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Whidbey's depleted rangers struggle in police role

While maintaining a park and tending to visitors’ needs, state park rangers also serve as police officers and respond to everything from speeders to suicide attempts.

Due to recent cutbacks that basically gutted staff at Washington’s state parks, the remaining rangers will struggle to maintain their law enforcement duties. On Whidbey Island, hundreds of thousands of visitors arrive each year and law enforcement problems are inevitable.

“It’s going to be a challenge. We don’t know at this point,” said Jack Hartt, park ranger at Deception Pass State Park, about how his reduced staff will keep up with their duties.

The popular north end park, one of the busiest in the state, originally had nine park rangers; however, recent cutbacks will reduce that number to five. For the remaining major state parks on Whidbey Island --- Fort Casey, Fort Ebey, and South Whidbey --- that number will be reduced to two from seven. Those two rangers will have to cover all three parks.

Washington State Parks is in a funding crisis as the agency weans itself off taxpayer dollars toward a fee-based system. The state Legislature provided $17 million in funding, which was essentially bridging dollars to allow the Discover Pass to come into effect during the biennium.

The Discover Pass is a vehicle fee visitors have to pay when they enter a state park. Motorists will either pay $10 a day or $30 a year for park access. Park officials hoped that the pass would raise $64 million to help cover park operations through the biennium. Sales indicate that the amount raised isn’t keeping pace with projections.

Hartt said revenue for the park system was at least $8 million short but that number could climb as high as $20 million when the tallying is complete. Because of the shortfall, park leaders slashed full-time positions and will use seasonal positions to help state parks get through the busy tourist season.

A park ranger serves as a jack-of-all-trades. While acting as police officers, they also register visitors, mow grass, clean restrooms, maintain buildings and make repairs.

“We take care of everything,” Hartt said.

As police officers, they respond to a plethora of incidents including drunken driving, domestic violence, firearms issues, fights, car and boating accidents and, at Deception Pass, people threatening to jump or actually jumping from the bridge.

A chilling example of the dangers park rangers face occurred in January when a ranger at Mount Rainier was shot and killed.

The first of four rangers slated to lose their positions left Deception Pass State Park yesterday and the others will work until the middle of the month.

Hartt said the rangers who lost their positions will likely be working this summer on a seasonal basis, but they are also looking for full-time work. After that, the seasonal positions will be filled with part-time help by people who don’t have the law enforcement training the current rangers have. After 2012, Whidbey’s state parks will have to rely on temporary workers during the summer.

Rangers are talking with local law enforcement and emergency personnel to help fill the gaps created by the staffing loss.

Hartt said he is negotiating with North Whidbey Fire and Rescue to provide assistance to properly man the park’s boat in the event of a water rescue in the pass.

Marv Koorn, chief of North Whidbey Fire and Rescue, said he hopes that a firefighter would either assist a park ranger in manning the boat or have access to the boat should a ranger not be available. While such an arrangement would delay a ranger’s response to a water incident, it would speed up firefighters’ response time because they would have access to a boat already in the water.

Hartt is also talking with the Island County Sheriff’s Office about how deputies could help the park rangers. He said he knows the sheriff’s office is also struggling with budget cuts and layoffs, which will make policing the parks all the more difficult.

 

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