Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Radio Communications – A Park Ranger’s Life Line

As with any emergency worker, National Park Rangers depend on their radio systems for not only communications but safety. In many remote areas rangers work alone and there is either no backup or it is a long distance away. On The Blue Ridge Parkway a park ranger calling for assistance was lucky to get help within 45 minutes. In most cases it was over an hour. In one instance I held three armed escaped convicts at gun point for more than three hours waiting for back up to arrive.

There are two essential elements of a radio system that make it work.

The first is the hardware made up of radios, repeater towers, reliable power sources, and dispatch consoles.

The second part is the park ranger on one end and the dispatcher on the other. Some parks have professional dispatch centers, others make use of partner agencies through agreements, and many rangers in smaller areas are out there with no dispatcher at all. For much of my career when called out at night I had to depend on my wife staying up to dispatch for me. This was hard on her since as a teacher she had to face a classroom of elementary students the next morning. I remember one of those long nights she just could not stay awake and I kept calling and calling on the radio with no answer. Finally my constant static over the radio woke up another ranger at home 200 miles away and he was able to make some calls for me.

Trained and experienced dispatchers are essential for not only calling for help but to provide vital information to park rangers in the field. It is the dispatcher that lets the ranger know if they are stopping a stolen car, talking to a wanted felon, or giving information that allows the ranger to plan for an appropriate response to an emergency.

The reader’s first impression on this subject may be, “why don’t they just use cell phones?” Even today in our high tech society cellular telephone coverage is not available in all areas. Many locations of National Parks are off the main cellular grids and coverage is inconsistent and in many cases nonexistent. The Blue Ridge Parkway has many long stretches of dead zones with no cell phone availability.

If either link in this communications system is not functioning to its full potential the park ranger in the field is face with an increased exposure to danger and reduces their effectiveness to provide emergency response and care for visitors in need. I do not believe that it would be overstated to say that a radio communications system is one of if not the most important tool that a park ranger has available to ensure their safety and ability to accomplish the mission of the National Park Service.

With the technology available today no National Park Ranger should be without full radio communications with a professional dispatch center. But there are still parks with inadequate or inefficient radio systems that leave park rangers in situations where they are unable to communicate with the outside world. Budget and lack of money are the common reason for this deficiency.

The individual ranger is then forced to make tough decisions on responding to threats to their personal and public safety and develop extraordinary skills to survive.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Incredible Rescue by National Park Rangers at Yosemite National Park

Park helicopter 551 and ranger Keith Lober short-haul the injured climber off of the Nose route on El Capitan. NPS photo by Clay Usinger.

Taken from the National Park Service Morning Report: August 39, 2010.  Another incredible feat of courage by National Park Rangers to rescue visitors in trouble.

Park dispatch received a report of an injured climber on a climbing route known as The Nose on El Capitan on the evening of Tuesday, August 24th. He was a 47-year-old Korean national, part of a four-person Korean climbing team. Rangers were unable to communicate with the climbers due to a language barrier, so little information was available at the outset. It was eventually determined that he’d dislodged a large rock just below the Camp 4 bivy site, that he was in stable condition, and that he was unable to climb further. A helicopter short-haul mission was planned to extricate him from the rock face, but had to be cancelled due to the shear vertical wall at the climbing party’s location. A small technical rescue team was sent to the top of El Capitan to lower an attendant to him, but that operation had to be suspended due to darkness. A plan was formulated by IC Shannon Kupersmith to send supplemental personnel first thing the following morning to support the lowering operation. On Wednesday, additional personnel were flown to the summit of El Capitan for the technical lowering operation. Prior to the start of the mission a spotter in El Capitan Meadow was able to communicate with the climbing party and determine that the man might be paralyzed in his lower extremities. Two medics who reached the scene stabilized the climber and packaged him in a litter. An alternate plan to immediately evacuate him from the wall using the "bean bag/short-haul" technique was employed. This technique involves sending a line from the hovering helicopter to the attendant/medic. The attendant/medic then retrieves a tag line attached to the short-haul line from the helicopter while the helicopter maintains a safe rotor distance from the vertical rock face. One attendant then attached himself and the climber to the short-haul line, which was followed by immediate release from the wall anchor. He was then flown to El Capitan meadow and medevaced to a hospital. The remaining members of the climbing team were unable to lower themselves off the route due to their lack of experience and also had to be rescued. Two additional lowering operations were conducted to evacuate the Korean climbers off El Capitan’s 3,000-foot face. These operations were conducted on the hottest day of the summer to date, with the temperature over 100 degrees.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Bicycling On The Blue Ridge Parkway

In 2001 The Blue Ridge Parkway started the multi-year process of developing a General Management Plan for the park. A major component of this process was public comment. When asked what issues or concerns the public had about the park there was one subject that buried any other topic, bicycle use. What made this result interesting was that comments were split 50/50 between those that were pro cycling and those that were anti cycling. Public suggestions ranged from building a bike lane the entire length of the Blue Ridge Parkway to completely banning bicycles from the park. National Park Service planners and managers were amazed at the emotional dichotomy on this topic.

In 2005 a contactor was given the job of examining the bicycle use on The Blue Ridge Parkway and the feasibility of building a bike trail along 469 mile length of the park. Although cycling is commonly found anywhere on the Parkway the study conducted by David Evans and Associates found that most of the day use was concentrated in four areas.

Waynesboro Mile Post 0 – 14

Roanoke Mile Post 105 – 121

Boone/Blowing Rock Mile Post 270 – 305

Asheville Mile Post 375 – 398

The Study’s look at the possibility of constructing a multi-use or bicycle trail along the length of the Blue Ridge Parkway found that only in 20% of the park would it be physically practicable for such construction. The majority of this would be in the Roanoke area. Such construction would take millions of dollars and at present there are no plans to even plan such a major project.

For more information on planning a bicycling trip check out the link below:


Saturday, August 28, 2010

"A Park Ranger's Life" Possibly Now In A Library Near You

The book A Park Ranger's Life: Thirty Two Years Protecting Our National Parks is now available in a number of libraries across the country.  Those known at this time are:

Washington & Lee University
James G. Leyburn Library
LEXINGTON, VA 24450 United States

ROANOKE, VA 24016 United States

Roanoke, VA 24018 United States

Blacksburg, VA 24062 United States

Columbus, OH 43210 United States

GRAND CANYON, AZ 86023 United States

SANDPOINT, ID 83864 United States

Rockbridge Regional Library
LEXINGTON, VA 24450 United States

If you know of any other libraries where the book can be found, let me know in the comments section below.

Blue Ridge Parkway Does Away With Hunter Access Permits

The Blue Ridge Parkway has decided to do away with Hunter Access Permits.
See the below link for more details;


Thursday, August 26, 2010

Search for Park Ranger Missing Since 1980 Continues

At 2 PM on January 13, 1980, Paul Fugate, the only member of the permanent staff at Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona on duty that day, walked out of his office to check out a nature trail. He left instructions with the only other person, a seasonal employee, that if he wasn’t back before 4:30 to begin to shut down without him.

Fugate appeared to walk down toward the Monument entrance and was never seen again. No trace of the ranger was ever found despite extensive searches by the National Park Service, The Cochise County Sheriff’s Department, The Bureau of Land Management, the US Forest Service, The Southern Arizona Search and Rescue Association, Customs, The Border Patrol and Fugate’s many friends.

All that was missing from Fugate’s home were the clothes he was wearing and his National Park Service keys.

Despite some evidence of a crime having been committed nothing has ever been uncovered to explain Fugate’s disappearance. He left behind a wife, Dody, a mother Mrs. Braxton Fugate, two brothers, three sisters, many friends with a vast hole in their lives.

The Cochise County Sheriff's Department has not given up on trying to find the answer to Paul Fugate's disappearance.  On August 25, 2010 the Sheriff's Department searched several old wells and other sites for possible bodily remains.  They are also asking for any information that may have come out in the public domain.  Anyone with information is urged to call (520) 432-9500.

Paul Fugate not long before his disappearance in 1980

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Happy Birthday to the National Park Service

It was on August 25, 1916 that President Woodrow Wilson signed the act creating the National Park Service. Happy Birthday to one of the consistently most popular Federal Agencies ever created.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Falling Water Cascades - Blue Ridge Parkway, Peaks of Otter

On August 23rd my hiking buddy Baird the Golden Retriever and I took some time to hike the Falling Water Cascades Trail located just north of the Peaks of Otter in Virginia on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The trail was steep going down from the Blue Ridge Parkway, but easily manageable with stone and wooden steps and bridges back and forth across the stream that feeds the falls.

                    The intrepid hiker is rewarded with beautiful close up views of impressing rock formations with mountain spring fed water splashing and dripping in long white tendrils that provide a damp coolness to the hollow you are moving through.

My partner was rewarded with a chance to cool off in one of the many pools formed by the exposed rock faces of the meandering falls.

The loop trail is 1.6 miles in length with an elevation change of 382 feet.  The physical effort and time are well rewarded by the immersion into the Blue Ridge environment and escape from the more heavily used trails I the area.

Work Continues On Access Trail - Blue Ridge Parkway, Peaks of Otter

The National Park Service Maintenance Crew from the Blue Ridge Parkway are continuing their work on the boardwalk for the handicap accessible trail around Abbott Lake at the Peaks of Otter (see blog post dated July 3, 2010).

On August 23rd workers were placing the boardwalk planking over the first section.  The planking is made of recycled plastic boards.  This section of the trail will include an approximately 6' by 6' deck where those in wheelchairs can sit and enjoy the view of the lake and lodge.  A future section of boardwalk will include a larger deck directly across Abbott Lake from the Peaks of Otter Lodge that could allow for those in wheelchairs to fish in comfort and safety.

The walkway will include bumper type curbing along the edges and handrails where the boardwalk crosses feeder streams above the lake such as the one shown above.

This project was originally planned eleven years ago and is finally coming to fruition.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Technology Leads to Visitors in Trouble in National Parks

In the later part of my career I began to see people getting themselves in trouble due to dependence and over confidence on technology. By carrying GPS units, satellite location devices, and cell phones park visitors went beyond the limits of their common sense with the mistaken perception that these devices would ultimately lead to a park ranger saving them from themselves and nature.

Another conflict lies in the individual’s definition of an emergency. When you take a person out of their own neighborhood or comfort zone their ability to identify a true threat or emergency becomes clouded. I constantly had people call my residence in the middle of the night to report what they thought were emergencies. These emergencies could range from true life threatening situations to missing pets, desire for latest weather reports so they could plan an outing, a request to notify them if their wife goes to the hospital to have their baby while they are fishing, they are tired from hiking too far and want a park ranger to pick them up and give them a ride, campers who hear sounds outside their tent at night, people in the dark that need flashlight batteries, or asking me to tell them where they are based on their telephone reception.

The image of technology that viewers see on television add to the overconfidence virus. Park visitors seem to think that park rangers have instant access to the same satellites, computers, equipment, and other technology as they see on shows such as 24.

Now you add this clouded perception to the public availability of technology to call for help and this further contributes to that false confidence of finding their way. More and more people are getting themselves in real danger while the over extended and stretched park ranger staffs finding it more challenging to provide assistance when truly needed.
Exhausted searches and dog after an all nighter looking for lost hikers who kept making panicked calls on their cell phone until the battery finally went dead.

You will find a good article on this topic with more detail in the New York Times dated August 21. Go to the link below to check it out:

To keep yourself out of trouble be realistic about you and your party's capabilities and be well prepared for changes in weather, darkness, a longer stay in the woods then you expect, and be properly dressed.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Arizona Fugitives Identified by U.S. Forest Service Law Enforcement Officer

Prison escapee John McCluskey and his cousin/girlfriend Casslyn Welch were arrested at a campsite in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest only 300 miles from the prison that Welch had assisted McCluskey and two others to escape from on July 30th.  During their time on the lamb information had led investigators to suspect the pair of being in Yellowstone National Park and other camping areas.

These criminals who are also suspected in the murder of a couple in New Mexico following their escape were located by a U.S. Forest Service Law Enforcement Officer who was investigating an unattended fire.  The LEO was smart enough not to confront the suspects and left the area to make a report and call in other state and Federal agencies to make the arrest.  During the arrest by SWAT team members Welch reached for a gun, but was physically prevented from firing at the officers.  McClusky later stated to investigators that he wished he had shot the Forest Service LEO when he had a chance.

This is not the first time that dangerous fugitives have attempted to hide out in remote camping areas such as National Parks and Forests.  Whenever there are manhunts for dangerous criminals National Parks are generally notified to be on the lookout.

You will find several stories about desperados hiding out in parks in my book A Park Ranger’s Life: Thirty Two Years Protecting our National Parks.

Congratulations to the U.S. Forest Service LEO whose skills and good decision making saved his life and resulted in the apprehension of these dangerous criminals that threatened us all.

For more information check out:

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Park Ranger Vehicles

Since I worked as a Park Ranger for over thirty years I often get asked questions about what kind of vehicles I drove. Here are a few of my favorites. Unfortunately I do not have photos of all the great cars, trucks, and SUV’s I was issued to do the job.

The first park I worked at was Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine in Baltimore, Maryland. We fought over the one orange electric Cushman. It was all we had other than one administrative sedan and a couple maintenance pickups. It was old, slow, unstable with three wheels, and the battery life was miniscule. We spent a lot of time pushing it back to the shop for a charge.

Another beauty was this late 70s AMC Matador. This was my first vehicle issued to me on the Blue Ridge Parkway. In addition to its classic lines it had a really powerful engine that given enough time could get up over 50 miles an hour. The brakes were great as long as you did not have to use them and the tacking skills I had learned sailing came in handy for maneuvering around curves. When you had to stop quick and step on the pedal hard the entire car would jump and buck like it wanted to run full tilt forever without stopping. It also had crank handles that were easily removable such as whenever you tried to open or close the driver’s side window.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

"A Park Ranger's Life" Scheduled Book Signings

The following dates and locations have been set for appearances and book signings:

September 17 Buena Vista Art Walk, Buena Vista, Virginia 3pm to 8pm

October 8 Rams Head Book Shop, Towers Mall, Roanoke Virginia 1pm to 3pm

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

James River/Otter Creek – Overlooked Gem of The Blue Ridge Parkway

Most visitors zip past the James River/Otter Creek area of The Blue Ridge Parkway in their cars headed to the higher elevations of the Peaks of Otter or Humpback Rocks.  This is one of the few areas of the park that you will find straighter and flatter stretches of road that prompt people to speed by attempting to make time traveling north or south.  The road here follows Otter Creek, one of the longest water courses within the park boundary and through the lowest elevations (649 feet) along the entire Blue Ridge Parkway.  If a visitor would take the time to stop and get out of their vehicle, they would be rewarded by the nature and history that abounds between mile posts 60 to 64.

There are the obvious facilities in this section; the Otter Creek Campground with its new entrance bridge and Kiosk, the concession operated Otter Creek Restaurant, and the James River Visitor Center.  But there is so much more.

The inquisitive visitor will discover the Otter Creek Trail.  This 3.5 mile trail meanders along the creek and Parkway motor road from the campground to the visitor center.  The trail is easy to walk and crosses the creek numerous times on stepping stones and pedestrian bridges.  Sharp rock bluffs, mountain laurel, redbud, and bird life are abundant.  At State Route 130 the trail travels through an underpass of the road.  If you are observant you will see what appears to be a ditch that follows the edge of the trail.  This is the remains of what was once a large mill operation that was obliterated when the present bridge for 130 was built.
The trail forks and makes a loop around Otter Lake.  At the north end of the loop you will find the skeletal chimney and foundation of what was once the Nathaniel Sledd Cabin.  This site is believed to have been the home of the first European settler in Amherst County, Virginia in the early 1700s.  He was drawn to this location to trade with Native Americans for beaver pelts.  Otter Creek was a heavily used travel route from the mountains above to the James River and above the threat of flood.  Otter Lake did not exist at that time being built when the Blue Ridge Parkway came through in the late 1950s.  Beaver still live in Otter Creek today.  Hikers can see their handiwork in dams and the stumps and bases of trees that they have felled for food and construction materials.  Trees around the trail have wire mesh around their base to protect them from the industrious rodents.

Beyond the James River Visitor Center you will find a remnant of our Country’s transportation history.  On the opposite bank of the James River is a fully restored canal lock from the Kanawha Canal System that served as the main commercial transportation from the Shenandoah Valley to Richmond, Virginia before the Civil War.  Looking up river you will be looking into the James River Water Gap, a geological feature left from a millennium of the river cutting its way through the Blue Ridge Mountains.  This makes the James one of only two rivers that flow from west of the Blue Ridge toward the Atlantic Ocean.

So the next time you are driving through this area stop and get out of your vehicle and see what wonders await you. 

Side Effects of Being A Park Ranger

Even though I am now retired I am still showing signs of having been a National Park Ranger for more than thirty two years.  The diverse duties, 24/7 demands, and responsibilities that such positions entail become ingrained into your being in such a way that it is impossible to shake.  Many attributes that a park ranger take on are embodied in most law enforcement, emergency medical, fire fighting, and search and rescue personnel all rolled into one.

Some of the symptoms of the conditions include;

Scanning – Whenever in a public place such as a restaurant, airport, school, shopping center, or any crowd a park ranger is constantly scanning the people and faces around them.  Having lived in a state of vigilance always looking for potential problems or danger is hard to shake and at times still comes in handy.  Problems arise when you are with others who do not understand.  The non verbal message you send with your eyes constantly scanning is that you are not listening or interested in what is being said.  After 33 years of marriage my wife is just starting to accept this condition and why I do not look her in the eye across a table when at a restaurant.

Awareness of Surroundings – A park ranger is constantly aware of their surroundings and looking for escape routes and safety concerns.  It drives some people crazy that I am always looking at the pressure gauges on fire extinguishers, checking fire doors, looking for exit signs, and checking out security systems in stores and historic buildings we visit.  It is almost a reflex that I am drawn to such interesting objects.  I have angered several store managers and others by pointing out faulty and expired fire extinguishers.  It is so bad that when I go back to the same facility I check to see if they fixed the problem.  And yes, it gets old for my family members and friends.  I imagine that some security people monitoring cameras would think I was a suspect casing a joint the way I look around.  I really try to control this impulse when in banks.

Paranoia- A sense of paranoia develops as a survival skill that manifests itself into daily life.  Park Rangers who work in law enforcement learn to use their paranoia to keep them safe and detect deception and criminal activity.  A certain level of paranoia is a good thing.  Most would believe that this would only apply to big city police departments, but research by Kevin M. Gilmartin, Ph.D. (Emotional Survival For Law Enforcement, E-S Press, 2002) and others has shown that this phenomenon is just as strong amongst National Park Rangers.  A life time of dealing with the seedier side of life and maintaining a constant level of what is called “hypervigilance” creates a very real sense of paranoia as a survival tactic.  Unchecked or controlled paranoia leads to a basic mistrust of others and tendency to bond with only other law enforcement types.  It can also cause stress within a family when it prevents them from participating in life and making friends outside the workplace.  Years later my son told me that my paranoia fed into him and made it difficult at times to be accepted at school.

So I work every day in an attempt to counter act some of these effects.  A big turning point for me was when I attended a training presentation given by Kevin Gilmartin.  Very early into his presentation I felt he was talking about me and that what I was dealing with was common and normal.  His insights and recommendations helped me to recognize the effects of the job and how to counter them.  I highly recommend his book to anyone working or considering working in law enforcement.

Check the link below.

Monday, August 16, 2010

National Parks and First Amendment Rights

As a follow up to the August 7th post pertaining to permits;

The National Park Service is now looking at re-writing the regulations related to the issuance of permits for individuals and groups wishing to exercise their right of free speech in parks.

A Park Ranger's Brand

Since retiring from the National Park Service I have been learning the ins and outs of writing, editing, publishing, and now marketing a book. I thought the writing of a book would be challenging and hard work. What I am now finding is that after self publishing (that means I paid to have the book published) A Park Ranger’s Life: Thirty Two Years Protecting Our National Parks I am now the CEO of a one man marketing venture trying to get word about the book before the reading public. I am learning about the inner workings of:

Book Signings
Radio Station Interviews
Newspapers and Press Releases
Magazine Editors
Book Stores
Sales Pitches
Social Media
Printing of Marketing Materials (Bookmarks, Business Cards, Posters, Door Magnets, and Banners)

I have been fortunate to have guidance through this process from my publisher, Wheatmark Publishing, and a friend with a background in marketing that has been giving me tips and helping to produce ideas and graphics to assist in getting the publics’ eye.
The latest product is a logo to aid in the branding process.

My education and the marketing process continues.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Future Opportunities For Park Ranger Jobs

Through my book appearances and this blog I hear from many people who are interested in becoming National Park Rangers. Historically it has been and in some instances continues to be a challenging objective to meet. Many people dream of being a Park Ranger due to the image of the job and the popular mission of the National Park Service. I know when young I was not encouraged to pursue such a career because so many people wanted these jobs. The quote I heard from many peers and academic mentors was “Forget it; you will never get a job like that.”

There have been few times in the past when a window of opportunity opens and people are hired into the National Park Service due to an availability of positions. For me this opportunity was being in the right place at the right time with the onset of the Bicentennial celebrations of our Nation in 1976. I was first hired at Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine as a seasonal in 1975. Interest in the Bicentennial increased visitation so much that by 1977 I was offered a part time permanent position as a Park Technician. This was my foot in the door and true start of my career that ended up spanning more than 32 years.

Such an opportunity for new Park Rangers is looming once again. This time it is not a staffing increase but the aging of the present ranger work force. Law Enforcement and Firefighting Park Rangers are required retire at 57 years of age. Because of this constraint it is estimated that approximately 55% of today’s Park Rangers will retire in the next 5 years. This will result in great opportunities for people wanting to become the National Park Rangers of our next generation.

The National Park Service is starting to become active in recruiting at colleges and universities for young people to be prepared to fill these dwindling ranks. The National Park Service is also looking at this coming time as an opportunity to improve the diversity of its work force by recruiting new employees in urban parks.
One such recruiting effort is being titled “ProRanger.” Through this program Internships are being established to get students experience working in National Park Service areas while still in college.
For more information on one such program check out:

For those of you now working as seasonal Park Rangers or aspiring to such a career, persevere, stay informed of opportunities at the Office of Personnel Management website USAJobs, and contact National Park Service areas near you for volunteer, training, or job opportunities. If you are in school now, contact your career center or related department heads about opportunities through ProRanger or other programs.

For more information on what it is like to be a real National Park Ranger read the book that is already required reading at three universities for those in resource protection programs. "A Park Ranger's Life: Thirty Two Years Protecting Our National Parks" is available on Amazon.com and other online sources.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Permit Changes Considered On The Blue Ridge Parkway

The Blue Ridge Parkway adjoins several National Forests along its 469 mile route through two states. Although hunting is prohibited in the park it is allowed on National Forests. The National Park Service has provided a service that allowed sportsmen to obtain a Hunter Access Permit that granted the ability to park in designated overlooks, uncase their unloaded weapons, place hunting dogs on leashes, and then go directly to the boundary entering onto National Forest lands and then begin to hunt. The permit then allowed the hunters to bring their legally taken game back to their vehicle in the park and transport it off Park Service lands at the nearest practical access point.

The permits have been free of charge and but restricted to those with valid state hunting licenses. The reason for requiring the permit is twofold.

1. Until February of 2010 it was illegal to possess a weapon on National Park Service property.
2. It remains illegal to possess natural features including legally taken wildlife from outside the park within the park

The Hunter Access Permit provided permission for hunters to disregard both these regulations.
Now that firearms are permitted in our National Parks the management of the Blue Ridge Parkway is re-examining the need for these permits since in most areas of the park it is now legal to possess loaded firearms. It appears that they will be doing away with the Hunter Access Permits and allow hunters to park anywhere in the park. Hunters will then be able to access any adjoining property including private lands. If hunters kill game legally outside the park, they will need to contact The Blue Ridge Parkway’s dispatcher in Asheville, NC or a park ranger before they transport the animal into the park and load it in their vehicle. This is not as simple as it may seem since some hunters have already pointed out that they do not have cell phones and there are many dead spots with no cellular phone coverage in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Hunting which includes attempting to take and perusing wildlife, and discharging a firearm or weapon within the boundaries of the Blue Ridge Parkway are still prohibited. Dogs are required to be on a six foot lead while within the park boundaries.

Another point of interest in all these changes is that regulations are now more restrictive about loaded firearms on National Forest Service lands where hunting is permitted than in National Parks where hunting is prohibited. A person can now carry a loaded firearm in their vehicle on The Blue Ridge Parkway anytime. In the National Forests of Virginia they can only carry firearms during hunting seasons and if in a vehicle the weapon must be unloaded.
Many hunters are rightfully saying that keeping track of where they are and which regulations apply may be confusing. The challenges for park rangers to determine who is breaking the law and who is not will also be more difficult and complex.

But life is change and I know that National Park Rangers are more than up to the task of adapting to these new tests.

For more information on the Hunter Access Permit or hunting on or near the Blue Ridge Parkway you can contact Chief Ranger Steve Stinnett at (828) 271-4779 ext. 239.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Not All Lands Within National Parks Are Safe

Dave Freudenthal the Governor of Wyoming is threatening to sell off two square miles of lands within Grand Tetons National Park to developers.  Although the land in question lies within the Park boundary, it is owned by the state of Wyoming.  The state figures that they could generate about $125 million through the development of this property.

Does the Wyoming State Government not care about protecting The Grand Tetons?  There is more to the story.

Governor Freudenthal is only threatening to make the sale unless the Obama Administration increases the Federal funds allotted to the state for education   The two tracts of property are designated at "School Trust Lands" designed to generate funds for education.  At present they bring in about $3,000 per year in grazing fees.  Wyoming has been attempting to get the Federal Government to trade other lands that could be developed for coal exploration for the tracts within the park.

The tactic appears to be to force the Federal Government's hand to either pay a large amount for the land in question, increase education funding, or open other Federally protected areas for coal mining.

You can read more details about this situation at:


Saturday, August 7, 2010

New Court Ruling May Affect National Parks

Many times our National Parks become center stage for demonstrations and expressions of freedom of speech for political, social cause, or religious reasons. Managers of parks do not have the authority to deny anyone their constitutional rights to express themselves, even in National Parks. During my career I was detailed away from my regular duty station to provide security for a number of such events. This included a white supremacist who wanted to demonstrate at Martin Luther King, Jr. NHS in Atlanta on King’s birthday, a Neo Nazi group that wanted to demonstrate at Independence NHS, and anther time when Iranian students protested because they did not want to be sent back to their country following the fall of the Shah.

When groups wanted the opportunity to spread their message in a National Park they were required to obtain a permit from the park superintendent.
The permit allowed for the park staff to plan ahead for any extra work or security that would be needed. This could include providing for bathroom facilities for large crowds or vehicle and pedestrian traffic control if necessary. The permit also allowed for management of the demonstration in such manner that it would least impact the resources and other visitors to the park.

A recent D.C. Circuit Court decision may change all that. In relation to freedom of speech activities they ruled:

It is unlawful to engage in expressive activities within any of this country’s 391 national parks unless a park official first issues a permit authorizing the activity. Michael Boardley argues this licensing scheme is overbroad and therefore unconstitutional on its face. We agree. The regulations in their current form are antithetical to the core First Amendment principle that restrictions on free speech in a public forum may be valid only if narrowly tailored. Because these regulations penalize a substantial amount of speech that does not impinge on the government’s interests, we find them overbroad and therefore reverse the district court.

Our National Parks may be directed to redesign their policies and regulations related to demonstrations in our parks. As a result you may be surprised to have your next visit to a park interrupted by individuals trying to get their personal or political agendas across to you.

For more detailed information on the court case go to:


Monday, August 2, 2010

The Ghost Haunting Fort McHenry National Monument

This past week I viewed an episode of the television show “Haunted History” that retold some of the ghost stories of Baltimore, Maryland.  One story was of the ghost of a soldier that has been seen walking along the outer battery at Fort McHenry located at the mouth of Baltimore Harbor.  This has been the site of a military fort since 1776 and today is a National Monument and Historic Shrine managed by the National Park Service.

Fort McHenry is also where I started my career as a National Park Ranger.  I was stationed there from June of 1975 until September 1977.  During that time there were at least two reported sightings of the ghostly specter as described in the “Haunted History” show.  One was by a fellow park ranger and the other was by several members of another employee’s family who lived in the park.  In both instances the ghost was described as if marching on guard duty along an area of the Fort known as the outer battery that provides emplacements for the very large Rodman Guns that were installed during the Civil War.  The figure was dressed in older period military uniform and shouldering a rifle.

Once these reports were shared amongst the staff theories began to develop as to whose ghost this could be.  The first impulse was that it must be the spirit of Lt. Levi Claggett who was killed by a bomb bust during the famous Battle of Fort McHenry and inspiration for the Star Spangled Banner.

A second theory as presented on television was that the ghost was that of William Williams an escaped slave who was able to enlist in the US Army by a recruiter that did not ask too many questions.  Williams was also killed during the Battle of Fort McHenry in 1814 while in a trench with his unit just outside the Fort walls.
I was not so sure about either theory since both men had died in battle a somewhat glorious death for a soldier.  From what little knowledge I had, most ghosts were thought to be the result of more unjustified violence.  Not being an expert on haunting, I felt my counter theory was as good as any.

Sometime after this debate I was conducting research in the park library known as the HARP.  Much of the library consisted of microfilm copies of any documents that were found in the Library of Congress during a research project conducted in the 1950’s.  Much of this documentation had simply been copied without being read or analyzed.  Even in the 1970’s much of it had not been reviewed.  Several rolls of film I found contained the Monthly Medical Reports that were obviously required of the military post Doctor.  These monthly narrative reports were for the most part pretty dry and spoke of facts and figures.  The reports covered a period for almost the entire history of the military garrison.  The reports described how many men were sick and what injuries were treated the previous month.  The biggest medical problem on all the reports appeared to be sexually transmitted diseases from the brothels of Baltimore.

One monthly report stood out from the rest in its detailed account of an incident that occurred sometime in the 1850’s (unfortunately after all this time I no longer have a copy of the report or the subsequent paper I wrote about it).  A soldier had been found asleep on guard duty on the newly constructed outer battery of the Fort.  He was immediately placed under arrest and thrown into one of the cells of the guard house adjacent to the main gate to await trial for dereliction of duty.  Shortly thereafter while replacing the straw in his cell the prisoner was able to steel and the then hide a loaded rifle.  The prisoner then used the rifle to commit suicide.

The medical officer’s report is quite detailed in the description of the body and splatter of blood and brain matter on the wall of the cell.  Obviously this incident had quite an impact on this hardened Army Doctor.
Since the outer battery did not exist during the battle in 1814, this soldier was found asleep on duty in that same area, and that he met such a gruesome demise at his own hand I always felt that this was who was still performing  guard duty.

But then, this is a just another theory
Although I never witnessed this ghostly apparition myself, I did have my own experience with the afterlife while working at Hampton House National Historic Site.  You can find a vivid description of that experience in my book A Park Ranger’s Life: Thirty Two Years Protecting Our National Parks.

Who Cares About Our National Parks

During my career as a National Park Ranger I was often surprised to discover how many people I ran into who did not care about the fact that they were in a park set aside for protection of cultural and natural resources.  Since you are taking the time to read this blog one would assume that you care about parks.  It is hard at times for us as individuals to accept that others do share the same commitments and values that we do.  For me, even before I became a park ranger, I was emotionally embedded with an idealism of the sanctity of our National Parks and the resources they contain at an early age.

On to many occasions while working in parks I heard individuals exclaim in some form or manner, “Who cares?”  In most instances these communications were initiated because the individual had committed some type of resource violation within the park.  “Who cares” was a direct quote and attitude I heard from people I met when they threw litter out of their vehicles, defaced or stole signs, illegally killed wildlife, took a few plants, or even cut trees within the park boundary to expand their yard or improve the view from their deck.  In one case a commercial bicycle race promoter who was conducting an event within the park did not see the need to obtain a permit for his money making business.  He even had one of his workers spray paint directional arrows and distances on the pavement of the Blue Ridge Parkway.  When the promoter was initially contacted by a park ranger his immediate response was, “Who cares?” People can get so focused on their personal agendas and desires that they do not see the impact of their actions or in these cases the long term affects on the health of our National Parks.

Coming to grips with these attitudes to justify individuals ‘degradations of National Park resources was a challenge to say the least for an idealistic protector of those special places set aside for every citizen.  The realization that every citizen did not care about the mission of the National Park Service was an important lesson to be learned and created a cynicism of sorts.

So, what can you do to show that you care about your National Parks?

·         When visiting a park  serve as an example to others show your respect for resources and your fellow visitors
       Learn what you can about what threats that are adversely affecting our parks

·         Become proactive in helping to protect our parks by educating family members and friends

·         Volunteer in a park near you

·         Learn about or even join an organization that supports National Parks.  A partial list includes:
o   The National Parks Foundation
o   The National Parks and Conservation Association
o   A Friends Group of a specific park such as the Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway – You will find that most areas have a group that assists in supporting the park

Most importantly you can let our politicians in Washington know that parks and protected areas are important to you.  The organizations above can help you with that process.

And if you are a park ranger or other employee of the National Park Service or any other land management agency, keep doing what you do to protect those special places and the people who come to visit them.  Remember that no matter how the cynicism may leak into your daily routine, there are still many of us out here who care deeply about what you do.