As this winter’s abundant snowpack begins to provide life to the rivers in and around the Colorado River watershed, boaters of all types are spending as much time on the water as possible – I know I am. And in doing so have noticed a disturbing occurrence – an overabundance of gun-carrying cops patrolling these recreational river wonders.
Last week, I took off with a group of friends to raft the Cataract Canyon section of the Colorado River in Utah. Most of this section of the river travels through Canyonlands National Park.
After putting on the water, it became apparent very quickly that we were now on the National Park Service’s turf, heavily patrolled by their hot-dog rangers. Throughout our six-day journey on the park, we were incessantly harassed by a park ranger, one whose communication skills were anything but eloquent.
Here’s how our first conversation with this ranger started after he pulled up in his oversized diesel motor boat as we sat eating breakfast in all the canyon’s glory.
Ranger With Gun: “Who is the permit holder here?”
Permit Holder: “I am.” (Walks over to greet the ranger who is not surprisingly wearing hazer cop glasses like those found on the set of Reno 911.)
Ranger With Gun: “You see this?” (Points to Permit Holder’s name on permit.) “This is who is going to get a ticket when any one of these guys (points to us) screws up. Got it?”
Permit Holder: “Yes.”
The tone of our subsequent conversations with the ranger did not improve. Instead of acting like he cared about the delicate environment surrounding us, the cop simply wanted to assert his authority. And with a gun on his belt, he certainly had it.
Two years ago, in the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area, some friends of mine were checked by another so called “law enforcement official” from the Colorado Division of Wildlife. This time, I actually felt threatened when he pulled up in an inflatable kayak and the first thing he did was pull his pistol and lay it across his kayak on top of a white towel. Once the gun was securely in place – resting on the rocking boat – he proceeded to check for fishing licenses.
One guy didn’t have one and as the conversation got heated and the ticket was issued the cop had moved almost 30 yards away from his boat – and his gun. Gun safety anyone?
An associate of mine tells me that in his Colorado fishing experience, “at least twice a ‘law enforcement official’ has asked for a fishing license with a hand hovering over his gun.”
Is that really necessary?
And let us not forget last spring on the Dolores River when another “law enforcement official,” this time from the Federal Bureau of Land Management, busted a number of boaters for smoking pot on the beach before their put-in. Some of those present during the bust said the officer (who didn’t check for proper river equipment, i.e. fire pans, groovers, etc.) was lurking in the bushes the night before with his nose to the air searching for the scent of pot like a beagle in an airport.
Law enforcement on our rivers is getting away from its main purpose. And there are too many damn guns to patrol people armed with fishing rods, boat pumps and empty Bud cans.
At any give time, on any given river in Colorado, a boater enjoying the recreation this state has to offer can be checked and questioned by personnel from at least three different organizations – all of whom carry guns. First, the Colorado State Parks and Recreation Department will question you over the number of band-aids in your first aid kit. Then, a BLM officer can question you if you brought a groover. And finally, a DOW officer can question you about your fishing license.
To put it simply, there are too many cops with guns patrolling people who are generally trying to get away from cops with guns. And the problem with this may lie with President Bush in his antics to create “national security” after 9-11. Right now, any cop from any organization has jurisdiction over, well, everything.
But the travesty of this situation isn’t just the hardships put on recrationalists. It lies in the fact that a position was once filled by those who have studied river ecologies and have a natural love of river ecosystems is now being filled by heavy-handed, law enforcement types who don’t know the difference between cryptobiotic soil and beach sand, but can tell you the range of their .45 mag.
The federal/state government agencies who are charged with protecting these rivers, which are so important environmentally as well as financially, should rethink who they hire. It is time to go back and get those who are educated in environmental sciences patrolling rivers. Rangers, in most instances, shouldn’t have to carry a gun and their past experience should not be just the police academy or working in a heavy patrol unit in Afghanistan. Our rivers are not Hogan’s Alley and shouldn’t remind us of 1984.
Although few and far between, I know there are still dedicated river rangers out there who truly care about the river and aren’t afraid to check to make sure everybody is using the river in a clean, respectable way through friendly conversation. I commend you for that and I appreciate the work you do. I am sure, because you are just a ranger – not a “law enforcement official” – and don’t carry a gun, you are paid less.