Death Valley National Park — Ed FORNER is 8,000 feet above the vast, sunburned desert. Stomach-dropping mountain ranges unfurl outside the tiny plane's cockpit, each more spectacular than the last: Panamint, Inyo, Last Chance, Sierra.
But the pilot's not really looking. Sometimes he can't see the wild landscape he's charged with protecting for the roadblocks that Washington keeps throwing in his way, he says. "All I see are stop signs!" he shouts over the engine's whine.
Forner has been a National Park Service ranger for 29 years. He loves his work, considers it a privilege to serve both the public and the land. But he is fed up. And he's not alone.
Millions of visitors a year hear friendly rangers banter about prehistory at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in Nebraska or geology at Utah's Zion National Park. The crisp green and gray uniforms declare that all is right in this nationwide realm of 387 taxpayer-financed battlefields, cemeteries, ruins, seashores, parkways, preserves, scenic rivers, trails and parks. Out of earshot, however, many employees complain about slashed budgets and staffs, and say they fear recrimination if they don't toe the line.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 07, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Ranger's name -- In Tuesday's Outdoors section, an article on the National Park Service incorrectly spelled the name of a park ranger as Scott Getterman. The correct spelling is Scott Gediman.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday April 13, 2004 Home Edition Outdoors Part F Page 3 Features Desk 0 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Ranger's name -- In last week's Outdoors section, an article on the National Park Service incorrectly spelled the name of a park ranger as Scott Getterman. The correct spelling is Scott Gediman.
Forner says that these days he finds himself yanking on and off four hats in his many roles at Death Valley: park pilot, law enforcement ranger, radio dispatch coordinator and wildlife coordinator. The National Park Service family is close-knit, he says. "But the family is pretty demoralized right now."
As in other families whose budgets are strained, this one has become frightened, worried and tense -- some would say dysfunctional.
Working for the park service has always been a calling as much as a job, one with such a shared commitment that staffers often feel like kin. Third-generation rangers and husband-and-wife teams are common. Employees not only go through extensive training together in search and rescue and other skills, they also work together in remote, sometimes searingly beautiful locations, and often live in close quarters in modest housing, paying rent to Uncle Sam.
At Death Valley, all hands pitch in to drive the ambulance or firetrucks or do countless other chores. Before heading to town, 58 miles away, a staffer asks around for video or grocery requests. When a relative is sick or dies, employees donate vacation days to their bereaved colleague.
Beneath the camaraderie lies a devotion to "the mission," enshrined in the congressional Organic Act of 1916 that created the park service. Any ranger anywhere will rattle it off like the Ten Commandments: "Which purpose is to conserve the scenery, and the natural and historic objects, and the wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner ... as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."
Many park service employees chose their life's work because of a childhood memory. For J.T. Reynolds, 57, superintendent at Death Valley National Park, it was a Life magazine photo. His family didn't visit national parks much -- there were few places vacationing black families could spend a night on the road in the segregated South of the 1950s. But that photo of a proud African American park ranger stuck in his head all the way to his junior year of college, when Reynolds decided to join the service.
"It's a noble cause, preserving Mother Earth," he says.
Yet many complain that their mission is being undercut. "Any park superintendent who says the national parks aren't getting slighted isn't worth their ... salt," says Reynolds, a 35-year parks veteran.
He points to evidence: Crumbling ceiling tile is falling on visitors' heads. The huge Ansel Adams prints that graced the visitor center walls have been pulled down because of ugly stains from spring rains. A volunteer senior citizen now helps clean campground bathrooms. To battle proposed development on the park's doorstep that could suck dry its fragile water supply, Reynolds is borrowing biologists from other agencies. Death Valley is down 42 positions over the last several years, with 106 left.
Reynolds and his wife liked Death Valley immediately for its wide open spaces, and because of the fierce dedication of the staff. "That's the key holding the parks together. These people will not quit in spite of all the fastballs being thrown at them," he says.
His staff returns the compliment, but worries about him too. "He's admired here because he's willing to stick up for Death Valley. We have faith in him. But we don't want his head to be put on a chopping block," said Charlie Callagan, a 20-year ranger who has spent the last 14 years at Death Valley.
Many staff at other parks decline to speak on the record, citing the firing of U.S. Parks Police Chief Teresa Chambers in December. Three days after a newspaper story quoted Chambers about budget woes, the park service suspended her and banned her from speaking to reporters. Days later she was terminated. The decision is being reviewed.