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Investigators find weaknesses in munitions storage on Forest Service land

WASHINGTON—Terrorists could arm themselves with howitzers, recoilless rifles and explosives stashed on Forest Service land, federal investigators fear.

The weapons and munitions are stored in 335 sites nationwide, including a number in California and other Western states. Ski resorts and federal land managers use the equipment to blast boulders and control avalanches.

But three years after they first pinpointed potential weaknesses in the Forest Service's munitions security, investigators found that important reforms remained unfinished.

"We attributed this inaction to lack of accountability at the national level for security over the agency's munitions (and) explosives program," investigators with the Agriculture Department's Office of Inspector General noted in a new report.

The problem isn't necessarily with broken locks or open doors. The physical security of the Forest Service's munitions magazines was described as "generally" sufficient. Bureaucratically, though, it's been a different story.

"For over three years," investigators noted in one example, "the Forest Service did not have a national leader responsible for the security of its explosives program."

Forest Service officials stress that they take security seriously, and they indicated that they will soon finish complying with all of the investigators' security recommendations, which were first made in April 2003.

"We've made a lot of progress," Forest Service spokesman Joe Walsh said Monday.

The potential threat is real whenever public agencies or private companies stockpile explosives.

In 1999, several hundred pounds of dynamite, blasting caps and other explosives were stolen from an unguarded police bunker in California's Fresno County. More recently, 686 sticks of dynamite were reported stolen in May from a gold mining company in a remote area of San Bernardino County.

And, in what appears to have been a previously unreported incident, investigators note that explosives were recently stolen from an unidentified Forest Service storage facility.

"Since that particular forest had implemented our recommendation to maintain an accurate inventory of its explosives, it was able to quickly determine what was stolen, which in turn helped federal law enforcement authorities recover the explosives," the investigators noted.

The Forest Service has promised to finish the necessary reforms by Oct. 31.

Already, it has finally designated an officer to oversee munitions safety and security, filling a position left vacant in January 2003. The agency will also revise rules that will cover everything from changing magazine locks and conducting biannual inventories to conducting background investigations of certain Forest Service personnel.

"We take it very seriously," Walsh said.

The Forest Service manages roughly half of the 335 munitions magazines nationwide. Ski resorts operate the rest under Forest Service permits.

"We certainly feel the security is adequate," said Dana Vander Houwen, a spokeswoman for the Mammoth Mountain ski resort on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada. "And since 9-11, we've taken extra security measures."

Mammoth Mountain ski patrollers typically use between 100 and 150 dynamite charges and between 30 and 50 artillery shells after major storms to clear out potential avalanches, Vander Houwen said. She said the equipment—the resort no longer uses the old military recoilless rifles—is stored in "very remote" areas and will be inventoried constantly.

Public land managers use the explosives for other purposes as well. Last week, provoking some controversy, the Forest Service used dynamite to blast open a logjam on the Salmon River in the middle of Idaho's Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.

Three years ago, facing sharp criticism over its munitions security, the Forest Service agreed that it would adopt 24 reforms by the end of 2003. These ranged from conducting regular inspections to completing a munitions storage database.

Eleven of the 24 "critical" security recommendations remained unfinished earlier this summer.

Walsh said Monday that since the investigators' audit was quietly completed in early July, nine of the 11 remaining security recommendations have been wrapped up. The agency is "close to completing" the remaining two, Walsh added; these include updating a property list and a database of explosives.

Investigators were alarmed the last time they took to the field, in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Records at one Forest Service magazine, for instance, advised that 6,000 feet of detonating cord should be present. Investigators found 4,000 feet, they subsequently reported in their 2003 audit.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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