In August of 2007, I was camped at the confluence of the Malamute Fork and the Alatna River, waiting for a National Park Service plane to pick me and my NPS Ranger companion, Tracy Pendergrast, up from a 12-day backcountry trip as part of my Artist-in-Residence experience in Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve. Soon, word came that our pilot would not be picking us up; he had been retasked to take law enforcement rangers out to investigate a report of Dall Sheep poaching. Often, these backcountry rangers receive spotty information but still have to head out quickly before the evidence trail runs cold. It was my first exposure to the life of a natural resources law enforcement ranger.
It is so easy for those who visit our national parks or other public lands to chide those who are tasked with enforcing the law. I have heard many photographers complain about NPS rangers in Denali National Park & Preserve enforcing the rules of the road or distance limitations to certain wildlife, calling these rangers “Ranger Dick.” But our rangers face so many hazards and pitfalls when performing their duties, none with more clarity than the story of Park Ranger Margaret Anderson, who was killed in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, on January 1, 2012, as she set up a road block to stop a driver that had run a chain-up checkpoint. The driver opened fire, killing Ranger Anderson before she had a chance to get out of her vehicle.
We don’t think of the hazards that our natural resources rangers face in the performance of their duties. Heck, in Alaska, for many of them, just getting out and doing their routine jobs can be dangerous: lots of small plane flights, heading out into hazardous conditions, heading out where there are few resources to help, facing down possible law breakers who are likely armed with some sort of weapon. This last point is now a reality for all National Park Service rangers, no thanks to President Obama signing a law that makes it legal for people to carry firearms in all of our National Parks. At least before rangers didn’t have to worry about that factor as much when confronting law breakers.
Natural resource rangers have been dealing with law breakers for decades, but mostly the kind that violate fish and wildlife regulations. Snaring instead of hooking fish, taking too small of a deer or taking a moose out of season. Using the wrong kind of traps or other methods of taking wildlife that are not authorized. There are several great books out there in the genre of natural resources crime fighting that are a an excellent read to understand this world better. The best one I have read is Wildlife Wars: The Life and Times of a Fish and Game Warden by Terry Grosz. Mr. Grosz has written several books since and I will have to start getting caught up in his work.
But there is an insidious trend happening in our country where the crimes of “civilized” society are creeping their way into our public lands. The incident with Ranger Anderson is an extreme example. Quietly, behind the scenes and pretty much out of the scrutiny of corporate media, the drug wars have spilled into our public lands as well. I am talking about the massive amounts of marijuana cultivation going on right now in approximately 67 national forests nationwide. There is story after story of these grow sites being found from the northeast to the southwest, with the enormous costs (up to $300,000 per acre) of restoration not to mention the incredible risk of rangers encountering armed individuals tending to these marijuana fields.
It’s hard to imagine a world where our park rangers have to face deadly armed gunmen on a shooting spree or drug cartels in the performance of their duties. Our public lands are supposed to be places of solace and refuge from the darker side of our world. Rangers should be able to spend their time offering interpretive lectures, answering silly questions about natural features, showing visitors all the wonders that await them in our public lands. I cannot recall the number of times I have been impressed by the kindness, courtesy and knowledge of a park ranger. Entering into a dialogue with them is always one of my favorite parts of visiting our national forests, parks, monuments and wildlife refuges. Yet, increasingly, they face these outside threats and do so with an ever-decreasing budget, slashed by politicians in Washington, D.C. who rarely visit our national parks and don’t see the value in continuing to fund them what they need.
So, in honor of Ranger Anderson and all other natural resources rangers who protect us and our public lands, I hope that you will consider what you find valuable in their work and the places they protect, and contact your Congressional delegation and tell them how you feel. Also, to honor Ranger Anderson, I am posting some images from the place she died serving: Mount Rainier National Park in Washington. And next time you visit a national forest, park, monument or wildlife refuge, please thank a ranger for what they do.