Monday, December 21, 2009

Winter Driving Park Ranger Style

Under normal winter conditions it is always a challenge to drive in the mountains. Then you add the factors of having to drive at higher elevations than most state roads in areas that are not plowed and the need to respond in emergencies, driving for National Park Rangers can produce many challenges.

In 1981 when I first moved to the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina the park had no four wheel drive vehicles. The administration felt that this was an extravagance that the park could not afford. The problem was that when it snowed or iced up it seemed like everyone else in the world had a four by four and wanted to try it out on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We would then have to put chains on our sedans and try to get to these folks out of trouble when they got stuck or slid off the road.

We had gates to close the road when it became to dangerous for vehicle traffic. We could not close these gates until the road actually got snow covered. The result was that Rangers had to go out in hazardous weather and driving conditions to get the gates locked before visitors drove in the unplowed and dangerous sections. This process could take from a few hours to all night depending on how hard it would be to get around.

One night I was out in my AMC Matador sedan (seen in the photo above) to get the gates closed in the area of Doughton Park on the Parkway. The snow was coming down so hard and blowing sideways producing white out conditions. I literally could not see where I was going and finally stopped and got out of the car to get my bearings. I discovered that I was not even on the road, but about fifty feet out in a field near the concession facilities at the top of the mountain. I could briefly make out the building through the pulsating waves of snow. I was able to get back onto the road, but had to stop and get out periodically to check on my location.

In 1982 freezing rain was coming down covering every surface. Icicles were already hanging from trees and signs when I had to go out and close the roads. Before I could finish the ice started to develop on the road surfaces creating "black ice", one of the most dangerous challenges for vehicle traction. I parked my car up hill within a gate I had to close. As I exited the car my first foot slid out from under me and I caught myself on the door frame preventing a flat out fall to the road. Holding on to the car I slid my way to the rear bumper and then inched my way to the gate. I had just closed one side of the heavy metal gate when a strong gust of wind came up the hollow almost knocking me over. The wind gust also broke the delicate traction that my car had with the icy surface. I looked up hanging on to the gate to stay trying to stay vertical when I noticed my car was slowly sliding, the wheels locked not rolling, back toward me and the gate. My feet began to spin like a cartoon character's on the icy surface trying to get the gate arm out of the way of the car as it came at me. Everything was in slow motion, except my flying feet. I was just able to get the gate out of the way as the car slowly slid by. It traveled about ten feet past the gate when one or two wheels hit a spot of dry pavement and the care stopped. Unbelievable, there was no damage other than my panting and pounding heart. I then spent an hour trying to get the chains on my car (one of the top ten things I hate to do) as the freezing rain formed my clothes into what felt like pieces of stiff plywood.

Next time I will tell you about another instance when I slid on the ice and over the side of the mountain and share some Park Ranger winter mountain driving tips.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

"A Park Ranger's Life" Roanoke Book Signing Postponed

Due to the 21 plus inches of snow in western Virginia, the book signing that was scheduled for today at The Ram's Head Book Shop in Roanoke has been postponed. I will be at the Ram's Head on Tuesday December 22. The time is yet to be set.

Friday, December 18, 2009

"A Park Ranger's Life" PodCast

You can now listen through the Internet to an interview about my career and new book, "A Park Ranger's Life: Thirty Two Years Protecting Our National Parks", by going to:

There is also an article and video that compliment the interview.

Tune in and enjoy.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Natural Resources Illegal Trafficing

There is an excellent article in the January issue of National Geographic Magazine on Trafficking in Wildlife. The article by Bryan Christy outlines the threats and difficulties controlling the international trade in wildlife and animal parts. Most of the article focuses on Southeastern Asian trade and the "The Kingpin" of these operations.

What the American public needs to be made aware of is the impact of this illegal trade on our National Parks. In most Asian countries there remains a lucrative and low risk market for illegally obtained animal parts and fluids used in folk medicines and traditional fashions. This consumer demand has resulted in the decimation of many species of wildlife and plants in this region. The answer for suppliers has been to search other parts of the world for sources of supply. One source found is our National Park System.

Cases have been made by National Park Rangers involving the illegal taking and marketing of bear galls from California and the parks located in the Southern Appalachians. In one case out of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park a practicing physician from South Korea was in actuality making more money in buying and selling bear gall bladders.

Bear paws and teeth are also targets for market poachers with their illegally taken parts eventually being sold at huge profits in Asia.

Whitetail Deer are targets of this international trade. In the spring when bucks start to grow their annual antlers they are covered in velvet. This velvet is another animal product in demand in the Orient. Many deer have been found shot during this time of year with only the head or antlers removed.

Plants are subject to theft for international markets. Park Rangers on the Blue Ridge Parkway have caught citizens from Great Britain and Germany illegally collecting large numbers and varieties of plants for shipment overseas. Ginseng (shown above) is commonly collected and sold for high profits in Asia. Roots of ginseng that have been taken from National Parks are in demand making top dollar for those willing to break the law.

The risk to criminals involved in these activities are minimal. Even if caught the penalties are far outweighed by the profits that can be made. These profits are many times higher and less dangerous than drug dealing and trafficking. Most suspects I encountered during my career as a National Park Ranger were involved in other criminal pursuits in addition to poaching wildlife and plants. That included people previously convicted of murder, drug dealing, breaking and entering, burglary, and dealing in stolen property.

Until courts around the world take this threat to our resources seriously, desturction of our natural heritage will only increase.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

PodCast Interview

Today I was interviewed about "A Park Ranger's Life" by Hank Zimmerman for his weekly PodCast at The recorded interview I did today will be edited and broadcast starting somtime this Friday. I will post any details as to times when I get them.

For those unfamiliar with PodCasts, these are audio recordings that you can listen to over the Internet. To listen to the recording you can go to and then click on the PodCast button.

Plant Theft in Our National Parks

Here is another case of plant theft from our National Parks. This was taken from the National Park Service Morning Report for December 15, 2009.

Zion NP
Felony Convictions For Illegal Wildflower Seed Harvesting

Ranger Anne Pestolesi came upon several large bags of illegally collected
wildflower seeds along the side of the road in the Kolob Terrace area of
the park last August. Over the next several weeks, Pestolesi and park staff
began an investigation that led to the discovery that several hundred
pounds of Palmer’s penstemon wildflower seeds had been illegally harvested
and removed from the park. Special agent Matt Fisher was brought in to
assist with the investigation. On September 21st, Fisher and Pestolesi
travelled to the remote backcountry area where the illegal harvest had
taken place. They arrested undocumented aliens Cresencio Lucena-Alvarez
and Cresencio Martinez-Guzman, who were illegally camped in the backcountry
and engaged in the illegal removal of the seeds. The total weight of
collected seeds exceeded 900 pounds. The seed collectors intended to sell
their illegal harvest to commercial seed distributers who then frequently
sell their seed to federal agencies pursuing revegetation projects. On
December 7th, Lucena-Alvarez and Martinez-Guzman were convicted on felony
counts of 18 USC 641, theft of government property, and sentenced to 24
months of supervised probation in addition to time served. The two had been
in custody since their September arrests. The court also imposed the
condition that the two shall not illegally reenter the United States.
Charges against additional suspects are pending. The assistance of the NPS
Investigative Services Branch and the Saint George Assistant US Attorney’s
Office was instrumental in the successful prosecution of the case. [Ray
O’Neil, Acting Chief Ranger]

You can learn more about the theft of plants from National Parks in my book, "A Park Ranger's Life: Thirty Two Years Protecting Our National Parks".

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Story Telling and Reading in Lexington, Virginia


"A Park Ranger's Life" On NPR

This morning I was interviewed about my book, "A Park Ranger's Life," by Gene Marrano from WVTF Public Radio in Roanoke, Virginia. The interview was recorded and should air in two weeks.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

"A Park Ranger's Life" and Black Friday

The following is taken from the article "Shopping Season Opens: Black Friday Sales Comparable to '08" from the December 2, 2009 The News Gazette written by Ned Oliver;

At Books & Co., owner Anna-Lisa Fitzgerald said she had a great day, with the store nearly full by 1 p.m. She said local resident Bruce Bytnar's book, "A Park Ranger's Life," was the best-selling item. He was in the store signing books that day.

Friday, December 11, 2009

More Reviews for "A Park Ranger's Life"

A new review from an on line reader at for A Park Ranger's Life:

This book is awesome. I have already read it all and enjoyed it thoroughly. It really opens up your eyes to National Park Service areas. I would recommend this book to anyone who recreates in any federal area.

The below comment came from the December edition of The Rockbridge Advocate, a monthly news magazine:

Bruce Bytnar's new book, "A Park Ranger's Life: Thirty Two Years Protecting Our National Parks," came out. It's a highly entertaining and informative collection of true stories - ranging from his dealings with pesky bears to clueless visitors and from poachers to budget cuts - from his career with the National Park Service.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

NPR Radio Interview Post Poned

Due to an unforeseen circumstance, the news caster that was to conduct an interview with me could not get into work. Consequently, my interview has been postponed.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Ranger Rendezvous

Tomorrow it is off to Gettysburg, Pa for the annual Association of National Park Rangers Rendezvous. There should be at least 200 participants this year and I will have a table set up for book signing on Tuesday and Wednesday during the event.

Waynesboro Book Signing

Today the weather put a bit of a damper on shopping, but we still had fun at the Stone Soup Bookstore and Cafe Holiday Book Fair.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Book Signing in Waynesboro

I will be at Stone Soup Bookstore and Cafe in Waynesboro, Virginia this Saturday December 5th for their Holiday Book Fair. There will be more than twenty authors on site to sign books for customers.

If you are in the area stop in for some conversation, hot cider, and perhaps do some Holiday shopping.

Winter Operations on the Blue Ridge Parkway

It is that time of year when the Blue Ridge Parkway moves into it's winter operations. What that means to the visiting public is that many sections of the Park will be closed when snow and or ice develop. This policy is often confusing and a bit frustrating for those traveling through the region.

Due to the inconsistent construction and foundation of the pavement of the Blue Ridge Parkway, it does not hold up well to snow plowing operations. This combined with the danger of plowing on sharply elevated road surfaces and descending radius curves are the main reasons why the Parkway is not cleared of snow and ice in all areas. Consequently, some stretches of road may be open and then extended sections at higher elevations closed when it snows.

Contributing to confusion for visitors is when they come to the park and find a gate closed across the road, but there is no visible snow or ice. The Blue Ridge Parkway travels through a quickly changing landscape at varied elevations and aspects. The roadway is most dangerous when temperatures start to warm and melting occurs. Melting during the day can quickly refreeze at night across the road surface. Mountain springs that seep through rock faces along the roadway will freeze preventing the water from draining and it then trails across the road and freezes. You can at times travel for several miles on clear dry pavement and then round a curve ending up in solid ice or snow before you know what has happened.

It is also quite hazardous for park employees to travel these same roads during winter weather to get these gates closed. I had instances during my career when due to surprise storms and lack of personnel it could take up to eight hours to close all the gates in one district of the Blue Ridge Parkway. This can result in hazardous situations for visitors who find themselves in the park during these times.

So if traveling in the Southern Appalachians during the winter it is critical that visitors stay aware of changing weather conditions and plan their routes appropriately. If forecasters are calling for snow or ice, it is much safer to take a longer alternate route then drive at high elevations.

You can also call the Blue Ridge Parkway's information line at (828) 298 0398 to get the latest information on road closures.

National Public Radio Interview

On Sunday December 6th I will be doing an interview for WVTF the NPR radio station out of Roanoke, Virginia. It will be recorded and I am not sure of the time or times it will be aired as yet. I will pass on the information as I get it.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Illegal Hunting Cases in National Park Area

Taken from the National Park Service Morning Report for Tuesday December 1, 2009:

Blue Ridge Parkway
Special Operations Result In Multiple Poaching And Weapons Charges

On November 20th and 21st, Plateau District rangers working in cooperation
with Virginia conservation officers and Carroll County deputies conducted
three special operations resulting in multiple cases. On Friday, rangers
and conservation officers stopped three vehicles for spotlighting along the
parkway and issued a total of 26 state and federal charges for weapon,
drug, alcohol and multiple hunting violations. Officers also seized three
weapons. As a result of one of the cases, Virginia conservation officers
were able to file nine additional charges in an on-going investigation
relating to the illegal taking of wildlife. On Saturday, rangers,
conservation officers and Carroll County deputies conducted a DUI
checkpoint. During the checkpoint, officers contacted the operators of
approximately 100 vehicles and issued 15 violations and 11 warnings for a
variety of offenses, including suspended licenses, drugs, alcohol, weapons,
hunting and equipment violations. Officers seized four weapons, impounded
two vehicles and issued a total of eight violations related to illegal
hunting. A total of 50 violations were issued over the weekend, 40 of which
were related to illegal hunting activity. [Bobby D Miller, Plateau District

Learn more about illegal hunting and poaching in my book, A Park Ranger's Life: Thirty Two Years Protecting Our National Parks.

And a highly deserved well done to the Park Rangers of the Plateau District of the Blue Ridge Parkway.