« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

Guess what's the most dangerous government job

  Think of all the dangerous beats assigned to federal law enforcement officers: tracking illegal arms sales, intercepting drug smugglers, guarding the nation's borders against foreign terrorists, apprehending kidnappers and fugitives, protecting the lives of potential assassination targets.

Now, guess which branch of federal law enforcement is the most dangerous, in terms of the rate at which its employees are assaulted or killed while on duty. Drug Enforcement Administration? FBI? Customs Service? Border Patrol? Secret Service?

Logical answers, every one. But wrong. The most dangerous federal law-enforcement job in the United States is ranger for the National Park Service, according to the Fraternal Order of Police, which cited Department of Justice statistics in a letter sent two weeks ago to Interior Secretary Gale Norton asking for an FBI inquiry into the matter. Signed by Randall Kendrick, executive director of the group's U.S. Park Ranger Lodge, the letter says the rate at which park rangers are injured or killed while on duty is triple that of the Customs Service, the next worst agency.

The assertion is backed also by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a national alliance of local, state and federal resource agency employees, which recently released a report regarding attacks against park rangers and other law-enforcement officers. According to PEER, which obtained the figures through Freedom of Information Act requests, incidents of violence, threats and harassment directed at Park Service employees rose 940 percent between 2000 and 2001, from 10 incidents to 104.

PEER also released a report asserting that bombings, shootings, beatings and arson directed at employees and facilities of the Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management rose dramatically last year. National forest incidents rose 136 percent, from 33 in 2000 to 78 last year. Incidents at wildlife refuges rose 22 percent. Those involving BLM employees increased only 4 percent, but they were far more likely to be violent in 2001 than the year before.

PEER has been trying since 1995 to draw attention to the threats faced by federal workers, and some of the increase may stem from better reporting as well as from an increase in the number of people visiting public lands. This year, however, the report comes amid dramatically heightened sensitivity to threats against symbols of American culture and identity. The lack of political reaction underscores the hypocrisy that quickly emerged from the sorrow of Sept. 11.

In the weeks after the terrorist attacks, grief gave way to anger and then to cynical grandstanding as politicians tried to capitalize on public passion to press private agendas. One of the leaders of this campaign was Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., who chairs the House Resources Committee's Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health. He quickly convened a congressional hearing on "eco-terrorism." The subcommittee issued a subpoena for a representative of the Earth Liberation Front, which has claimed responsibility for several well-publicized incidents "- most notably the $12 million arson fire in 1998 at a ski resort in Vail, Colo. "- and invited an FBI terrorism expert to testify about the danger such groups pose to domestic tranquility.

Although property destruction, which is what all documented incidents of "eco-terrorism" so far have involved, seldom accomplishes much and has been condemned by mainstream environmental groups, it remains a legitimate target of investigation. Some of the incidents documented by PEER may have involved environmentalists trying to stop timber sales and similar federal actions, and others were garden-variety crimes lacking any political dimension.

But many of the attacks appear to have been committed by people angered by any federal constraint on their private use of public lands. So where is the inquiry into this terrorist campaign of fear and intimidation apparently being directed against federal employees for protecting America's forests, parks and grasslands?

Why hasn't the FBI created a task force to examine "property-rights" groups that deny the legitimacy of federal regulations and demonize those who enforce them? Why have there been no congressional subpoenas for lawmakers who indirectly encourage such attacks with rhetoric about the "war on the West" being waged by government agencies enforcing environmental laws that affect ranchers, farmers and loggers?

Americans have learned many hard lessons in the past year. One is that there are desperate people in the world who will do almost anything to advance their political agendas. Another is that such people sometimes hold public office in this country.

John Krist is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a senior reporter and columnist in California for the Ventura County Star.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].