Salt Lake City parks and public lands are getting a new set of eyes and ears

A park ranger program has long been on the city’s wishlist. Thanks to some federal funding and internal buy-in, it’s become a reality.

Rule-breaking parkgoers beware: There’s a new ranger in town.

Salt Lake City is on the cusp of launching a new park ranger program that officials say will provide educational programming and give public lands a new set of eyes and ears.

The rangers — 18 of them once fully staffed — are supposed to be a friendly face for visitors to interact with, Public Lands Department spokesperson Luke Allen said. One thing they’re not, he said, are law enforcement officers.

“But we hope that by having them in the parks, engaging with people,” Allen said, “we can promote voluntary compliance of park rules.”

They’ll keep an eye out for common issues such as drug and alcohol use in public spaces, unpermitted activities or events, and dogs roaming off-leash.

Rangers also will be around to respond if issues arise with those experiencing homelessness in parks.

The program is the first of its kind in Salt Lake City and has been on park officials’ wishlist for years. Last year, an infusion of federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act and internal buy-in from the city meant the park ranger program was a go.

Rangers will visit all parks, but will be based out of four areas — Liberty Park, Pioneer Park, Fairmont Park and the Jordan River Trail. A pair of rangers will also monitor the foothills trail network for unleashed dogs, people straying from trails and cyclists using electric bikes.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City park rangers hand out information cards on their new services during Yappy Hour at Pioneer Park, Thursday, July 14, 2022.

Before they hit the parks next month, they’ll need complete training with groups including the Volunteers of America, Salt Lake County Animal Services and the Salt Lake City Police Department.

Once fully operational, they’ll monitor the parks from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week.

Addressing homelessness

Chris Croswhite, executive director of Rescue Mission of Salt Lake, said a park ranger program in Utah’s capital makes a lot of sense, but stressed that residents experiencing homelessness have the same rights to use public parks as anyone else.

He said the park ranger model could be a helpful resource for those who find themselves in Salt Lake City but don’t know about the services available here, like where to go for meals or shelter.

“It really is potentially a very good program,” Croswhite said. “It’s going to very much depend on how it’s implemented and the training of the officers.”

Allen insists the program does not have a goal of running unsheltered people out of the city’s public lands.

It’s not the rangers’ job to identify and report illegal camping in city parks, he said, and they won’t be in charge of taking down tents or providing social services. Instead, they’ll be trained on how to assess problems and call the right agency or organization to properly address issues.

“If we’re being 100% honest, even with these park rangers out in the parks and along the trails, there still will be camping,” Allen said. “There still will be individuals experiencing homelessness in the parks.”

More than anything, he said, the goal of the ranger program is to promote positive uses in parks and build relationships with visitors. The rangers are there to be a conduit between the public and law enforcement, and will be trained to make the right call when problems might arise.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City park rangers pet dogs during Yappy Hour at Pioneer Park, Thursday, July 14, 2022.

Program draws support, skepticism

Salt Lake City’s new program has garnered the support of community groups, who say the increased presence in public parks will make the open spaces more welcoming.

Turner Bitton, chair of the Glendale Neighborhood Council, said the program could help meet needs that don’t rise to the level of law enforcement attention, and makes public lands more accessible by making visitors feel safer and offering directions and information about public spaces.

Friends of Fairmont Park’s Sarah Woolsey said she hopes the ranger program will make the park work better for everyone as it continues to see an influx of visitors with the growth of Sugar House.

“If you don’t pick up after your dog and a kid steps in it while they’re playing soccer, that doesn’t work,” Woolsey said. “And so having those sorts of extra reinforcements, we think will be good.”

Polly Hart, who serves as chair of the city’s Parks, Natural Lands, Urban Forestry & Trails Advisory Board, said she has been opposed to the ranger program, but is now reserving judgment until she sees how it plays out.

Hart, who is also a board member of Millcreek Friends Interested in Dogs and Open Space (F.I.D.O.S.), said she’s had concerns about the rangers targeting dog owners who don’t leash their pets.

“I don’t advocate people to let their dogs off leash in areas that are legally on-leash,” she said, “but I sympathize because dog owners are one of the most underserved outdoor groups that exist in our valley. We have a vast shortage of space compared to other use groups.”

Similar effort successful in Denver

Salt Lake City looked to places such as Seattle and Denver when it cooked up its idea for a ranger program.

Eliza Hunholz, assistant director for Denver’s park ranger program, said her employees patrol public lands in the Mile High City around the clock and have been effective.

Unlike Salt Lake City’s program, park rangers in Denver have the power to issue citations, but Hunholz said that’s a last resort. Instead, she said, rangers use a trauma-informed approach to help people experiencing homelessness and abusing substances.

Hunholz said she tells job candidates “this is not campfire talks, nature hikes, marshmallow roasts, birdwatching.”

“This is really difficult work,” she said, “with some of the most difficult issues that society is facing right now.”

Hunholz said Denver has cleaner and safer parks than other cities. Part of that, she said, is strictly enforcing a ban on camping in public spaces. If camping happens in Denver parks, she said, those tents are usually taken down within 48 hours.

“Ultimately, the parks are for everyone,” she said. “We welcome everyone in our parklands. But if you’re not following the rules, we will enforce the rules.”

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