A ranger turned ideastream reporter talks to Bill Rice about what National Park staff do on a regular basis, and why it's important to heed the "closed" signs for safety and preservation.
RICE: I’m Bill Rice, for 90.3
Public discontent is at a fever pitch as the government shutdown moves into a third week. But for national park lovers, several – including Arizona’s Grand Canyon and Utah’s Zion National Park – have recently reopened, with states using their own money to reel back in tourists.
Still, most of the country’s national parks remain closed to visitors, including Ohio’s own Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Since the shutdown, critics have asked: what’s the harm in letting visitors through the gates of a closed national park?
Ideastream’s own Brian Bull, before venturing into journalism, once worked as a park ranger out west, and he joins us now to answer that question. Hello Brian.
Bull: Hello, Bill!
Rice: So, where and when were you the guy with the badge and the Smokey the Bear hat?
Bull: Many years – and pant sizes – ago – I was a park ranger based at the Nez Perce National Park in Idaho. I worked summers in the early 90s. I gave tours, cultural demonstrations, even fought a canyon fire, once. I’m still finding soot in my ears.
Rice: Do critics have a point in that they should be opened while Capitol Hill gets its affairs in order?
Bull: As a park buff myself, I know it’s a drag not to access these beautiful areas. But from a safety and liability standpoint, the National Park Service is doing both the environment and visitors a good turn. First, rangers help protect the park from vandalism, theft, and manmade threats like runaway fires. Secondly, rangers help serve and protect visitors. They help find lost kids or pets…administer first aid if people are injured, and call in law enforcement if there’s an incident or problem. And third, they kind of protect tourists…from themselves.
Rice: I’m guessing, Brian, that you saw your share of stupid tourist tricks during your ranger stint.
Bull: Well, heard about them anyway. We would get a weekly incident report that listed all incidents from the entire park system. And while most tourists are sensible and well-intentioned, it seemed that every week you were guaranteed to read about some guy visiting Yellowstone who put his kids on top of a bison for a photo, and wound up getting gored or trampled. Stuff like that. One incident that I was involved with was when a guy with a rifle had had a little too much to drink, and was driving around threatening people. Our safety officer recruited me and others to warn visitors out of the area. Even then a few people wandered down to where he was last spotted.
RICE: You told them there was a guy with a gun and they still went to the danger zone?
Bull: Maybe they wanted a picture with the guy, who knows. But the situation was resolved with park safety officers without any harm.
Rice: So the Cuyahoga Valley National Park…where are they at now with operations?
Bull: Chief Ranger Chris Ryan is one out of 20 employees left to monitor the park, more than 100 are on furlough. And I asked Ryan the other day what it’s like now that’s it’s closed to the public.
Chris Ryan: “It’s much quieter around here now. This is one of the most popular times of the year with the fall colors changing. We have had some vandalism done to closure signs, and barricades, and fencing, but that’s all taxpayer dollars that it takes to repair those items. And we need people’s cooperation. We want to protect the park so that when the shutdown is over, you can come back in and enjoy your national park.”
Rice: Have there been safety concerns and issues regarding the park?
Bull: There are always incidents, and yes, Cuyahoga Valley has had some. In May of 2011, a man fell over at Brandywine Falls and died. A similar fatal incident occurred in 1995. Just about a month ago, the remains of an Akron woman were found at the park by some hikers - that’s still under investigation. And then there have been some drug incidents – some people were nabbed for growing pot in the park, and mobile meth labs have also been discovered in the park and closed down.
What it comes down to is this: without park personnel on hand there’s any number of things that can occur with no one available to respond, and that puts people – and the park itself – at risk, so it’s probably best to close it.
Rice: Ideastream’s Brian Bull – formerly “Ranger Bull” – thanks very much.
Bull: You’re welcome! Support your national parks.
Rice: You can see a photo of Brian doing his ranger thing – way back when - at our website, and of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park that remains closed to visitors until the government reopens.