Population increases and economic belt tightening may be some of the factors that are leading to a greater appreciation of national forests and grasslands and increased visitation. Dovetailing with that interest is the Forest Service law enforcement mission to provide for public safety and protection of natural resources, a mission that Special Agent Travis Lunders takes to heart. At the end of the day, he knows he’s made a difference and to him that’s the reward in and of itself.
Every day brings a new challenge which keeps his job exciting and fresh as he engages in a variety of law enforcement activities: working with the public, leading investigations, or working with other state, local and federal agencies. A public servant since he was 18 years old including security forces service with the U.S. Air Force and with the Air National Guard in South Dakota, he says he could probably make more money in the private sector, but he considers the quality of life and the job satisfaction he receives from his work as part of his paycheck.
Q. What motivates you to be a special agent for the Forest Service?
When I go to work, every day is generally a little bit different. We have such a wide variety of law enforcement activities that we engage in including investigations, operations or public service. They involve far more than any other organization that I know of in law enforcement. We can be working a paleontology investigation one week, and the next week may focus on an arson, timber, oil and gas or drug cultivation investigation.
Every day is just a little different. That’s the beauty of what we do for the Forest Service. You can specialize in a certain crime or skill set. We have a lot of officers and agents that are really good at drug investigations and drug cultivation investigations. Others specialize in fire. I’m one of those guys that can do a little bit of everything and specialize in a handful but tap a network of people for investigations outside my skill set. There’s always someone to call and bounce ideas off and troubleshoot issues.
Q. How would you describe a typical day at work?
I really don’t think I could pick a typical day with the many things we get to do. That’s probably why I ultimately chose Forest Service Law Enforcement as my career because of the variety. I’ve been fortunate enough to go to Brazil and instruct and work with their folks in the timber theft investigation world. I’ve had a lot of opportunities to work drug trafficking organizations in Colorado and across the country. I’m also an aviation officer so I do a lot of our aviation operation planning and execution when it comes to drug operations primarily, but also set policy and help get training done for so many different things, whether it be fire or range.
Q. Are there specific kinds of activities or incidents that you are involved or interested in?
One of my passions with the Forest Service is paleontological resources. When I started my career on the Wall Ranger District on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, I got an opportunity to work a couple paleontological thefts and started doing a little bit of undercover work. It’s not something a lot of folks in federal law enforcement get to do so this is a unique aspect that I really enjoy. Here, on the Black Hills National Forest, fire and timber are my two big areas of work. At this time, the forest cuts more board feet of timber than any other forest in the country so I spend a fair amount of time and focus on timber and timber-related work activities.
Q. What advice would you have for those interested in working in law enforcement on a national forest or grassland?
Develop your specific interests in working in rural environments and enjoying the great outdoors -- whether it be snowshoeing, skiing, snowmobiling or riding all-terrain vehicles/off-highway vehicles or a horse, or just hiking and camping and backpacking and knowing how to navigate and use a GPS system, a compass and reading maps. Pick an area of the country that you are really fond of and get out and enjoy the forests for what they afford you. One of the things that drew me to this line of work is my two young boys who love the outdoors. When I’m not working, we’re hunting, fishing, hiking and skiing.
A lot of courses help people develop their professional skills as well. I teach an advanced course at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Brunswick, Georgia for the agency’s drug enforcement training program where we teach people how to navigate, read maps, and develop terrain association skills. I also teach a winter operations and survival course at the Law Enforcement Mountain Operations School on the Priest Lake Ranger District on the Idaho Panhandle National Forests for law enforcement students from the U.S. and Canada. They learn how to snowshoe, build structures and shelters, dress appropriately, start fires and develop land navigation and operational planning skills.
Q. You were recently recognized for your work on an investigation called Operation Timber Ridge. What can you tell us about that case?
The case began with a timber contract employee who was badly injured when he fell on a chainsaw. The contractor failed to notify the Forest Service about the incident but we learned about it when the employee told us his medical bills and workman’s comp or other benefits were not coming through which started our investigation.
The employing contractor and several of his associates-- family members with similar companies - had recruited and employed many non-residents and were taking advantage of them by not paying proper wages, providing benefits and overtime.
The case had many different challenges. I worked with the case with a special agent from the Department of Homeland Security. Because the contractor employees were not U.S. residents they often didn’t have known addresses or identifications making it difficult to locate and interview them. We worked with the Department of Labor to insure that they would receive their entitled pay and benefits. Over time, we determined that the contractors’ practices had occurred for 20-plus years involving many contracts. We briefed the U.S. Attorney’s Office on contract law, requirements and the Acts associated with those contracts as part of the investigation. Ultimately, 11 individuals were indicted and more than $1 million in proceeds and equipment were seized as a result of the investigation.
Q. What impacts are the case indictments and fines having?
For me and my co-case agent, this case was really about human rights. These contract workers were being taken advantage of, were not getting paid and being treated appropriately. It was very satisfying to know that ultimately many received back wages owed to them. It set the tone for timber-related service contract work and proved the accountability of our contract stipulations which are to protect employees, the contractor and the Forest Service.
The case outcome has rippled throughout the timber industry as contractors from other parts of the country became aware of the indictment and prosecution and realized we are watching worksite issues besides contract specifications and are recognizing other terms and conditions such as employee rights.
Investigations are a very time consuming process and they involve using many different skill sets. It’s not an easy undertaking and you have to realize you’re in it for the long haul because of the different areas of expertise and experience needed to solve fraud cases. In this case, three years of preliminary investigations were required before we were ready to pursue indictments. We turned over three terabytes of evidence for the discovery process. One of the things I enjoy about the job is the support we get working with state, local and the other federal agencies involved, as well as other staffs within the Forest Service who provide the critical support in our investigations.
Q. How can the public support the law enforcement mission?
There are so many people in this country that will never own 100 acres of land; never have a cabin on a lake, or never have recreational activities right in their backyard so those special interest groups and those people that enjoy these types of activities on their national forests and grasslands, when they understand that it’s theirs and they take some ownership in it, that’s when we see good things happen. In my role as an agency law enforcement officer from 2001 to 2007, I had a lot of interaction with many groups of people - whether it was 4-wheel-drive groups or mountain bikers, or cross-country skiers, or recreational shooters - we worked together to designate areas and to improve whatever recreational experience they had. When people get engaged in that way, that’s when we really see the resource being protected and the use being done in a proper way. It makes a huge difference.
If you have a question, that’s what our Ranger Offices are for and if you see any activities you’re not sure about, you can always call your local law enforcement and they will contact us or you can go to the front desk and report any concerns. These are your lands and if you see something that somebody’s doing that they shouldn’t be doing, then, you know, it’s just as much your right to tell us that those activities are going on and if we don’t know about it, we can’t investigate it.
Q. Do you have any particular memories that stand out about your career with the Forest Service?
It’s the people. No matter where I’ve been or where I’ve worked, whether it was Hurricane Katrina or the 1996 summer Olympics in Atlanta or major fires or drug operations, it’s the people and not just law enforcement. In 2015, the International Ski Federation’s Alpine World Ski Championships were held in Vail and Beaver Creek. The ski events were held on the two ski resorts on the White River National Forest which showcased both the Forest Service and our national public lands. My role was to ensure public health and safety, and provide event security for the athletes and visitors.
It’s the citizens, the firefighters and the rest of the Forest Service staff that I will think about when I leave this part of my career, I will remember the professionals that I worked with and the public working together to ensure our national forests and grasslands are here for the next generation.
Q. Who do you feel has had the greatest influence on your life and why?
One of the biggest influences professionally but also personally is Mike Skinner, my firearms instructor and an agent who I met during my training with the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. A very energetic, professional, frank man, he exemplified all the core values of law enforcement. A few years after that, he came to the Rocky Mountain Region as a special agent and I worked investigations with him. As a mentor, he helped me understand a good work/life balance. Later, he became my boss hiring me as a special agent.
Q. If you could sit down to a dinner party with five famous people from history who would they be and why?
Well maybe not a dinner party but I’d go for a walk in the woods with the Department of Agriculture Undersecretary and maybe a few people from Congress to show them what the Forest Service Law Enforcement team does for our nation. I’d like to share the privilege of working the job and share the vast responsibilities we cover such as the importance of archaeological and paleontological resources, the dangers of fire, and the variety and expertise of the skill sets needed to work in the woods when oftentimes we’re out there where backup is sometimes hours away and we’re hoping that a state trooper or a deputy sheriff can even find us. So spending a day in the woods and sharing the world we encounter as we care for the land and serve the public.
Q. Do you have any recommendations for those visiting national forests or grasslands?
Plan ahead. If you are new to the area, take the time to stop by the local district and speak with someone at the front desk about what it is you want to do and what you want to see and what you want to experience. This will help anyone coming to the national forests better enjoy and better plan for what to experience.
Our front desk people are great at putting people in contact with other employees on the district who know what recreation opportunities to suggest or are familiar with hunting areas to enjoy.