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Blood spills over a $14 camping fee

  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 should range."

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 their foreheads.

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.

Later, 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.

My 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 sleeping bags.

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.

I was 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 vehicle.

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.

Jim Stiles is the publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr in Moab, Utah.