Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Urban Problems Intrude on Yosemite

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Urban Problems Intrude on Yosemite

Article excerpt

THREE PARK RANGER cars converged quietly on the crowded campground in the Yosemite Valley over the Memorial Day weekend, looking for the occupants of a blue Toyota pickup. A 9-year-old girl with sharp eyes was waiting to assist them.

"You're looking for two white males, one with red hair, the other with brown hair and no shirt on," she said to the first ranger out of the car. "The red-haired one went that way on a bike, and the other one ran over that way."

Within minutes the rangers, wearing bulletproof vests, had two men in handcuffs, a bag of marijuana and a collection of little spoons they suspected may be connected to cocaine use. Their witness, the little girl, stood by taking pictures with her disposable camera.

It was another beautiful day in Yosemite National Park: Half Dome looking down benevolently from on high, dogwood trees in full blossom, laughing families in rubber rafts drifting down the Merced River - while other tourists cranked up for an evening of drinking and brawling, some of them hell-bent on crime.

On the eve of another summertime deluge of visitors to Yosemite National Park, officials say crime and related urban problems are increasingly intruding into one of the world's great natural wonders, a place that is supposed to be a refuge from all that.

With park attendance already up 14 percent over last year at this time, park officials expect another record year, with more than 4 million visitors. Yet the ranger force is stretched thinner than ever, with just eight law enforcement rangers on duty in the valley at any one time to serve a highly diverse, not always tranquil, with population of up to 50,000 a day on a busy weekend.

Twenty years ago, Yosemite had 220 men and women performing resource or visitor protection work for the entire park, which covers nearly 1,200 square miles. Last year that figure dropped to 112 and this year it is down to about 100.

"Twenty years ago we had up to 28 rangers on a night shift, a time when we had 1.5 million fewer visitors," said park superintendent Mike Finley, who will take over as superintendent of Yellowstone National Park this fall. "We used to have rangers walk through campgrounds, which kept the noise level down. We don't have people to do that anymore. That personal relationship between our law enforcement rangers and the public is being lost. The bad guys may be gaining the upper hand." Less Money, More Trouble

While the rangers see their budget cut to the bone, they also are seeing the nature of their jobs changing dramatically, from that of a naturalist with the friendly Smokey Bear hat talking about wildflowers and birds to that of a fully armed, flak-jacketed police officer talking to suspects about their right to remain silent.

Increasingly they are concerned not only with drugs and alcohol, but also gangs, graffiti, racial strife, rape, even child sexual abuse. …

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