On any given day, a national park ranger may help fight a wildfire, set up signs at a snowshoe area, help rescue a stranded climber or teach her colleagues emergency medicine. But she also may assist a fellow cop who is chasing a heavily armed suspect up a remote icy road in one of the...

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It’s a job unlike almost any other: part smiling host for vacationing visitors, part interpretive officer for the country’s wild and historic treasures.

Yet, of the 4,000 or so National Park Service rangers, 1,500 of them are all cop. They just have to cover more ground.

On any given day, a ranger such as Margaret Anderson, the 34-year-old mother of two who was shot to death Sunday at Mount Rainier National Park, may help fight a wildfire, set up signs at a snowshoe area, help rescue a stranded climber or teach colleagues emergency medicine. But a ranger also may assist a fellow law-enforcement officer who is chasing a heavily armed suspect up a remote icy road in one of the nation’s 397 national parks.

“Many people still think of us as the people who clean toilets or go on walks or respond to hiking accidents,” retired park ranger and special agent Ken Johnson said. “That’s just not the case anymore.”

Or, as Duane Buck, a law-enforcement ranger with 3,500-acre Valley Forge National Historic Park in Pennsylvania, said, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to a situation and had people say, ‘No, I need the police.’ And I have to say, I am the police.”

The 1,500 rangers who are commissioned law-enforcement officers attend the same law-enforcement academy in Glynco, Ga., as most federal agents. They arrest drug dealers and rapists and deal with armed suspects, often while working alone in parks where backup may be a 20-minute drive away — if not more.

“In California and along the border between us and Mexico, we still fight drug cartels growing marijuana,” said David Barna, chief spokesman for the National Park Service in Washington, D.C.

The job, like many in federal law enforcement, has become more complex in recent years. With 22 parks along international borders, there are more homeland-security issues. Meanwhile, reports of threats and assaults against park rangers are on the rise in the wake of the recession and increasing anti-government fervor, according to a 2010 report from Land Letter, a Washington, D.C.-based natural resource-policy newsletter.

Barna noted the violence also is aimed at other resource agencies, such as the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, and in part may reflect more hypervigilant surveillance and recording.

“In general, crime in parks is down,” Barna said. “Parks are still some of the safest places you can go — safer, usually, than the place you left to come visit.”

But many law-enforcement rangers also share additional duties as interpreters of a park’s wildlife and vegetation or in some other administrative post. They also are trying to stop poachers or prevent people from camping or fishing in the wrong place.

The potential all that creates for a kind of occupational whiplash has been a concern among rangers for years.

“If you’re a county deputy sheriff, you’re dealing with drunks and domestic violence and other issues on a daily basis,” said Scot McElveen, who retired in 2007 after serving as chief ranger in parks from Death Valley in California to John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Oregon. “But we get pulled in so many directions, I still hear concerns that we might not always follow all the steps necessary to keep ourselves safe.”

Before the weekend, eight Park Service rangers had been slain in the line of duty since the National Park Service was established in 1916. But Johnson noted that five of those have been killed since 1990. Eight FBI agents have been murdered in that 22-year time frame, even though they outnumber park rangers nearly 10 to one.

“I find that worrisome,” Johnson said.

Still, with a law-enforcement agency so small and each incident so different, it’s almost impossible to draw meaningful conclusions from the senseless killings, experts said.

“There is not what you would call a rising trend,” said Steve Shackelton, the Park Service’s associate director for visitor and resource protection. “When one of our people is killed, you get thrown into an emotional state where if someone asks you whether there is an alarming trend … emotionally there is. But statistically? It happens only once in awhile.”

But for Anderson’s family, her colleagues or the agency, that doesn’t make this weekend’s reality easier to bear, said an obviously shaken Shackelton.

Material from The Associated Press and Seattle Times archives is included in this report. Staff reporter Lynda V. Mapes also contributed.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093

or cwelch@seattletimes.com

On Twitter @craigawelch