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Pistol-packin' citizens patrol Western parks

Unpaid 'rangers' help Forest Service, but some fret about weapons and vigilantism.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 2, 2003


The gray Jeep Cherokee with the large gold star on the door is just about ready to roll. Two men check the gear stowed in the back: tools, medical equipment, radios, GPS device, rappelling ropes, camera, gas mask, body armor, canisters of CS gas and pepper spray, thermos of coffee, and sandwiches. They're both wearing badges, and they both have semiautomatic pistols in black leather holsters tucked into their waistbands. A 12-gauge shotgun stands upright, clamped to the dashboard.

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But Paul Ehrhardt and Eric (who asks that his last name not be used) are not law-enforcement officers. They're members of the "Oregon Rangers Association," a group of civilians who've taken it upon themselves to patrol the national forests where they respond to emergencies, look for illegal activity, and make citizens' arrests if necessary.

Badged and official-looking

It's a controversial development. They're trained and armed, wear official-looking uniforms with badges, and drive official-looking vehicles. It's making some neighbors nervous and some law-enforcement officials wary. It also reflects important aspects of western rural culture and attitudes toward government agencies and firearms.

Are they Robin Hoods or vigilantes? They prefer to think of themselves as a sort of "neighborhood watch" for the woods. As they head up into the Willamette National Forest along the Cascade Mountain range, their goal this day is to repair and replace bullet-riddled signs, vandalized information boxes, and other damaged facilities. Along the way, they'll keep an eye out for signs of illegal activity as well as for hunters or hikers who may need help. They'll also remove a "widow maker" tree trunk hanging over a rough road into a wilderness trailhead and tack up a fire warning sign that has blown down, and stop to see if the driver of an overheated van needs help.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that crime in the woods is increasing: Marijuana gardens, timber and game poaching, destruction of signs and facilities, the dumping of dangerous materials including highly poisonous materials left over from manufacture of the synthetic drug methamphetamine.

Watchdog groups also warn of increasing violence against employees of national parks, national forests, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Many miles, few officers

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) reported last month that "park rangers are 12 times more likely to be killed or injured as a result of an assault than FBI agents." Citing agency figures obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, PEER noted 98 violent attacks against park rangers last year, plus 141 incidents of threats or violence against employees of the US Forest Service, the BLM, and the fish and wildlife service.

"These numbers may be only the tip of the iceberg, as many people in the field are discouraged from reporting threats and assaults," says Eric Wingerter, PEER's national field director.

Armed federal officers responsible for the wide-open spaces and dense forests of the West can be few and far between. For example, the Willamette National Forest in Oregon covers more than 2,600 square miles. It has 5,500 miles of roads, 1,700 miles of trails, and 80 developed campgrounds. Yet it has just five full-time law-enforcement officers to keep an eye on things.

That's where the Oregon Rangers Association comes in. Formed about a year ago, the group now has about a dozen members (some of them married couples) with more in training. Mr. Ehrhardt runs a private security company whose courses and gear overlap with the rangers.