Thursday, October 19, 2006

See I told you so!

Just when I step off my soapbox about people not realizing the amount of law enforcement that park rangers routinely perform, I run across a story that actually confirms what I am saying. I guess Ranger Gord is not full of least on this subject.

Crime slowly creeps into parks, forests (The Seattle Times)

The officers Klaasen oversees in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and Olympic National Forest regularly encounter abandoned meth labs, evidence of marijuana growing and fugitives living deep in the backcountry who survive by stealing from campers.

In general, Cmdr. Barb Severson of the Forest Service said, crime appears to be increasing in the more than 1 million acres of national forest land that her 25 officers patrol in Washington state.

Between October 2005 and September, officers in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest handed out 709 citations and wrote an additional 2,197 incident reports, Severson said. Citations were handed out for everything from vandalism to illegal dumping to nonpayment of recreation fees and illegal off-road vehicle use, Severson said.

During the same time period, officers in the Olympic National Forest gave 262 citations and wrote 875 incident reports.

Severson didn't know how many arrests were made.

In 2005, rangers at Olympic National Park made 14 arrests and handed out 523 citations according to park spokeswoman Barb Maynes.

Of the more than 10 arrests by Olympic National Park rangers this year, most were for drunken driving, she said. This year rangers have handed out more than 215 citations.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) says the rise of crime in national forests is reflected in the increase in threats and violence toward employees of the Forest Service, National Parks Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management. According to PEER, attacks against employees of those agencies have increased from 88 reported in 2004 to 477 in 2005.

In the summertime, Mark O'Neill, who patrols Olympic National Park, parks his patrol car along Highway 101, the main drag between Port Angeles and Forks, to catch speeders. During these traffic stops he often finds fugitives wanted on arrest warrants.

"We take weapons off people all the time," O'Neill said.

A rash of car break-ins at the Lake Quinault trailhead last summer resulted in the theft of nearly $20,000 worth of items from 21 people, Jordan said. By bashing car windows with a rock, thieves stole laptops, wallets and other items. Only six people recovered some of their possessions, she said.

During 12 years as a Forest Service officer, Shane Wyrsh said he's seen alleged gang members practicing shooting; he's helped investigate violent assaults and even stumbled upon "the mother of all meth labs." This was a property where people were exchanging cars, bicycles, generators and other stolen items for drugs.

Over the years he's also had several people threaten to kill him.

Wyrsh said he joined the Forest Service because he wanted to be a cop. He now believes working in the woods can at times be more dangerous than patrolling a city.

"It's probably one of the most unique styles of law enforcement there is," he said. "Safety is kind of on us. Backup is 30 minutes to an hour away."

Many park rangers and forest officers say park visitors often chide them about carrying guns and don't see them as serious law-enforcement officers.

Jordan, who will regularly respond to such comments with a history lesson about the role of the park service, is convinced that the confusion stems from the fact that their khaki uniforms look a lot like the ones worn by civilian park guides.

"They [visitors] view me as some sort of benevolent park employee or a Smokey the Bear," Jordan said.

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