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4 Creative Law Enforcement Techniques in the National Parks

BY BRIAN KEVIN

When the Interior Department decided a few months ago to allow loaded, concealed weapons into national parks, heat-packin' groups like the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms hailed the decision as a victory for public safety. They cited, among other things, "the inability of park officials to provide adequate law enforcement services" due to slim budgets and staff.  But our trigger-happy pals might not be giving the Boys in Green enough credit. Where law enforcement is concerned, national park rangers have historically displayed a consistent knack for doing more with less. Check out these four examples.

1. Poachers Do the Walk of Shame

Picture 2.pngBack in the 1880s, poachers roamed Yellowstone like it was their own personal shooting gallery. Because the National Park Service wasn't formed until 1916, a ragtag company of U.S. Cavalrymen served as the park's first rangers. Unfortunately, they lacked the legal authority to punish poachers in any real way other than booting them from the park and temporarily seizing their gear. So in order to give their rule some teeth, soldiers got creative with logistics. After marching ornery hide hunters to Yellowstone's south entrance, rangers let the poachers know they could retrieve their sleep roll, gun, and supplies from the desk at park headquarters . . . seventy-five wilderness miles away at the park's north entrance!

Of course, that wasn't the only time early rangers relied on the technique. They resorted to similar measures when Basque shepherds were caught illegally grazing on park lands. While the hapless sheepherders got kicked out via the park's north gate, their sheep were graciously escorted east.

2. Smoking Out the Squatters

When Congress formally chartered Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1934, the crown jewel of the Eastern parks wasn't exactly a pristine wilderness — in fact, there were still a few hundred people living in it. While many Appalachian residents had accepted buyouts in the years leading up to the park's formation, others were too poor or too stubborn to relocate. What's more, the hundreds of empty cabins tucked away inside the park lured hordes of Depression-era squatters. Park rangers made a mission of evicting the unwelcome guests, but when the wily mountaineers wouldn't stay ejected, they simply began burning down any abandoned or temporarily vacated cabins. Not entirely without empathy, the park's first superintendent J. Ross Eakin noted that preventing squatters by torching ancestral homesteads tended to raise "considerable ire among residents."

3. Strong-arming the Kolorado Klan

In the mid-1920s, Colorado was a bastion of influence for the Ku Klux Klan-- a state where the governor, the mayor of Denver, and U.S. Senator Rice Means all openly accepted Klan support. After Senator Means made a publicity tour through southwestern Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park in 1926, local Klansmen sought to convince park superintendent Jesse Nusbaum to grab a white sheet and join the club. When he declined, the Klan showed up with plans to hold a torchlight parade in front of one of the park's most recognized Anasazi ruins. The upright Nusbaum told the Klan they weren't wanted in Mesa Verde, and to show that he meant business, visibly armed the small park staff with pick-ax handles and other improvised weapons. The Klansmen got the message and left the park without incident.

4. Taking Out Snowmobiles, Execution-style

a.snowmobile.pngGlacier National Park ranger Art Sedlack was getting pretty fed-up with snowmobilers cutting through the park along a snow-smothered stretch of Montana's Highway 2. He was pretty clear about this point when he apprehended four sledders one night in December of 1974, warning them not to return by the same route unless they wanted a ticket. When he heard the whine of approaching snowmobiles an hour later, Sedlack hopped on his 4x4 and chased down the repeat offenders. Fearing they'd try to bolt, he reached in to yank out the one of the lead vehicle's spark plugs, but when it proved tricky to remove, he opted to improvise. Drawing his park-issued .38 caliber pistol, Sedlack fired point-blank into the snowmobiles' still-cooling engine.  Man 1, machine 0.

The trespassers paid $25 fines, and Sedlack got a stern reprimand, along with the secret admiration of every ranger who's ever wanted to go Scarface on an exhaust-spewing snowmobile. For years, the Montana Wilderness Association even issued a "Sedlack Award" for creativity in defense of public lands.

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History
A Founder of Earth Day Looks Back on How It Began
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Caruso Affiliated
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Caruso Affiliated

On the very first Earth Day in 1970, Denis Hayes stood on a stage in Central Park, stunned by the number of people who'd come to honor the planet. Now in his 70s, Hayes remembers it was like looking at the ocean—“you couldn’t see where the sea of people ended.” Crowd estimates reached more than a million people.

For Hayes, who is now board chair of the international Earth Day Network, it was the culmination of a year’s worth of work. As an urban ecology graduate student at Harvard University, he’d volunteered to help organize a small initiative by Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson. Nelson was horrified by the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, and wanted to raise awareness about environmental issues by holding teaching events similar to those being held by civil rights and anti-war activists.

Senator Nelson saw a growing disconnect between the concept of progress and the idea of American well-being, Hayes tells Mental Floss. “There was a sense that America was prosperous and getting better, but at the same time, the air in the country was similar to the air today in China, Mexico City, or New Delhi," Hayes says. "Rivers were catching on fire. Lakes were unswimmable.”

Nelson's plan for these environmental teach-ins was for speakers to educate college students about environmental issues. But he had no one to organize them. So Hayes, Nelson’s sole volunteer, took control on a national level, organizing teach-ins at Harvard first and then across the U.S. Initially, the response was tepid at best. “Rather rapidly it became clear that this wasn’t a hot issue at colleges and universities in 1969,” Hayes says. “We had a war raging, and civil rights were getting very emotional after the Nixon election.”

Still, both Hayes and Nelson noticed an influx of mail to the senator's office from women with young families worried about the environment. So instead of focusing on colleges, the two decided to take a different tactic, creating events with community-based organizations across the country, Hayes says. They also decided that rather than a series of teach-ins, they'd hold a single, nationwide teach-in on the same day. They called it Earth Day, and set a date: April 22.

Hayes now had a team of young adults working for the cause, and he himself had dropped out of school to tackle it full time. Long before social media, the project began to spread virally. “It just resonated,” he says. Women and smaller environmental-advocacy groups really hooked onto the idea, and word spread by mouth and by information passing between members of the groups.

Courtesy of Denis Hayes

With the cooperation and participation of grassroots groups and volunteers across the country, and a few lawmakers who supported the initiative, Hayes’ efforts culminated in the event on April 22, 1970.

Hayes started the day in Washington, D.C., where he and the staff were based. There was a rally and protest on the National Mall, though by that point Hayes had flown to New York, where Mayor John Lindsay provided a stage in Central Park. Parts of Fifth Avenue were shut down for the events, which included Earth-oriented celebrations, protests, and speeches by celebrities. Some of those attending the event even attacked nearby cars for causing pollution. After the rally, Hayes flew to Chicago for a smaller event.

“We had a sense that it was going to be big, but when the day actually dawned, the crowds were so much bigger than anyone had experienced before,” Hayes said. The event drew grassroots activists working on a variety of issues—Agent Orange, lead paint in poor urban neighborhoods, saving the whales—and fostered a sense of unity among them.

“There were people worrying about these [environmental] issues before Earth Day, but they didn’t think they had anything in common with one another," Hayes says. "We took all those individual strands and wove them together into the fabric of modern environmentalism.”

Hayes and his team spent the summer getting tear-gassed at protests against the American invasion of Cambodia, which President Nixon authorized just six days after Earth Day. But by fall, the team refocused on environmental issues—and elections. They targeted a “dirty dozen” members of Congress up for re-election who had terrible environmental records, and campaigned for candidates who championed environmental causes to run against them. They defeated seven out of 12.

“It was a very poorly funded but high-energy campaign,” Hayes says. “That sent the message to Congress that it wasn’t just a bunch of people out frolicking in the sunshine planting daisies and picking up litter. This actually had political chops.”

The early '70s became a golden age for environmental issues; momentum from the Earth Day movement spawned the creation of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Environmental Education Act (which was initially passed in 1970 and revived in 1990), and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We completely changed the framework within which America does business, more than any other period in history with the possible exception of the New Deal,” Hayes says. “But our little revolution was brought entirely from the grassroots up.”

In 1990, Hayes was at it again. He organized the first international Earth Day, with about 200 million participants across more than 140 countries. Since then it’s become a global phenomenon.

Despite its popularity, though, we still have a long way to go, even if the improvements Hayes fought for have made these issues feel more remote. Hayes noted that everything they were fighting in the '70s was something tangible—something you could see, taste, smell, or touch. Climate change can seem much less real—and harder to combat—to the average person who isn’t yet faced with its effects.

Hayes also notes that people have become more skeptical of science. “Historically, that has not been a problem in the United States. But today science is under attack.”

He warns, “This [anti-science sentiment] is something that could impoverish the next 50 generations and create really long-term devastation—that harms not only American health, but also American business, American labor, and American prospects.”

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Live Smarter
All National Parks Are Offering Free Admission on April 21
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Looking for something to do this weekend that's both outdoorsy and free? To kick off National Park Week, you can visit any one of the National Park Service's more than 400 parks on April 21, 2018 for free.

While the majority of the NPS's parks are free year-round, they'll be waiving admission fees to the more than 100 parks that normally require an entrance fee. Which means that you can pay a visit to the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Yosemite, or Yellowstone National Parks without reaching for your wallet. The timing couldn't be better, as many of the country's most popular parks will be increasing their entrance fees beginning in June.

The National Park Service, which celebrated its 100th birthday in 2016, maintains 417 designated NPS areas that span more than 84 million acres across every state, plus Washington, D.C., American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.

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