When Chief Ranger Jerry Epperson hired me to be a seasonal ranger at Arches National Park in Utah 25 years ago, I wasn’t sure what my duties were. So it seemed like a good idea to ask.
Epperson smiled wryly and said, "A ranger
So even though we had to endure chores
like collecting fees and working the information desk and cleaning
toilets and admonishing tourists for their almost unbearable
ignorance, we preferred to range. We headed for the backcountry any
time opportunity allowed.
To get to know a piece of land
— for its own sake, no other reason — was the greatest
reward of all. We didn’t range for profit; we did it for our
hearts and our souls.
Collecting fees was always the
least pleasant of my duties, its only advantage the occasional
opportunity to meet beautiful single women camping alone. I was no
chick magnet, but my hot shower was.
But fast-forward 20
years, and employees of the various federal agencies collecting
land-use fees show a zealousness that is almost incomprehensible to
me. I read stories of park and forest rangers and BLM staffers who
spend most of their day looking for fee violators, even to the
point of searching once-empty dirt roads, watching for visitors
without proof of payment taped to their windshields or stapled to
The almost fanatical quest for fees
turned to tragedy in New Mexico a few weeks ago at Elephant Butte
State Park, when a state park ranger shot a tourist. According to a
story in the Las Cruces Sun-News, the victim, a
tourist in his 50s from Montana, became belligerent and refused to
pay a $14 camping fee.
The ranger attempted to arrest the
camper for trespassing, but the man put his hands in his pockets
and refused to remove them. According to a spokeswoman for the
state parks division, he was verbally abusive and "acted in a
manner that our officer is trained to respond to." So Ranger Clyde
Woods shot him dead. The tourist was unarmed.
Parks Director Dave Simon said, "Deadly force is always a last
resort." He added that the "vast majority of park users comply
willingly with park fees."
I have my own story. One dark
evening, when the Arches campground was full, a couple of young men
tried to camp illegally in the picnic area. My first encounter with
them was civil enough, and I told them they needed to leave. Twenty
minutes later, paid campers complained that they’d moved into
their site. This time I was firmer, and their attitude was icier. A
few minutes later, I could see their headlights creeping down the
Salt Valley Road in search of an illegal campsite.
self-righteous indignation has always been a quality I needed to
work on, and on this evening it was in full bloom: How dare these
jerks defy the order of a ranger! I found their vehicle tracks; it
was 11 p.m., I was out of radio contact but determined to cite
these violators. I walked into the darkness with my Maglite, my
service revolver snapped firmly in its holster. A hundred yards
down the dry wash, the illegal campers were already in their
When I advised them loudly that they had
to leave immediately and that I was giving them a federal citation,
the two men came unglued, leaping up from their bags, screaming.
They called me every unkind name imaginable, in such a hysterical
manner that I wondered if I was about to lose control of a
situation that was barely 30 seconds old. One was particularly
rabid, and moved toward me in a threatening way.
scared to death. I took a step backward and placed my thumb on the
keeper of my gun holster. The young man stopped, then screamed at
me, "You take that gun out and you’re a dead man!" We stared
at each other for five long seconds.
I reflected on his
words, and I decided that he was most likely right: If I took my
gun from the holster, I’d be the one shot dead.
"OK," I said, taking a deep breath. "I’m going back to my
patrol cruiser. I want both of you out of here in 30 minutes." I
backed off slowly, turned and walked back to the road. Had they
come running up behind me, I would never have heard them; the sound
of my heart pounding in my ears was deafening.
I sat in
my patrol car for 20 long minutes, shaken, but happy to have my
body intact. Finally, incredibly, here they came, packed up and in
their car. One of them had calmed appreciably, and I handed him the
citation. He even thanked me. His friend, however, was still out of
control, and kept slamming his fists into the ceiling of their
Had I been a coward or a wise man? I decided
that, for once, I’d been wise. I never again came close to a
confrontation like this.
I don’t know all the facts
in the New Mexico shooting, but I would guess that fear and
adrenaline and the rapid rush of events were among its causes. But
the tragedy that resulted didn’t need to happen: A $14 fee
can’t be worth a life.