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Park rangers facing increasing dangers

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ASHLAND, Ore. — The smell of bacon mixed with wood smoke. The sight of a spectacular waterfall or field of wildflowers. The sound of a bugling elk . . . or nothing at all in the backcountry wilderness.

National parks are meant to be laid-back places where the stress and strain of work and home are left behind for a more mellow experience.

But increasingly, those rangers in their Smokey Bear hats who give talks on nature and lead campfire singalongs — especially the ones trained in law enforcement — are facing crime and violence.

A watchdog group last week warned that law enforcement work in national parks is the most dangerous in federal service.

"National Park Service officers are 12 times more likely to be killed or injured as a result of an assault than FBI agents," the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility reported. "National Park Service commissioned law-enforcement officers were victims of assaults 111 times in 2004, nearly a third of which resulted in injury. This figure tops the 2003 total of 106 assaults and the 2002 total of 98."

"The National Park Service has an astoundingly poor safety record for its officers," says Randall Kendrick, who represents park rangers as part of the Fraternal Order of Police. "If anything, these assaults against park rangers are undercounted. If there is not a death or injury, pressures within a national park can cause the incident to be reported as being much more minor than it is in reality, and it is not unheard of for an assault to go unreported altogether."

So why all this violence and crime in places that are supposed to be tranquil and relaxing? Alcohol or drugs are part of most violent incidents. Hideaway methamphetamine labs and marijuana fields in rural park areas and illegal aliens crossing through parks near the U.S.- Mexico border are part of a growing crime scene.

But like increasing incidents of road rage, the stress of modern urban life, especially in the post-9/11 world of terrorism, may have something to do with it as well.

"We're suffering from the same societal problems that most urban areas are," says park service spokesman David Barna, who notes that park rangers interact with 1 million visitors a day.

FBI agents "are not face to face with the public the way we are," says Mr. Barna. "We're more like cops — metropolitan police organizations."

Here in Oregon recently, two rangers at Crater Lake National Park attempted to calm a man at the Mazama campground who had been involved in a domestic disturbance, loudly threatening people, disrupting an evening program, and leaving campers cowering in their tents. Undeterred by pepper spray, he came at the rangers with a club. They finally fatally shot the man.

The National Park Service (NPS) is a huge organization whose 20,000 professionals and 125,000 volunteers oversee 388 parks, monuments, battlefields, historic sites, lakeshores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails, and the White House.

Based on interviews with Interior and Park Service officials, GAO reported that "the department's law enforcement staff is already spread thin . . . averaging one law enforcement officer for about every 110,000 visitors and 118,000 acres of land."