11/16/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Forest Service Apologizes for Slurs Against Latinos

Federal lands are supposed to belong to the American people. All the American people. But a U.S. Forest Service official implied that Latinos are different. In a press conference on August 26, USFS special agent Gil Quintana (he with a Hispanic surname) wanted hikers to be on the alert for such signs of illegal pot-growing activity as "tortilla packing, beer cans, Spam, tuna, Tecate beer cans, etc." -- telling detritus that "may or may not represent criminal activities but are indicators."

The howls from Latino leaders accusing the Quintana's presentation of "insensitivity" were swift, and the Forest Service's apologies and warnings followed quickly. In early September, 17 Latino leaders, including Polly Baca, co-chair of the Colorado Latino Forum, met with USFS officials. Baca noted that a Forest Service official, though himself Hispanic, "used language that was harmful -- the result of being unaware and culturally insensitive to a very important population that has been here since 1598."

Quintana's cultural self-awareness has certainly been raised. The Forest Service revised its warning from tortilla wrappers and Tecate cans to "fertilizer, irrigation pipes and equipment, and large trash piles that might indicate long-term camping," according to published reports, which also indicate that the Forest Service believes Latin American drug cartels have been sending illegal immigrants to national forests to cultivate marijuana. It was also reported that authorities seized nearly 20,000 marijuana plants this past summer. Woods in the woods, you might say.

That aside, the apology to Latinos still stands. Rick Cables of the USFS Rocky Mountain Region said, "We sincerely apologize to the Hispanic community and anyone else who might have been offended" for the earlier "regrettable remarks."