The new guard

Times Staff Writer

A historic change is underway within the ranks of California’s park rangers, a shift that signals a new era for the stewards of the state’s 1.5 million acres of forests, deserts and seashores.

During a recent 20-month period, nearly 100 of the state’s 750 rangers and lifeguards left the service. Some retired as a normal matter of course, and others hung up their Stetsons early, thanks to an extra-generous incentive package adopted by state lawmakers last year.

On the way out are ‘70s-era rangers who entered the park system at the height of the environmental movement with their shoulder-length hair, mutton chops and packing World War II-era six-shooters. Replacing them are a new generation of rangers — highly trained cadets donning military-style buzz cuts, Kevlar vests and assault rifles — deployed with an explicit directive and the requisite training to combat the parks’ growing crime problems.

The transition is, in part, a reaction to changing times. Rangers who once confronted drunk drivers, boisterous teens and petty thieves now face armed pot growers, street gangs and methamphetamine addicts. The job is increasingly a balancing act as rangers try to remain educators and naturalists while enforcing the law. Gary Watts and Danny Duarte are two rangers trying to find that balance.


The veteran

Watts never liked carrying a firearm. When he began working as a ranger in the San Joaquin Valley 28 years ago, he vowed to keep his 38-revolver unloaded. After all, he considered himself a park ranger, not a cop.

Watts has been doing a lot of reflecting on his job since he decided to retire. As for the gun, he eventually loaded it but never had to shoot it in all those years.

The first citation he gave was to a kid shooting at rabbits with a BB gun. His supervisor tore the ticket up and told him not to hassle park visitors over minor infractions.

Watts became a ranger in the 1970s, a much more permissive time for the country and state parks. Back then the academy was a six-week course, heavily focused on natural resource protection and campfire presentations. Cadets with a minor pot-smoking conviction, long hair and scraggly beards were accepted.

It was the era of Love Canal and Three Mile Island. It was a time when many baby boomers became rangers with a mind to protect the environment one tree at a time.

“A lot of people became rangers with a tremendous desire to do something hopeful, to do something utopian,” says Jordan Fisher Smith, a retired ranger and author.

Watts first got the idea to become a ranger when he was a kid on a family vacation, listening to a ranger give a campfire talk.

After graduating from Humboldt State University, Watts entered the academy in 1977. His first assignment was Millerton Lake State Recreation Area near Fresno, home to golden eagles, deer, bobcats and mountain lions. He sometimes patrolled in an old Dodge Dart that lacked power steering and a light bar. Excessive drinking was the park’s biggest problem, and rangers routinely ignored obvious cases of domestic violence. But the job was already changing.

A 1968 report commissioned by the state Department of Parks and Recreation warned of a rise in crime and concluded that state rangers were either unprepared or unwilling to respond to the problem.

Then, in 1973, National Park Service Ranger Kenneth Patrick was killed when he surprised three deer poachers during an early morning patrol in Point Reyes National Seashore. He didn’t get a chance to pull his gun, which he kept under his uniform jacket, investigators said. At the time, it was common for rangers to keep their weapons out of sight so as not to frighten park visitors.

The Patrick murder gave state officials the impetus for change. By the early 1980s, rangers had the same law enforcement training requirements as sheriffs and police officers in the state.

As Watts began his career, he told himself he would use his verbal skills and imposing size — he is more than 6 feet tall and built like a lumberjack — to avoid using force. But it became increasingly hard to enforce the law with a stern word. He was dealing with drunken beach brawls and death threats from angry park visitors.

Watts worked at several state parks until he was promoted to supervise 14 parks, from Whittier to the Nevada border.

These days, Watts, 51, spends most of his time in meetings, deskwork he had hoped to avoid when he became a ranger. He plans to retire next year.

Not long ago, his daughter asked him to talk to her fourth-grade class. Watts brought two mounted owls and faux owl scat to the elementary school for a hands-on wildlife lesson. He watched as the children broke into pairs to dig out animal bones embedded in the fake owl pellets.

“Every once in a while I do it because it’s fun and I miss it,” he says. “That’s what got me started in this profession.”


The rookie

On the wind-whipped Santa Barbara coast, Duarte patrols campsites with a military-style AR-15 assault rifle strapped in his patrol car. His training officer, Matt Yarbrough, sits next to him, grilling Duarte on penal codes and tactics.

It is Duarte’s first month of on-the-job training, and he is eager to prove himself as he follows Yarbrough into a crowded campsite at Gaviota State Park where a loud bang, like the sound of small-caliber gunfire, rang out.

The setting sun casts long shadows beyond chaparral and a stand of oak trees. The Kevlar vest under Duarte’s uniform is hot and heavy. Duarte and Yarbrough question six young men and women hanging around a cluttered campsite. One camper suggests the gunfire sound was the crack of burning firewood.

Wary, Duarte and Yarbrough position themselves to avoid ambush. Duarte watches the campers’ hands for sudden movements. The rangers eventually find several coolers of beer and liquor, though only two campers are old enough to drink.

Afterward, Yarbrough and Duarte discuss tactics and penal code violations. “You have to train your eyes to look for things that don’t look right,” Duarte says from the patrol car’s passenger seat.

To become a ranger, Duarte cleared a two-year-long background check. He spent 26 weeks at the academy in Pacific Grove. Nearly 80% of that time was spent on law enforcement training.

Duarte, 38, worked for 15 years in San Fernando Valley’s aerospace industry, most recently as a technician. One day he decided he couldn’t take another shift in a stuffy laboratory where he tested brake systems for airplanes. He recalled family vacations as a boy at Yosemite National Park, and the friendly rangers there. He filed an application with the state and in January joined a class of 22 cadets at the ranger academy.

The first order of business: Military-style haircuts for all cadets. Duarte lost his dark locks and for a while, his bushy black mustache.

These are tough times to be a park ranger. Between 2000 and 2002, crime rates in the state parks jumped 23% while visitor satisfaction continued to decline, according to a state management report issued last year.

Back on patrol, Duarte and Yarbrough drive through campgrounds at El Capitan State Beach, when they spot two young girls riding on a bicycle rack on the back of a Mercedes SUV. “That’s insane,” Yarbrough says in disgust.

They stop the SUV and Duarte writes a citation as the driver fumes with his arms crossed.

Back in his patrol car, Duarte recalls an instructor at the academy telling him to avoid creating an “us versus them” atmosphere with park visitors. “It’s a balance you have to find,” Duarte says. “I’m trying to find it.”