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.
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.
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.
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.
Many of the members volunteer as firefighters or with sheriff's departments, and have served on search-and-rescue teams. They include military veterans, some of whom have special weapons and tactics (SWAT) experience. They all have EMT (emergency medical technician) training, and they've conducted first-responder certification classes for small police and fire departments in the area.
Driving in a remote area recently, several of them came upon the driver of a pickup truck that had tumbled down a steep embankment. They were able to tend to the injured driver until a medical team arrived.
"We're just people who want to make a difference in the wilderness," says Bryon Barnes, the group's training coordinator. "The Forest Service has great people, but there's just too much for them to do."
Forest Service officials agree.
"We rely on groups like that to do a lot of work on national forests that otherwise wouldn't get done," says Rex Holloway, spokesman for the agency's Pacific Northwest region.
At the same time, other Forest Service officials (as well as some law-enforcement officials) have reservations about armed civilians - no matter how well-trained or well-intentioned - patrolling the woods. "If they're working for us as volunteers, we have asked them not to wear a gun that's visible or wear anything that connects them to us," says Judy Mitchell, a US Forest Service wilderness ranger who's covered this territory with her pack llamas for the past 17 years. "If they were to hurt anybody ... then we are responsible for that."
The controversy over the rangers comes at a time when the West has seen a number of incidents involving armed civilian organizations that sometimes operate outside the law. These range from antigovernment militias practicing armed maneuvers on public land to vigilante-type groups along the US-Mexican border apprehending (and, according to one lawsuit, mistreating) illegal aliens.
None of that appears to be true of the Oregon Rangers Association.
Members say they operate not only fully within the law but also in full support of law enforcement, emergency, and rescue providers.
But it's the fact that they conduct weapons training and often carry guns that's raised eyebrows. At first, they did their practice shooting at targets on Mr. Ehrhardt's property. It's a rural area of farms and orchards, but there are neighbors nearby and some of them complained. Now, the group has bought property in remote central Oregon for weapons training.
"We carry handguns most of the time," says Ehrhardt, who was captain of a pistol competition team when he was in the Army. "It's like a seatbelt or a life jacket - you hope you never have to use it."
They've had inquiries from other parts of the country, most of it from those wanting to start similar groups. But the initial attention, as Eric says, also has "attracted some of the crackpots."
Their activity and the questions raised also need to be seen in the context of traditional Western attitudes toward public lands. Many people here think the government - or anybody who looks as if they might represent the government - has no business interfering with what they do in the backcountry. That might include poaching the occasional deer or truckload of logs, growing a patch of marijuana, or dumping a worn set of tires.
"Most people out here think we're a good idea," says Ehrhardt. "Others think there shouldn't be any intervention" - either by government agencies or by anybody else.
He recognizes that law-abiding hikers and hunters might be alarmed by the presence of armed men miles from civilization - even in the rural West, where guns are an everyday part of life for many people.
"It would be really easy for us to get in trouble doing this," Ehrhardt acknowledges. "If we're perceived as twisting arms or harassing people, then I'm pretty much sunk."
But, he says, "We're there to help people, and part of helping people is not harassing them."