Park rangers' job gets more dangerous

Wide-ranging patrols turn up drug smugglers and fugitives on border

October 02, 2003|By Karen Brooks | Karen Brooks,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

FORT WORTH, Texas - On a routine patrol through Big Bend National Park on the Texas-Mexico border, law officer Cary Brown pulled over a speeding pickup truck and found an antsy driver with a two-way radio - and more than $2 million worth of marijuana.

Narcotics interdiction is a major part of Brown's job, but the 26-year law-enforcement veteran doesn't work for the U.S. Border Patrol or any other agency typically connected with such a mission.

Brown is a National Park Service ranger, and it has been a long time since he and the 40 other park rangers have been able to focus on illegal camping and other such violations as they patrol about 300 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Change in focus

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, rangers have shifted their focus to smugglers and fugitives in what has become one of the most dangerous jobs in federal law enforcement.

A recent study by the Justice Department found that park rangers are 15 times more likely to be killed or injured on the job than an agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration.

And two Texas parks - Amistad National Recreation Area near Del Rio and Big Bend National Park - were listed among the 10 most dangerous parks in the United States for rangers by the U.S. Park Rangers Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police.

"Our unique problem on the border is that it's a great place for people to cross with drug loads and illegal aliens because we have so few people and so many miles to patrol," said Brown, who sometimes patrols a half-million acres by himself.

Resources stretched

Rangers say they're confronting a threat that is growing beyond their resources.

At Amistad National Recreational Area - where rangers are replacing a 35-year-old radio system - more than $5 million worth of marijuana has been confiscated in the past eight months, authorities say. At Big Bend, with the help of U.S. Border Patrol agents, Brown's bust in January turned up two loads worth nearly $6 million, law enforcement officials said.

"People don't realize that you're out doing anything other than checking for illegal camping or something, which is very little of what we actually do," said Amistad Ranger Matt Roberson, a former immigration officer in Dallas.

Rangers say their problems don't put tourists in danger because smugglers typically stay away from populated areas.

A movement to strengthen law enforcement in the Park Service has been bolstered by reports of mismanagement and a growing awareness of security gaps in border-area parks.

After 30 years with only one ranger death on duty, three rangers have been killed in the past three years, including Ranger Kris Eggle, who was shot to death in 2002 by a fugitive in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona, the government says.

And although no rangers have been killed at Big Bend or Amistad, the two parks have historically been troubled by low staffing levels and antiquated equipment, rangers say.

At Amistad and Big Bend, help has arrived in the form of new equipment and additional staffing that rangers say were long overdue.

"We're happy to say that both Amistad and Big Bend are slowly but surely on the way up," said Randall Kendrick, executive director of the rangers lodge of the FOP, which in June named those parks among the three most dangerous places in the country to be a park ranger.

A study by Kendrick's group described Big Bend, the largest national park on the U.S.-Mexico border, as "a preventable ranger death waiting to happen."

When night falls at Amistad, "the park is turned over to the smugglers," the report says.

In response, the Interior Department has doubled the number of rangers on the southern border in recent years and increased funding for law enforcement training, said Dennis Burnett, law enforcement administrator for the National Park Service in Washington, D.C.

`Trying to catch up'

"When you dam a stream in one place, it backs off and goes somewhere else," he said. "When the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol clamped down, our problems started increasing. We're trying to catch up."

Although some of the 9,700 Border Patrol agents on the Mexican border support the park rangers, few are permanently located in the parks. Only two are stationed inside the 800,000 acres of Big Bend.

"We're quite sympathetic to their concerns," said Bill Brooks of the Border Patrol in Marfa, Texas, near Big Bend. "We're very isolated, and it's not unusual for an agent or a park ranger to be in a position where backup might be a good ways off."

At Amistad, the 83-mile border with Mexico is entirely underwater at the Rio Grande, which in some places can be crossed on foot. Lake Amistad can easily be traversed by boat, and Texas Highway 90 is a short distance away.

Equipment, personnel

The park recently invested $400,000 in three new patrol boats, more patrol cars and a new radio system, park superintendent Alan Cox said. The park has also contracted with the local Sheriff's Department for a 24-hour radio dispatcher and will soon start using dogs.

Two years ago, only four rangers patrolled the park. Now there are eight, and officials expect to add five more next year, Cox said.

At Big Bend, money for staffing can't come fast enough, Brown said. A recent police association study recommended that Big Bend employ 36 rangers to alleviate on-the-job risks. The park now has 12. Two more are on the way, which Brown called "a trickle" of progress.

"We're outgunned, we're outmanned," Brown said. "And it's not over."

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