Smokey Replaced by Rambo

by J. Zane Walley

February 10 - February 16, 2000

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On a recent family vacation to Big Bend National Park in Southwest Texas, my wife, son, and I were on private property which borders the park and belongs to retired Texas rancher, Rex Ivey. I set my cameras on tripods and was waiting to photograph the sunset on the Chisos Mountains when I spied a white and green National Park Service vehicle driving rapidly toward me.

A U.S. Department of the Interior park ranger, David Yim, climbed out and began interrogating my son Martin and me on what we were doing, where we were from, what I did for a living, and how many were in my party. As I was replying to Ranger Yim, he kept his hand on his sidearm and circled me like a gunfighter every time I shifted position. After he finished questioning us he went to my pickup truck and camper and peered through the windows and back door. Finishing with my vehicle, he proceeded to inspect all the other vehicles in the parking area as well as to interrogate locals and other tourists who had arrived to watch the sunset.

Ranger Yim was certainly well armed; he was literally ready for war. On his hip was a .9-millimeter pistol, and his duty belt carried several 13-round-capacity magazines, as well as mace, handcuffs, and a large assortment of other black leather clad devices. A 12-gauge riot shotgun and a Colt assault rifle were between the bucket seats of his official vehicle.

I took exception to Ranger Yim's SWAT team attire, interrogation, and arguable actions on private property. After returning home to New Mexico, I telephoned his supervisor, Chief Ranger Bill Wright. The conversation was unpleasantly enlightening.

Ranger Wright informed me that U.S. Department of the Interior park rangers have jurisdiction anywhere in the U.S. if they feel a crime has been committed on federal land. "For instance," he said, "if we believe someone from Maine took an archeological treasure from Big Bend, we could conduct an investigation there although it is not on U.S. land."

"We are federal officers!" he proudly concluded. Ranger Wright also stated that his officers are engaged in drug and illegal alien interdiction and would and could pursue any law violators off public property if the crime was committed in the park. "The rule of hot pursuit applies here," Wright said.

For these reasons, Wright contended that Yim had the right to be questioning citizens and investigating their vehicles on private land. He also defended his rangers' heavy weaponry. "We had a rape and a murder in our park. Outside Magazine says it is one of the five most dangerous national parks in America. I want to make sure my officers are armed to respond to any situation." Wright also admitted that they had not solved the rape or murder cases, but had arrested a few thieves. Wright said that all U.S. park rangers in America are armed with or have riot guns and assault rifles in their armory.

It is depressing that the familiar, friendly park ranger has become a paramilitary soldier. In speaking with Yim and Wright, it seems that the "federal officer" status has infused their thinking to the point that making big arrests and drug busts are of greater importance than merely informing and protecting the public.

A sad goodbye, Old Smokey. You have been replaced by Rambo.

Walley lives in Lincoln, N.M., and writes about the West and land rights issues.

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