who are on the front lines protecting the public and public resources.”