March 30, 2001

Rangers Fear For Public Safety in State Parks

Tahoma, CA — Summer's coming and California's State Park Rangers are worried.

At many of the 260 State Parks that span the California — 80% of them popular beach recreation area destinations — Rangers feel ill-equipped to deal with the onslaught of nearly 100 million visitors expected this year, and worry about fulfilling their chief responsibility as peace officers for the parks, that of protecting public safety.

According to Steve Johnson, a Lake Tahoe ranger and president of the State Park Peace Officers Association of California (SPPOAC), an organization that represents Park Rangers and Lifeguards, the state parks system is critically understaffed with peace officers, particularly in light of the anticipated increased attendance expected because of Governor Davis's recent lowering of fees at all state parks.

Few park visitors are aware that the 400 State Park Rangers and Lifeguards working the 1.3 million acres of state parks are all fully-trained, qualified and certified Peace Officers entrusted by the State with law-enforcement responsibility for the parks they oversee, in addition to the many other specialized functions of those positions. The same applied to the 275 Wardens who protect all of California's other natural resources and wildlife.

These three categories of state peace officers are there to ensure public safety in all of California's wilderness lands and parks, dealing routinely with a wide variety of criminal activity, often in remote areas without other law enforcement backup. Last year alone, rangers dealt with assaults on park employees, bank robberies, hostage situations, gang members with guns, and more, all increasingly typical of the job of today's park ranger, according to Johnson.

"Twenty years ago, the job was very different, much more focused on protecting natural resources, says Johnson. "Today, law enforcement is virtually all of the job and dealing with crimes against park visitors is routine."

That reality has made recruiting new Park Rangers and Lifeguards an uphill battle, one the Parks Department itself admits it is not winning. Johnson estimates that the Parks Department needs 200 more rangers and 500 additional seasonal workers to meet current needs, bur reports that recruitment of new candidates is at an all-time low.

"It's the money in most cases," says Scott Pace, SPPOAC vice president and a ranger in Sonoma County. "We are competing with every other law enforcement agency in California, but salary parity with these other agencies just isn't there."

"Two decades ago," Pace said, "we had up to 6,000 applicants a year. Now, we see less than a thousand, with some training classes as small as 13 people. Then, while they are going through the required, 6-month training that costs the state $45,000, we are likely to lose them right out of the classes to other agencies that pay more. In our last 12 classes, we lost 38% to other law enforcement agencies and higher paying jobs, at a cost to the state of more than $6,000,000."

"I'm always out recruiting," says Pace, "but it's embarrassing to tell college students that they will start at $2,642 per month, make a top salary of $3,938 per month after a lifetime of service to the department, and receive none of the educational and longevity incentives offered by other law enforcement agencies."

By comparison, California Highway Patrol, the only state agency that hires more peace officers than Parks, pays over $70,000 per year including guaranteed overtime and requiring only a high school education rather than the two years of college required for State Park Peace Officers. The top pay average of a dozen local law enforcement agencies in California is $4,954 per month, more than $1,000 a month more than state parks peace officers.

The lack of pay parity with other law enforcement agencies has also impacted retention of current staff. A 1998 survey of all state park peace officers by the SPPOAC showed that 85% stated that they have considered employment with other agencies because of salary and benefit levels. Many, in fact, have left the department since the survey was conducted.

State parks also has an aging work force. It is expected that in the next three to five years, California state parks will lose nearly half of its peace officers to retirement alone.

A new round of contract negotiations has just begun in Sacramento, and rangers are making their case for salary parity with the Governor, the legislature and the state's bargaining agency. Several high-ranking members of the legislature are championing the cause of public safety in California parks, including Fred Keeley, Assembly speaker pro Tem, but Johnson and others are worried that the energy-crisis has diverted attention, and possibly money, from the budget.

"Summer's coming," Johnson repeats. "And a lot of us are worried that we won't have the people we need to protect the public."

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