When Chief Ranger Jerry Epperson hired me to be a seasonal ranger at Arches National Park in Utah so many years ago, I wasn’t sure what my duties were supposed to be. So it seemed like a good idea to ask.
Epperson smiled wryly and said, “A ranger should range.”
So while all of us endured Park Service chores like collecting fees and working the information desk and cleaning toilets and admonishing the tourists for their often almost unbearable ignorance, we still preferred to range. We headed for the backcountry any time opportunity allowed.
To get to know a piece of land — for no other reason than the intimacy between you that it provided — 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 was the opportunity it occasionally provided for beautiful single women camping alone who were in desperate need of a bath, and who found my invitation for a hot shower almost irresistible. I was no chick magnet, but my hot water was.
But fast-forward 20 years, and employees of the various federal agencies collecting land-use fees are showing a zealousness for their work that is almost incomprehensible to me.
I continue to 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 the necessary proof of payment taped to their windshields or stapled to their foreheads.
The almost fanatical quest for fees turned to tragedy in New Mexico at Elephant Butte State Park, when a state park ranger shot a tourist during a dispute over a camping fee.
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 tourist put his hands in his pockets and refused to remove them. According to a spokeswoman for the state parks division, the man was verbally abusive and “acted in a manner that our officer is trained to respond to.” So Ranger Woods shot him dead. The dead man had not been carrying a firearm or a knife.
After the shooting, 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 deadly force story. One evening when the Arches campground was full, a couple of young men arrived after dark and 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, I caught them again, when 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 and service revolver snapped firmly in its holster. A hundred yards down the dry wash, the illegal campers were already wrapped in their sleeping bags.
When I advised them loudly that they had to leave immediately and that I was also issuing them a federal citation, the two men came unglued, leaping up from their bags, screaming. They called me every unkind word imaginable and 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 way that felt threatening.
I was scared to death. I took a step backward and placed my thumb on the keeper of my gun holster. The young man saw the move and stopped. Then he 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, in fact, he was absolutely right. If I took my gun from the holster I knew 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 been 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, still 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 roof of their vehicle.
Had I been a coward or a wise man? I decided that for once, I’d been the latter. I never again came even close to a confrontation like that.
I don’t know all the facts in the New Mexico shooting, but I would guess that fear and adrenaline and the rapid way events can unfold were the causes of the shooting. But a tragedy resulted that didn’t need to happen: A $14 fee can’t be worth a death.
(Jim Stiles is publisher of the “Canyon Country Zephyr -- Planet Earth Edition” now exclusively online. He is also the author of “Brave New West.” Both can be found at www.canyoncountryzephyr.com. Stiles lives in San Juan County and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)