LARAMIE, Wyo. – An environmental group that advocates on behalf of government employees worries anti-government rhetoric fueled a surge in attacks and threats last year against law enforcement rangers in national parks.
The group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility said it used the Freedom of Information Act to compile a list of 158 threats and attacks against law enforcement rangers in national parks in 2009. That’s up from 36 tallied in 2008 and the previous high of 111 in 2004.
The group’s executive director, Jeff Ruch, said he’s concerned anti-government sentiment is partly to blame. People just don’t have a high level of respect for park rangers like they did in the past, he said Wednesday.
“There’s certainly a change in public attitude,” Ruch said. “The exact cause of that may take a social scientist. But there isn’t the same warm and fuzzy feeling most people remember as the good old days.”
Some rhetoric lately sounds like the “sagebrush rebellion” against federal land managers out West in the 1990s, he said.
The PEER numbers are surprising and the Park Service hasn’t studied what caused the increase, said David Barna, the agency’s chief of public affairs. But the numbers are worth looking into, he said.
“We can’t always stop the number of assaults on our staff, but we can equip and train to respond to them,” Barna said.
The number of documented incidents varied widely by park.
PEER documented none in the heavily visited Grand Canyon and Yellowstone national parks. Other popular parks such as Redwoods and Yosemite in California had several. Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Nevada led with 58 incidents.
Ruch said reporting inconsistency from park to park probably accounts for the variation. He criticized the Park Service for not doing more to track threats and assaults on all park employees including law enforcement rangers.
The Park Service is improving by implementing a new tracking system, Barna said.
Incidents nationwide ranged from verbal threats by people told to leash their dogs to drinking and drug-related confrontations. PEER also documented confrontational traffic stops, including a car chase, on the 444-mile Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee.
The Park Service has a long history of downplaying violence and threats against park staff, said Paul Berkowitz, a recently retired Park Service law enforcement officer whose 33-year career included duty in Yosemite and Grand Canyon.
“It goes against the image of what we envision national parks to be,” he said.
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