Outside magazine, July 1994
"I've gotta go," is how Robert Tranter hastily ended a phone call one Friday afternoon a few months back. "I just got word that there may be another dead body out there." Tranter, a ranger at the Bureau of Land Management's California Desert District, did indeed find a corpse, the 13th such discovery by him and his colleagues in 12 months. And as usual, the cause of death--shotgun wounds to the chest--wasn't exactly what you'd call natural.
Most of us view our public lands as happy refuges, places to ditch the bonds of civilization and commune with nature--and why not? The allure of the Great Wilderness Escape, perhaps second only to the American Dream in the national imagination, has been seeded and fertilized by everyone from Henry David Thoreau to L.L. Bean. But in seeking harmony with nature, we often forget that human nature accompanies us everywhere we go, expressing itself in any number of ways: robbery, drunk driving, arson, drug manufacturing, paramilitary training, ammunition stockpiling, sexual assault, and murder--not to mention resource crimes like wildlife poaching and artifact theft. Wallace Stegner got it wrong: Wilderness is not where man is not.
In fact, it's getting a little crowded. More than 273 million people visited the national parks last year, 67 million more than a decade ago. (The system also has added 33 new sites since then.) The number of crimes committed on park property has doubled in the last five years, yet the number of law-enforcement officers--charged with the double duty of guarding resources and babysitting visitors--has decreased by 39. Throw in BLM and Forest Service lands and you've got more than 541 million acres with a combined law-enforcement squad of about 3,600--or about one officer for every 150,000 acres. It doesn't take a genius to do the math. "people who engage in criminal activities have figured out that remoter pubic lands are accessible to them," says Bill Paleck, superintendent of North Cascades National Park, who in his 27-year career has dealt with everything from suicide to drug smuggling.
Less apparent, perhaps, are the implications for the land itself. "These people problems are keeping us from doing the job we need to do in cultural and resource protection," says Rick Gale, a 36-year Park Service veteran who now oversees wildfire operations at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. "We can fix the graffiti on the restroom, but you lose one Anasazi pot and it's gone.
In the report that follows, we've excluded places where criminal spillover is a matter of proximity--the Angeles and San Bernardino National Forests on the outskirts of Los Angeles, or Gateway National Recreation Area outside New York, for example. Instead we've focused on the nationally popular locales most plagued--and endangered--by crime. Granted, the vast majority of visitors to these parks, forests, and BLM lands will never experience anything much worse than car vandalism at the trailhead or drunken behavior in a campground. But employ this as a reminder, a compendium of cautionary campfire tales that have a common moral: When you're packing for your annual getaway this summer, it's best not to leave your wits behind. As one ranger puts it. "Criminals go on vacation, too."
JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL MONUMENT
When they're not busy running down sociopathic soldiers or performing any number of mundane duties like dousing illegal campfires, Joshua Tree rangers update the park's three-inch-thick "weird file," a folder filled with photos and descriptions, from the amusing to the eerie, of unsolved mysteries--such as the 12-foot pentagram decorated with bird wings that ranger Nina Burnell found etched in the sand in May 1993. Why Joshua Tree? Gary Garrett, a longtime backcountry volunteer at the park, ventures a guess: "There's an unwritten acceptance that Joshua Tree has energy centers, though I've never felt them myself. Also, it is convenient to southern California."
Number of visitors in 1993: 1,256,928
Number of law-enforcement officers: 14 permanent, 3 seasonal
Percentage increase in law-enforcement activity over last ten years: 577
Number of Satanic rock rings found by one back-country volunteer since 1990: 50
Reported acts of vandalism in 1993: 54
Average cost of cleaning up one act of vandalism: $151.17
1994 budget: $2,775,381
Law-enforcement budget: $559,400
On September 19, 1973, a lethal combination of drugs and alcohol killed musician Gram Parsons, formerly of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, in Twentynine Palms, a mile outside the national monument. While awaiting transport at the Los Angeles airport, the coffin containing his remains was stolen; a day later, at a turnout near Cap Rock, a maintenance worker at Joshua Tree came upon Parsons's flaming corpse, which burned a stain into the ground that remained visible for two full years. Two friends of Parsons later pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor theft and received suspended 30-day sentences. For some time afterward, groupies would visit the spot with spoons to try to scoop up souvenirs; nowadays, the occasional fan still places flowers on the site.
Anxiety Index: 3
LAKE MEAD NATIONAL RECREATION AREA
Number of visitors in 1993: 9,256,520
Number of law-enforcement officers: 45 permanent, 11 seasonal
Number of arrests in 1993: 609
Number of violent crimes: 13
Number of fatalities: 38 (17 drownings, 5 suicides, 3 boating accidents, 2 motor-vehicle accidents, 9 of natural causes, 2 undetermined)
Number of drownings involving drugs or alcohol: 5
Number of corpses discovered by visitors: 5
1994 budget: $10,805,370
Law-enforcement budget: $3,060,000
On July 6, 1993, Barry Barnett, 38, of Laughlin, Nevada, met Michael Bertram, 40, of Bullhead City, Arizona, at a weekend-long beach wingding near Katherine's Landing. Though they'd been arguing for most of the party, when it broke up the pair borrowed a boat to go out and tow each other on Barnett's surfboard. Bertram returned the boat alone, noting casually to its owner, "I think I killed the little surfer dude." Two park visitors found Barnett's body floating near the Katherine's Landing water-intake barge on July 14. Charges of negligent homicide and reckless endangerment were filed against Bertram, who had fled to Florida, though for two months, according to park investigator Ernie Soper, "Nobody had money to bring him back for prosecution."
In October U.S. Marshals did finally haul him back--for violation of probation: Bertram had previously been cited for driving under the influence within park boundaries. As of early May, he was in prison in Florida awaiting trial in the Barnett case.
Anxiety Index: 4
DANIEL BOONE NATIONAL FOREST
Daniel Boone's status as dope capital of our public lands is no surprise, in historical context. During World War II, under a federal incentive program, farmers in this part of southeastern Kentucky were paid to grow marijuana plants for the hemp fiber used to make rope, and it's still widely acknowledged as a vital part of the local economy. "We were interviewing an elderly gentleman whom we'd just arrested for cultivating marijuana," says the forest's special agent in charge of eradication, "and there in his patch I said to him, 'Now what in the world are you doing here? You're three counties away from your residence!' And he looked at me and said, 'Sonny, all the good places over there were taken.'"
Number of visitors in 1993: 5,261,700
Number of law-enforcement officers: 16
Number of joints per visitor that could have been rolled with marijuana destroyed in 1993: 42.9
Approximate total hours of intoxication that could have been provided by marijuana destroyed: 451,500,879
Approximate street value of marijuana destroyed: $248,400,000
1994 budget: $13,525,864
Law-enforcement budget: $1,053,800
In Kentucky, the religion that is high school football holds services on Friday night, and for ten years Archie Powers was its high priest--which is to say, he was the head coach at Corbin City High School, a longtime powerhouse that brought home the state title twice under his guidance. When Powers resigned in 1982, he rode his popularity into the office of judge executive of Whitley County. From this new pulpit, he and a partner extended a hoe to a bit of his jurisdiction in southern Daniel Boone National Forest and raised about a thousand marijuana plants. Upon his indictment in 1990, the cry swept across the land: "My God, my boys played football for him!"
ANXIETY INDEX: 2
BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK
But the predominant concern is smuggling. Though its border makes up 13 percent of the international boundary with Mexico, there is no customs port of entry in the park. As a result, an inestimable quantity of drugs, animal pelts, household appliances, auto parts, stereo equipment, and construction materials--not to mention illegal aliens--sneak past rangers and the Border Patrol each year. In 1993, rangers stopped four pickups hauling 500 boxes of frozen chicken parts, a bust that turned into a logistical nightmare. "If they had spoiled, we would have been liable," says assistant chief ranger Roger Moder. "We had to track down a food locker 100 miles away."
Number of visitors in 1993: 330,741
Number of rangers: 13
Number of car break-ins reported: 36
Number of illegal aliens caught: 31
Number of fox and bobcat pelts stuffed into a spare tire confiscated by rangers on January 31, 1994: 20
Pounds of marijuana confiscated on same bust from a different tire: 23
Street value of drugs seized in or near the park in 1993: $5,034,601
1994 budget: $3,564,400
Law-enforcement budget: $690,000
In July 1991 the body of 26-year-old Donald Tate was found in the southeastern part of the park in a desolate area along the Rio Grande. Tate's teeth were broken, his finger pads were missing, and his skull was fractured. The corpse of his five-year-old daughter was found in his burned-out van several miles away.
Smuggling-related theories abound, though some rangers think Tate was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Less plausible is the theory that a campstove fire in the van burned Tate, who ran to the river to extinguish himself, expired there, and got washed downstream. "There's some speculation that his finger pads were nibbled by turtles," says ranger Moder, "but then there's the blow to his head..."
Anxiety Index: 2
EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK
It doesn't help that just four rangers patrol several hundred square miles of the most tangled territory, or that a new trouble spot has emerged to divert their attention: East Everglades, a 107,600-acre crazy quilt of private and federal land recently appended to the park. The problem there isn't smuggling but rather general gun-happiness. "I can show you refrigerators and hulks of cars that look like cheesecloth," says ranger Bob Panko, "and mounds of shell casings on the ground." Just last fall, a wealthy Miami businessman was cited for helicoptering a few pals out to the Chekika Access Area to test out an impressive variety of toys, among them a .50-caliber Desert Eagle pistol, two nine-millimeter pistols, a .454 revolver, and a single-shot pen gun. "The people out there shoot at virtually anything," says ranger Ben Morgan. "On the Fourth of July, it reminds me of Vietnam."
Number of visitors in 1993: 1,061,000
Number of law-enforcement officers: 35 permanent, 6 seasonal
Drugs confiscated in 1987: 474 bales of marijuana, 135 balls of hashish
Drugs confiscated in 1993: 211 grams of marijuana
Number of weapons offenses in 1987: 15
Number of weapons offenses in 1993: 191
1994 budget: $10,356,300
Law-enforcement budget: $1,414,200
On the afternoon of July 1, 1992, observers at a customs intelligence facility in Richmond Heights spotted a twin-engine Piper Aerostar flying low from the Bahamas toward the eastern United States and dispatched a helicopter and a plane to tail it. The two aircraft followed the Aerostar to a spot above a landing strip west of Homestead, at which point confederates on the ground are believed to have notified the Aerostar's pilot of his pursuers. Before the pilot and passenger were finally apprehended at Homestead General Aviation Airport, they wheeled around and flew back across the park, jettisoning their entire cargo--some 16 bundles of cocaine worth about $2.5 million apiece. Ten were recovered: Eight splashed down in the Everglades backcountry, one landed on a Homestead church, and the last crashed into a house next door to a neighborhood crime-watch meeting, where the Homestead police chief was concluding his speech.
Anxiety Index: 2
BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT CALIFORNIA DESERT DISTRICT
Other nuisances have included Charles Manson, who was apprehended in the Panamint Range in 1969; a methamphetamine lab found in the Orocopia Mountains in 1989; skinheads holding periodic armed rallies in the southern Panamint Valley; and the instant city that routinely springs up on holiday weekends at Imperial Dunes, where dune buggies tear up the turf and their drivers tear up one another. "They've been riding hard," explains ranger Bob Zimmer, "and they're dirty, and they just finally piss each other off to the point where they may stab each other."
Number of visitors in 1993: not available
Number of law-enforcement officers: 60
Average number of weapons on each person encountered by rangers: 4
Number of guns confiscated in 1993: 150
1994 budget: $17,000,000
Law-enforcement budget: $2,660,000
One Sunday afternoon in December 1993, a visitor from New Zealand was hiking the Sheep Spring Oasis Trail in the Palm Springs South Coast Resource Area when he was hailed by someone in a pickup truck claiming to be stalled. When the hiker approached, he was shot twice in the torso, then robbed of his shoes and money and left for dead. He managed to drag himself to Interstate 10, seven miles away, where he flagged down help.
Anxiety Index: 4
Debra Shore coauthored a guide to the crown jewels of the national park system, which appeared in the June 1992 issue.