Friday, September 30, 2011

Park Rangers Get Convictions On More Plant Thieves

This morning's National Park Service Report has the story of two men convicted in Federal Court for stealing ginseng of the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina.

Blue Ridge Parkway
Two Men Plead Guilty To Ginseng Poaching In Separate Cases

Rangers conducting surveillance on August 27th near an area known for
ginseng poaching saw a man dressed in camouflage in the woods. The man,
identified as Brian Witherel of Fletcher, North Carolina, admitted to
digging ginseng and was found to have 21 roots in his possession. A second
surveillance operation at another site known for ginseng poaching, this one
on September 17th, led to a contact with Gregory Grycki of Asheville, North
Carolina, who had 79 ginseng roots in his possession. Both were arrested.
Last week, each man appeared before a federal magistrate and entered a
guilty plea. Witherel was sentenced to 11 days in jail and Grycki received
25 days in jail. The current price for ginseng in western North Carolina
ranges from $410 to $425 for dry ginseng and $110 for green ginseng.
Rangers also determined that Witherel had sold 16.6 pounds of dry ginseng
and 3.5 pounds of green ginseng in 2008 for an estimated return, based on
the market at the time, of over $10,000. [Tim Francis, Pisgah District

The theft of native plants from our National Parks for personal monetary gain remains a serious threat to our natural 

Friday, September 23, 2011

More On Deaths In National Parks

Once again deaths in National Parks are in the news.  See this article:

Recent deaths in Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks seem to be the focus of media coverage.  The fact is that an average of 155 deaths per year are the result of accidents in National Parks. 

In many cases fatalities and serious injuries to park visitors are the result of taking unnecessary risks.  Is this caused by a feeling of invincibility or a false sense of security generated by what many in the media are deeming a “nanny state?”  During my career as a National Park Ranger I saw many instances where people took risks well beyond their capabilities because they knew someone would rescue them.  Technology such as cell phones providing instant communications and GPS units showing you where you are can contribute to an over confidence in one’s ability to deal with the unknown
This number of accidental deaths does not include fatalities as the result of medical conditions such as heart attacks, homicides, and suicides.  It was just last year that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released a report on the significant number of suicides in National Parks.  According to the report between the years of 2006 and 2009 there were 286 reported suicide attempts resulting in 194 fatalities.

In a recent conversation I learned that in the Ridge District of the Blue Ridge Parkway (a 106 mile section of the Park) there have been seven fatalities already this year.  The causes of these deaths are from a fall, motor vehicle accidents, and suicides.

I have written in this blog on the topic of suicides and deaths in our parks before.  To access these posts you can use the search window to the right.

The fact is that people do die in National Parks just as they do anywhere else.  The American people have a rightful sense of ownership of our Parks that is often times amplified by the media.  When fatalities occur in these special places for many, although they may live a thousand miles away, it feels like it occurred in their own backyard.
For National Park Rangers and their fellow staff members dealing with the death in our National Parks and the potential emotional turmoil that can linger for years is another challenge faced all too often.

For more information you can go to the following links:

I also have written on this topic more extensively in my book A Park Ranger’s Life: Thirty Two Years Protecting Our National Parks.  You can find a copy on Amazon and other on line sources.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Impact Of Your Writing

When a person sits down and starts to write that book that has been rolling around in their head for years it is hard to predict the impact that final product may have on others.  I received this message through Facebook and am humbled and a bit flabbergasted.

Just wanted to say thanks for everything. Read your book a while back and decided to give it my all to become an LE ranger. Got to go to the academy and meet your friend Chief Garrison last fall, and promptly got tased and pepper sprayed. I have yet to find any employment beyond an internship with the SCA. Seems this is probably the worst time ever to try and become an LE ranger, or anything in the government for that matter. I do not have a degree and would need to get hired under STEP or SCEP. I'm still hopeful though and keeping some peoples e-mail boxes full and phones ringing. Looks like I might join the military to stay competitive in the changing government job landscape.

Any who, you helped turn my life around for the better. I hope all is going well in retirement. Thank you for keeping America's wide open spaces safe. I hope to return the favor in the future


There is not much more that a writer can ask for than to know that their efforts positively influenced their readers.  He sounds determined and I wish this young man the very best in his future and a successful ending in the pursuit of his chosen career.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Park Rangers Catch Plant Poachers

As I have written before in this blog, the theft of plants from our National Parks is a serious threat to our fragile habitats.  In the National Park Service Morning Report today there is a report of Park Rangers on the Blue Ridge Parkway catching criminals taking over 30,000 galax plants from within the park.

Blue Ridge Parkway
Three Arrested For Galax Poaching

An operation to interdict galax poaching was conducted near the Mt.
Mitchell area of the parkway over a two-day period last week. The operation
involved two teams conducting surveillance at two access points where
violators were either accessing and/or being dropped off to harvest the
plants. The first day was unsuccessful, but three individuals were arrested
on the second day.  The three were in possession of more than 30,000 galax
leaves. On Thursday, September 15th, the three appeared before a U.S.
magistrate and pled guilty to illegally harvesting galax and commercial
operations, with two receiving 30 days in jail and the third receiving 90
days (second offense). This area has historically seen a high amount of
such activity and is closely monitored by both rangers and members of the
Appalachians Highlands Inventory and Monitoring Network. This particular
type of galax has a very large leaf and is a target for poachers because it
can bring five cents a leaf for floral arrangements. It only grows in areas
along the parkway. [Tim Francis, Pisgah District Ranger]

A Well Done to the Park Ranger staff of the Pisgah District of the Blue Ridge Parkway.  
Thanks for keeping watch over our precious heritage.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Bears In The News

As I was fixing breakfast this morning I was watching WDBJ Channel 7 news out of Roanoke, Virginia when they showed a video of a black bear walking right up to a father and son fishing at a nearby pond.  The bear after observing them for some time came out and eventually sniffed the father and mouthed (as a apposed to bit) the father on the foot.

You can view the video at:,0,7177693.story

Although the bear appears to be young, he is close to full size and this is not normal bear behavior.  These two guys were extremely lucky.  Apparently this bear is acclimated to being around humans and is most likely used to being fed or eating out of human trash.  The problem as I used to describe to children while doing school programs is that "bears don't share."  If these men had food that the bear wanted, he would have taken it by force if necessary.  Watch the entire video you will get some good advice from State Biologist Jim Bowman about keeping a distance between yourself and any wild animal.  The number one source of human vs. wildlife conflicts and injuries in parks is from people getting to close to take photos.

In my book "A Park Ranger's Life" you can read about my encounter with a bear that was acclimated to considering humans a source of food and transportation.

Photographed following his eventual capture, the acclimated bear that you can learn more about in the chapter "Close Encounters of the Bear Kind" in A Park Ranger's Life.

Do not let what appears to be domestic behavior of a wild animal lure you into a fool-hearty decision.

If you are still not convinced of the seriousness of bear encounters, check out this site for information on bear attacks in North America;

"A Park Ranger's Life" at the Mountain Spirits Festival October 1

I am looking forward to being at the Mountain Spirits Festival in Rocky Mount, Virginia on October 1.  I will be in the authors tent from 10am to 4pm with copies of my book and ready to talk and answer questions about park rangers, National Parks, and life.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering 9-11

Watching the 9-11 Commemorations this morning has brought out strong emotions. I responded to Washington DC the next day to work on an Incident Command Team out of the Dept. of the Interior Building. The hotel we stayed at looked directly down on the still fresh hole in the Pentagon. I remember seeing fear and disbelief in the faces of those few people walking around the deserted ghost town of the Mall. We have to remember that at that time no one knew that more attacks would not occur. During that time I also witnessed the strength and resilience of our Nation and its people. Today let us remember those heroes that we lost during these attacks and those who have paid the price since, both our brave military and the first responders who continue to deal with health issues and the loss of their comrades as the consequence of doing their duty.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Affects of Further Cuts to National Park Budgets

Check out this article from the Great Falls Tribune on the affects of budget cuts on our National Parks.|topnews|text|Frontpage

This article is of interest since it outlines some of the ideas of how to reduce the number of National Parks in our system including turning some over to states and others to non-profit organizations.  I have quite a few concerns about such proposals.  But here are some of my key ones.

National Park areas are created by Congress and in some cases by the President (National Monuments) because they have been determined to have some cultural or natural significance to our Nation and its people.  So how would it be determined which of these areas now do not have this level of significance.

What states have the funding available to take over a park.  From what I am hearing in the news most states are in dire financial situations unable to fund schools, infrastructure, and public safety.  Most states would most likely apply for Federal funding to care for such an area anyway.  Putting a park under the responsibility of a state government at this time could spell its demise or death.

I have recently entered the world of non-profits.  As managing director of a nature center and arboretum I am attempting to deal with the lack of funding available from grants and donations, the life blood of any non-profit.  Between the down turn in the economy and cuts to Federal programs there is more competition than ever between many worthy causes for limited dollars.  Individual contributors and foundations are cutting back on established grants and not accepting new applications due to losses in the stock market and their donor base.  Federal grant programs are being shut down.  Grants and donations from private industry are being vastly reduced as profits and investments drop.  Families with the increases in gas and grocery prices can ill afford to support local non-profits.

If you were to look back at the history of some historic sites within the National Park System you would find quite a few that were formally state parks or run by non-profits.  These sites were transferred to the National Park Service because they could no longer be financially sustained, were sites of National significance, and could contribute to boosting local economies.

With our current economic conditions I see these quick fix politically motivated solutions contributing to the fall of one of our Country's best ideas and the best park system in the world.

The Great Falls Tribune article quotes Tom Kiernan, President of the National Parks and Conservation Association as saying, "Every $1 invested in them (National Parks), ..... generates $4 of economic activity in return."  Yes we all have to tighten out belts, but removing parks from a system that feeds local economies may prove destructive in the end.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Illegal Trails On the Blue Ridge Parkway

The Blue Ridge Parkway winds through over 469 miles of mountain scenery and habitats in Virginia and North Carolina.  When originally built this road was in what many would consider the middle of nowhere providing access for new populations to experience Southern Appalachian natural and cultural environments.  In many cases visitors fell in love with the region and its charms.  As a result the number of homes and communities along the edges of the Park has grown.  Over time many adjacent home and property owners have wanted their own piece of the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The National Park Service has identified approximately 400 illegally built trails within the park providing access to the Parkway road.  More than 40 of these trails exist in the Roanoke area alone and are being used by pedestrians and bicyclists.

Most users of these trails do not see any problem with cutting trees and brush and in some cases constructing steps on park lands since it makes it personally convenient for them to gain access to the park from their home.  In some other areas trees have been topped and even removed within the park to open up views for home owners.  I have even seen these accesses and views used as an enticement for real estate sales. 

Approximately five years ago the Park Service attempted to close off several of the illegally cut trails in the Roanoke area.  People immediately started contacting their Congressional representatives, local politicians, and the news media to paint a dark picture of evil park rangers stopping their fun.  As a result the Blue Ridge Parkway has spent several years studying the situation and developing a proposed trail management plan for the Roanoke area of the Park.    A lot of time, expense, and effort have been spent by the Park Service just in planning to deal with this problem.

Granted my opinion is tainted by more than 32 years as a park ranger dealing with many similar issues.  I guess the points I keep coming back to are these:

The trails were built illegally in violation of federal regulations without permission from the Park Service.  Were the park staff to build such a trail there are numerous requirements for cultural and natural resource impact studies to be completed and approved to ensure such construction does not damage valuable or irreplaceable plants, habitats, or archeological sites.  Considerations are required as to the safety of the trail and its access point into the roadway.  None of the builders of these trails went through this process or even considered such impacts on public lands.

The construction of the trails impacted resources that the Park Service is charged with protecting.  Cutting limbs, trees, and shrubbery are all violations of regulations within National Parks.  Many of these trails also cause eventual issues with erosion of sparse and valuable soils in mountain areas.  This erosion further damages root systems of other plants and trees adjacent to the trails.

The placing of these trails and the reaction of the public to attempts to close them are examples of how many have become more interested in what can benefit them as an individual than on how their actions will affect others.

It would be interesting to see what the reaction would be from these neighboring land owners if someone came onto their property without permission and started cutting vegetation to open a short cut to another house.,0,1185373.story#tugs_story_display