Watched in the Wild

The New Republic, August 21, 1971

FOR THE PAST year and a half I’ve been living on an old dairy ranch about fifty miles north of San Francisco by country road.  The ranch is within the boundaries of the Point Reyes National Seashore, a spectacular ex­panse of wooded hills, golden meadows and lonely beaches.  The other day I received word that I am soon to be a victim of eminent domain: the Nation­al Park Service wants to use my ranch as an outpost for a dep­uty sheriff.  The sheriff’s job will be to deal with what the Park Service says is a soaring crime rate at the Seashore — 800 citations and arrests in 1970, com­pared with 250 the year before.

Crime is a matter of definition, and statistics leave a lot unsaid.  Of the 800 offenses tallied last year at Point Reyes, about one-third were for drug use, pri­marily marijuana.  Another third were for camping in undesignated areas, and the rest were for such miscella­neous transgressions as petty theft, un­leash­ing one’s dog or removing one’s clothes on a beach.  The dra­matic increase over the previous year, I suspect, is as much the result of stricter law enforcement as of a sudden burst of lawlessness.  Yet the actual crime rate is rising, if for no other reason than that more people are using the Seashore and more young people are smoking marijuana.

cop car_0Other national parks, especially those within easy driving distance of metro­politan areas, are experienc­ing similar crime patterns.  Yosemite, Lake Mead, Cape Cod, Cape Hatteras, Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Sequoia, as well as Point Reyes, reported sharp rises last year in the number of drug offenses.  Also rising are the tensions between two types of park visitors — young hippies and older family groups — whose con­flicting life styles are forced into close proximity every night at crowded campgrounds. These tensions led to clashes last year between Rangers and hippies, the most notable of which occurred in Yosemite Valley, when Rangers tried to enforce a 7 PM curfew on a crowd of young people gathered in a meadow.

Though traditional crimes of violence remain con­spicuously rare in the national parks — only two mur­ders and eight rapes were reported in all of the parks in 1970, a rather good record considering that 173 million persons came to visit — the Park Service has re­acted to the hippie influx and the up­surge of minor crime, by increasing the personnel assigned to law en­force­ment.  In some parks, such as Point Reyes, where the federal government shares jurisdiction with the state and county, local police agencies have been brought in.  At Yosemite, the Park Service has hired every summer since 1969 at least two young under­cover agents, usually criminology students at Fresno State or San Jose State, who dress as hippies and whose special responsibility is to look for drug viola­tors.  For holiday weekends and other emergencies, the Park Service’s own police force, which works mostly in the Washington, DC area, has trained a new, high­ly mobile 40-man unit, some­what akin to the Marines, that can fly to any trouble spot in the country within hours.

The primary burden of stepped-up enforcement falls upon the Park Rangers, whose well-known uni­form, alas, has come to symbolize not only the help­ful naturalist, but also the punitive power of the state.  Rangers in many parks now carry handcuffs, .38 caliber revolvers and spray cans of MACE.  By the end of 1973, all will have undergone a four-month training program in police techniques at the Park Police acad­emy in Washington.  To provide addi­tion­al on-the-job training and technical assistance, the Park Police and the FBI have sent officers to many of the major parks this summer.

part, Rangers are friendly toward cit­izens whom they stop in the parks.  Usually, unless a public commotion has occurred, they will tell an un­clad sunbather to get covered, or an unauthorized camper to move on, or, less often, a pot-smoking youth to desist.  Yet their presence in the wilderness as law enforcers disturbs the sense of ease and tranquility that is the essence of the national parks’ attraction.

At Point Reyes, Rangers have been sighted behind sand dunes, searching through binoculars for people smoking marijuana.  The Head Ranger, Philip Ward, justifies such surveillance with the comment that “these people are in a public place in the first place; it’s not as if we were going into their homes.” Once, on a moonlit night, while I was walking with a female friend along the road that passes my ranch, two armed Rangers on patrol stopped to ask who I was and where I was going.  I answered satisfactorily and they departed speedily and apologetically, but I couldn’t help thinking that there are fewer and fewer places in America where a man can retreat — where he can walk under the stars, seeking whatever he seeks, without being watched or inter­rogated by a government official.

Perhaps all this is too pessimistic.  The national parks are vast, still beautiful, and by contrast to cities or suburbs, subject to very little police surveillance.  Yet it takes only a small increase in police visibility to create the feeling that it is Big Brother, rather than Smokey the Bear, who guards the unspoiled lands.

The saddest part is that no one wants it this way.  The Park Service, I believe, realizes that more police cannot significantly reduce the kinds of vio­lations that occur in the parks, and it has no desire to spawn a national police force.  Yet, inexorably, this seems to be what is happening.  The pressures and overcrowding of the cities drive more and more people to the outdoors.  At the same time, the amount of wilderness that is not institutionalized, that is not the responsibility of some federal or state agency, is steadily dimin­ish­ing.  As more people flow onto a limited number of govern­ment enclaves, the escape that they seek is increasing­ly hard to find.  The same social tensions that drove them from the cities begin to reappear in the parks.  The govern­ment then feels obliged not only to protect these urban emigrés from one another, but to protect the public parklands from all of them.

Only two things can reverse this trend: more liv­able cities surrounded by more open space, and a more tolerant attitude toward forms of behavior that are, for the present, technically illegal but do not interfere with the rights or property of others.