The Dangers of Being a Ranger

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One of the most dangerous places to be a law enforcement officer is inside the nation's national parks and preserves. Rangers work with little backup, in remote territories and face a wide variety of perils.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

The most dangerous place to be a law enforcement officer may not be in America's inner cities or along the US borders or in the suburbs. It could be here...

(Soundbite of nature sounds)

SIMON: ...inside the nation's 388 national parks and preserves. NPR's Laura Sullivan reports.

LAURA SULLIVAN reporting:

Ask rangers in Yosemite National Park to describe what they run into every day, and this is what you're likely to hear.

Ranger LESLIE REYNOLDS: Firearms, knives, switchblades, nunchakus. We're seeing a lot of BB guns.

SULLIVAN: Leslie Reynolds has been patrolling Yosemite here in Northern California for 10 years. Driving through the historic park, past the mammoth Yosemite Falls and granite cliffs of Half Dome and El Capitan, fellow ranger Grady Bryant(ph) has a different list.

Ranger GRADY BRYANT: Weapons, drugs, alcohol, sex--sexual assaults, rapes, stabbings, so seen all of that.

SULLIVAN: US park rangers are facing more danger than they ever have before. Assaults on park rangers reached an all-time high last year, sometimes from criminals, sometimes from campers. Park rangers are five times more likely to be assaulted than US border patrol officers, and 12 times more likely to be attacked than FBI agents.

Deputy Chief CAM SHOLLY: One of the things that strikes me and that I think about every day is the fact that three rangers have been killed by gunfire in the last seven years.

SULLIVAN: Ranger supervisors, like Yosemite's Deputy Chief Cam Sholly, believe there are a lot of reasons for the increased violence against rangers, but one is obvious. There are half as many rangers today as there were in the 1980s and twice as many total visitors. With better roads and access, millions of people are coming to the parks each year to camp out or commute through, and they're bringing their problems with them.

Park ranger Grady Bryant circles the winding road of Yosemite Valley in his patrol car several dozen times a night.

Ranger BRYANT: We have a little saying, `People come on vacation, leave on probation,' because they bring their character, their personality, their standards, their values, with them. If they're going to beat their wife at home, they're going to beat their wife in the park.

SULLIVAN: As he continues his patrol past the granite monuments, he points to the rock cliffs above. He says he worries about guns and violent crime and what that means for rangers on patrol.

Ranger BRYANT: We have a lot of people that come up here, and they'll take the high ground and--for example, we had a guy with a gun in the rocks up there at Arch Rock. And so he pretty much held the road at bay. He was armed with about two handguns and a few long rifles. And so you get people that bring guns and shoot guns.

SULLIVAN: Bryant says not much surprises him anymore.

Ranger BRYANT: So like I said, this place is the world. It's a microcosm of the world. We have everybody. I've been on five homicides since I've been working here. Not a lot of homicides, but for a park--we're talking about a park where Mom and Pop and the kids come.

SULLIVAN: In the course of a patrol, rangers are information booth, nature experts, jailers, evidence technicians, even coroners. Calls come over the radio about people they will have to rescue.

Unidentified Male Radio Voice: I've taken a report of climber fall. Apparently there's...

SULLIVAN: And patients they will have to keep alive until an ambulance can get there.

Unidentified Male Radio Voice: I have a report of a possible heart attack at the...

SULLIVAN: And that's part of the problem. Park ranger Todd Bruno says all these different roles can be confusing to the public, which doesn't take them as seriously as other law enforcement. Visitors see khaki pants and funny hats.

Ranger TODD BRUNO: I'm just wondering how many other federal agencies deal with that kind of mentality.

SULLIVAN: Bruno says many of the people he arrests, for things like drunk driving, spousal abuse and theft, are surprised he carries a gun. They expect to be slapped on the wrist or given a lecture about wildlife. When they're jailed instead, Bruno says rangers take the brunt of their anger.

Ranger BRUNO: When you go to the airport and you deal with customs, you're on good behavior. You know, you're not camping out drinking beer in an airport. But when you come to a national park, the minute you think you can kind of get away with some stuff that you probably wouldn't try to get away with in the city with policemen.

SULLIVAN: Yosemite has 50 law enforcement rangers to cover an area the size of Rhode Island. There were more than a hundred rangers patrolling the same area in 1973. But that's nothing to park ranger Kirk Gebicke, stationed in the Mojave National Preserve. It's twice the size of Yosemite, 1.6 million acres of windswept sand dunes and cactus covered hills. Gebicke is one of four rangers here.

Ranger KIRK GEBICKE: Backup is non-existent basically. It's--you can't depend on somebody else to come bail you out pretty much ever.

SULLIVAN: This preserve is bordered by one of the busiest freeways in the country, interstate I-15, the road between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Sandwiched between the two cities, the park has attracted some of their problems. High on the list are meth labs, body dumps, and what ranger Gebicke calls `train robberies.'

Ranger GEBICKE: They'll jump on the train--the container trains primarily. They'll pop open the doors and take whatever valuables out that they can find, anything that'll survive being thrown off the train while it travels up the road. Tennis shoes and clothing are some of the more popular things, but computers--anything of value that can be sold on the black market on the street.

SULLIVAN: Gebicke stands between the train tracks and a stretch of desolate desert highway, as the train begins its slow crawl up the Mojave Mountains. These tracks have linked California's ports to Chicago for almost a century. Recently train operators estimated they were losing a quarter million dollars a month just in the park from theft. It isn't long before Gebicke spots the thieves' handiwork, open train cars that started off locked in California.

Ranger GEBICKE: There's an open one. See that orange seal; it's been opened.

SULLIVAN: But with only four rangers, there's little Gebicke or his three counterparts can do to stop the thefts. The park has a host of other pressing and dangerous problems. But what worries Gebicke the most is the increasing use of the preserve to make methamphetamine.

Ranger GEBICKE: Probably one of the more dangerous aspects of this job is to stumble into a meth lab, either intentionally or accidentally.

SULLIVAN: That's just what happened to Gebicke awhile back. He takes me into an old wooden cabin once used by gold miners. The cabin is hidden 20 minutes up a dirt road.

Ranger GEBICKE: On this side--be careful on the porch--this is where we found some of the meth where it was buried under the porch, later. But this little table here had black plastic visqueen in white powder type stuff on it. There was--actually I did look and the wood stove was hot, and there was a can of acetone--which is one of the chemicals used in the meth lab process--in the stove that--they'd tried to burn the can.

SULLIVAN: And outside he sees signs meth makers could be back.

Ranger GEBICKE: Actually you can see here's some meth lab product that I don't think was here. Red Devil lye--that would be meth lab material right there.

SULLIVAN: If this were the city, a SWAT team of officers wouldn't hesitate to make a bust. That's not an option here.

Ranger GEBICKE: My handheld radio doesn't work here. We're in a--kind of in a canyon in a basin in the mountains, and we're just kind of out here, you know, depending on ourselves to survive and back out of something if we get into something, and not proceed if it looks hazardous.

SULLIVAN: Just three months ago, two Mojave rangers went to visit a man who lives in the park. The man suddenly pulled out a loaded shotgun, cocked it, and tried to chase the rangers into the desert. They escaped by jumping back into their patrol car and flooring it in reverse.

Ranger GEBICKE: You don't get into anything you can't handle yourself because there is no backup. If we called for backup right now, it would be hour, hour and a half, if somebody had a vehicle and knew where I was.

SULLIVAN: Does that worry you? I mean, does that--do you get scared at all out here by yourself?

Ranger GEBICKE: At times. You'd be a fool if you didn't say you were scared. You just--that's the job, I guess.

SULLIVAN: And the job is unlikely to change. The park service has asked for only a modest increase in its budget next year and won't be hiring any additional rangers.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News.

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