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Front & Back, Part 2: CANYONLANDS: Ranger says each day is an opportunity to educate at remote and rugged park

Published July 6, 2006 12:00 am

Rugged park is ranger's classroom
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Life for rangers on the frontlines and in the backcountry of national parks

CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK - Dust rolls off the dry trail as ranger Michelle Busbee slowly navigates the Jeep Cherokee up the steep, rocky incline toward Elephant Hill in the Needles District of Canyonlands. It is 10 a.m., and Busbee has been on the job for four hours, checking permits on vehicles left at the park's main trailheads, scrutinizing the trailhead registers to make sure hikers have returned on schedule.

Then, Busbee heads into the remote backcountry, where she will spend the rest of her long day verifying permits for vehicles parked at campsites, restocking toilet paper in pit toilets and inspecting rock art panels and archaeological sites for signs of vandalism or damage caused by animals or nature. Along the way, she stops to talk with visitors - answering questions, giving directions and making sure they have adequate water for the routes they are traveling.

"The most foolish thing I encounter is people who don't bring enough water," Busbee says. "You'd be surprised how many people think a quart of water will last them all day."

On any given day in the spring and fall - the park's peak visitation times - backcountry rangers in the Needles typically interact with dozens of visitors. Other days, rangers might not encounter a single visitor, but that's expected at Canyonlands National Park, a wild and remote place that draws fewer than 400,000 visitors each year, about a third of those to the Needles District.

"There is no typical day for a ranger here," says Canyonlands Chief Ranger Peter Fitzmaurice. "We get a pretty wide range of things that happen, but they occur on an irregular basis."

Rangers at the Needles District of Canyonlands generally follow a somewhat established schedule, Busbee says.

Backcountry foot patrols generally average between 9-18 miles per day, depending on what situations the ranger encounters along the way. Vehicle patrols are done by bicycle, motorcycle or four-wheel drive vehicle, and average between 15 and 60 miles per day. The rangers generally schedule full-day or multi-day backcountry patrols, but can respond to the backcountry whenever needed, Busbee says.

All the park's rangers carry extra water in their vehicles in case someone needs a refill. Busbee recalls coming across a man who was on the verge of dehydration. He had read the park's brochures warning visitors to drink at least a gallon of water per day, and assured Busbee he ventured into the backcountry with an adequate supply.

"He left it in his car because he didn't want to carry it," she says, shaking her head in disbelief. "He said he thought he'd drink the whole gallon when he finished his hike."

While most visitors simply want to chat or need information, some encounters with the rangers are not so friendly.

Some months ago, Busbee issued a citation to a man she caught driving his vehicle off the designated trail, causing damage to the desert's fragile soil and vegetation.

"He went ballistic," she recalls. "He was really angry and I was concerned."

Later that day, she returned to her vehicle, parked at a trailhead, and discovered the valve stem had been removed from one of the tires. The tire was completely flat.

"He was the only person I'd seen that day, so I was pretty convinced it was him. Fortunately, we always carry spare tires for our vehicles."

Issuing citations is a responsibility of the job, but Busbee would prefer that visitors simply follow the rules, making tickets unnecessary. Unfortunately, she says, visitors who break one rule tend to also ignore others.

"When you find people without a permit, for instance, they are often associated with other violations," Busbee says. "They build a fire, collect wood, didn't bring a portable toilet. When the park issues a permit, it's really an opportunity to educate. And that's how I see my job, really, as an opportunity to educate. When I give someone a citation, it's not really so much a punishment as it is a chance to interact with them, explain the rules. I always tell them the citation is required. Don't let it stop you from enjoying your stay. Most people don't intend to break the rules."

Part of her job is to size up others and try to defuse potentially volatile situations.

"There are times when everything is telling me that if I push a conversation or confrontation farther, it could turn bad," she says. "When that happens, I'll usually just stop. I've learned to trust my instincts."

At Needles, backcountry rangers are on their own - either on foot or driving - and often miles from help should trouble arise. They carry satellite phones and radios, but the transmission signal in the canyons is sometimes spotty, and, if they are able to radio for assistance, backup could be a long time in coming.

Busbee says the law enforcement training required of all backcountry rangers, her wilderness medical training and a powerful reliance on gut instinct help her remain prepared for any situation.

"You have to always keep a heightened awareness of everything around you," she says.

Gender, she says, plays no role. All backcountry rangers carry firearms while on duty. Only about one-fifth of the rangers in the National Park Service's law enforcement and resource protection division that includes Busbee are women.

"I don't feel more vulnerable because I'm female, and I don't feel less vulnerable because I'm female," Busbee says. "The park service requires the same training for all of us, and they expect the same performance regardless of gender."

Born in Georgia and raised in San Diego, Busbee was drawn to work for the National Park Service after meeting a female backcountry ranger while hiking the Mineral King Valley of Sequoia National Park more than a decade ago. At the time, she was taking some time off to decide what to do with her life.

"It hadn't occurred to me that there were women doing this," Busbee says. "She took the time to talk to me about her job, and when I got home I started looking into it."

Since joining the park service, Busbee has worked at a number of parks, including Zion and Assateague Island National Seashore off the coast of Virginia. She arrived in the Needles District of Canyonlands five and a half years ago and has risen to district ranger.

The park, she says, is "ideal" because it offers rangers a blend of frontcountry and backcountry work.

Working in a remote park like Canyonlands also has a downside, says Paul Henderson, chief of interpretation for the Southeast Utah Group of the National Park Service. Needles rangers must live in the park's employee housing, more than 60 miles from the nearest town, and be ready to respond to emergencies 24 hours a day. Employees must pay rent, based on the average price of rentals in surrounding communities.

"In a sense, we have to provide everything there that a municipality has to provide - fire, law enforcement, utilities," Henderson says. "If there's a problem, it doesn't matter if it's the middle of the night, or you're on your day off, you respond. And you live and work with the same people. The community can get pretty small for you."

The job is not for everyone, Henderson says, but the park service continues to attract dedicated, talented workers.

"You get to live in places where everybody else goes on vacation. That certainly draws people to the park service," he says. "The old joke is that you get paid in sunsets."

For Busbee, the opportunity to meet and educate people about America's national treasures is a big part of what keeps her in the job.

"I try to find some connection to people," she says. "The more people learn about the resources in the park, the more likely they are to feel ownership and be good stewards."

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Contact Lisa Church at lchurch@citlink.net. Send comments about this story to livingeditor@sltrib.com.

PART 1

LAST WEEK:

A ranger's front line job in Utah's most visited park, see it at http://www.sltrib. com/outdoors