SOUNDOFF: Fee morphs park rangers into cops

It’s been a year, and Washington State Parks’ $5 access fee hangs over Deception Pass Park like a toxic cloud. Truly ugly metal signs warn of the fee everywhere. There aren’t half as many people on the beach as in the previous eight years I’ve been going regularly. Missing are the elderly alone or with a dog, or the young dads showing their tots evidence of life’s cycles on the beach.

A man with his family in his vehicle pulls up to the window of the new collections cabin at the entrance and asks meekly, “If we just drive through the park and don’t get out, do we have to pay the fee?”

A year ago, friendly, easy-going park rangers at Deception Pass talked with me for a Seattle Times opinion piece on the state’s new fee. They convinced me that, “Rangers would much rather oversee (volunteers) than become the fee-enforcing cops that rangers have become in National Parks.” (Dec.15, 2002). But I was wrong.

The truth is that rangers at the park soon leaped into playing cops with Dudley Do Right ambition. When I set up an appointment at the park last winter with a ranger to assign me the volunteer job he’d promised instead of the fee, he was a no-show at the closed office. I was still waiting for an assignment and apology when I walked the beach two weeks later and returned to find a ticket on my car with a nasty note scrawled in red in the margin, threatening a fine of more than $100 if I didn’t pay the fee. That day, I bought a $50 annual pass to get the re-invented rangers off my back. But we’re all targets now.

The rangers are on a roll, with enforcement spilling over into classic harassment. I’d know it anywhere. I’ve been getting cop harassment since I was four years old, playing jacks on our apartment kitchen floor with my five-year-old sister. Suddenly a cop living with the woman downstairs banged on our door, hollering, “This is the police!” He pushed in past Mom in his undershirt with his gun drawn to raid the crap game he said he heard going on.

That’s how it’s been between cops and me ever since. But Deception Pass State Park was a refuge from all that, until a few weeks ago. I entered the park behind a driver who was clearly lost. He kept coming to rolling stops, driving maybe 8 1/2 mph till he’d start to veer off, then come back, and I’d raise my hands in a “Whatta-ya-gonna-do?” question behind him. Finally, he rolled to a stop far enough off the road that I could continue on. I slid down a dip in the road a few feet long, to get the oomph my car’s four elderly cylinders need to get up the steep hill in the park’s new, RV-friendly road.

As my little 1981 Honda trembled up the hill, the morning’s quiet beauty in the park was blasted by flashing lights and a screaming siren speeding up behind me. I pulled over and up walked one of the rangers I’d talked to a year earlier. I’d written in my notes at the time: “A nice guy, seems against the fee, too cautious to say so, gives me number and address of parks director for questions and protest.”

That was then. This is Enforcer Ranger. He asked for my driver’s license, proof of insurance, registration. He accused me of tailgating and speeding, said I was going 30 mph (a neat feat for my car only a few feet from a stop). I told him we had talked a year ago. He snapped, “I’ve never talked to you or seen you here.” I agreed it was on the phone, for the article. He said defensively that he knew nothing about any article but knew he hadn’t given me any opinions about the $5 fee.

When I gave him my registration form, he studied it, then said, “You didn’t sign it, that’s a citable offense.” He’d already said he could cite me for the alleged tailgating and speeding, but wasn’t going to. It was all so familiar, and still he kept at it. He took the things I’d given him to his vehicle, and I started to get out to ask how much longer, and what was he doing now. He said, “I’m checking your driving status. Stay in you car, ma’am.” He had all the cop verbiage down, and I sat in my car, forbidden to set foot on the road I now pay $50 a year to use.

Is he auditioning for Island County Sheriff’s Department? Is he playing cops and robbers in the park in the name of the Patriot Act? What has that fee unleashed?

Once the ranger was forced to accept that I had a clean record with no outstanding warrants, didn’t steal the car, am not on the list of suspected terrorists or a Monroe prison escapee, he brought my documents back and ordered me to sign my registration form in front of him.

Finally he left with the predictable, “Have a nice day,” and I was allowed to continue to the beach. I’d been detained for nearly 20 minutes.

Diane Broughton is a freelance writer living in Bellingham.

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