Since it’s been raining almost continuously for the last several days (apparently we are setting some kind of a record), I thought I would take a few minutes and talk about our park system. Although Full Timers come in all political varieties, one thing I think most of us agree on is the importance of our National Parks system. The parks contain the beautiful places we want to go, but they also provide work kamping opportunities and in general really nice places to stay. Initially as a person who hadn’t camped, I found the system pretty confusing. But since I am a curious person by nature over time I think I have cobbled together some understanding of how it all works and I wanted to try to explain that here. At the top of the park system food chain are the large National Parks like Yellowstone and Glacier. These parks are well funded and well maintained, often charging up to $30 a week for access. Since these are all definitely places to visit eventually, we recommend an America the Beautiful pass ($80 a year or a lifetime membership for $10 after you turn 62) as a way of mitigating those costs. Most people know about those places but many might be shocked by the cost, I know we were. Along with the well-known parks, however, there are numerous lesser known national parks. These vary in cost from the $30 above down to free, and include everything from wildlife areas to historical monuments. Kitty Hawk for example is a National Monument and cost $4 for entry. Although these parks do vary based on location and funding, in general, they are well maintained and range in size from the very very large to the very very small. Outside of many of those federal parks are state parks. In general, the federal parks seem to have the “A” locations and the state parks have the “B” locations close by. There are also many amazing state parks that are nowhere near a federal park. Many state parks have a park pass of some kind and those vary wildly from state to state. Unless you plan on spending a lot of time in a state with such a pass, its really not worth the money to buy them generally. They are designed for the state residents who frequently go to the parks. The state parks vary wildly on quality based on funding. Some have “day use” fees, a charge to use the park for the day particularly common when there is a lake, others are totally free. Next there are county/city parks and although these are less common some really nice ones exist across the country. They are a little harder to find, mostly just used by locals, and on occasion have “day use” or vehicle entrance fees. The public land that is not managed by one of the aforementioned groups generally falls under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management. BLM manages millions of acres across the country and has the most opportunities for free or nearly free camping. I knew next to nothing about BLM when we started full-timing, but our work kamping job in Susanville was for BLM and we got somewhat educated on how the process works.
What I have found interesting about northern California is Federal, State, County, and BLM parks all exist very close to one another. It is very easy to cross the imaginary line between one park into another here and unlike other areas they all seem to hold some prime real estate. Thus these different agencies need to work in close proximity with one another, sometimes even sharing office space, and although their goals are the same (protection of the land and its resources) their methods and chain of command are somewhat different. As with any other inter-agency interaction there is some conflict, made worse by extremely limited government funding. I approve of these agencies working together, and I definitely approve of elimination of unnecessary funds, but after seeing the vast scope of the ranger’s responsibilities I am a little concerned about the long-term viability of our park systems. Here in this portion of the Redwood Forest they have just four rangers covering 52,000 acres 24×7. That’s 81 square miles. To put that in perspective, Toledo, Baltimore and Kansas City are all 80 square miles. Initially, I thought “How hard can it be?” The land largely takes care of itself and the campgrounds and visitors centers bring in some money. Perhaps that was true when we were children, but the world has changed and the job is much more complicated. The two major threats this park system faces are drug cartels and poachers. Apparently the Redwood climate is perfect for growing marijuana and the Mexican drug cartels have created large farms inside of the more remote portions of the forest. When I discovered this I was incredibly offended. This is public land and my tax dollars are paying for this and the thought of drug cartels using this land for such a purpose just makes me angry. Not only do these cartels cut down trees and steal precious water resources for their crops, but they also engage in turf wars that occasionally end up with dead bodies. When I inquired about whether the DEA gets involved, I was told only if it is a huge farm, but the smaller growers are handled solely by the rangers. All four of them. They use some pretty creative techniques to discover these grower locations, which I won’t get into, but are very philosophical about the fact that they can only do what is possible with the resources they have. As a matter of fact, they are very philosophical about the job in general. They take the world as it is and do what they can, always with a real dedication to protecting the natural resources.
The second issue here is poaching of the Redwood trees which makes me even angrier than the drug cartels. These full grown trees are worth between 2-3 million dollars each on the underground market! So despite the logistical challenge of cutting down a tree and getting it out of the forest, attempts are frequently made. Sometimes they leave the tree and just cut off the burls, which have a high “street value” as well and are used to make clocks and other decorative wood items. The local population is extremely helpful when it comes to reporting suspicious behavior and the rangers themselves are well-trained and dedicated to protecting the trees. All that being said, with so few of them it does happen and the thought of a 1,000 year old tree being taken really sickens me. Yes they are just trees but they are many many hundreds of years old. They have survived fires, loggers, and floods to exist today and they deserve to be protected for future generations. Along with these park-specific issues, the rangers have the standard duties of coordinating volunteers and park aids, overseeing the campgrounds, law enforcement in the park area, overseeing maintenance of the facility, and of course, educating the public. We have all seen park rangers and thought, what a great gig. I know I certainly thought that. But we see only about 10% of what they do, and some parts of the job are not so great. Not that one person I have talked to has complained. They are proud of what they do, despite the long hours and what I am sure is relatively low pay, it was clear to me it was just not so much a job to them but a calling. I don’t want to over romanticize the rangers, but the ones I have met have been pretty impressive.
So, I went back and forth on whether or not to write this post. In general, I try not to get political, because that is not what this blog is about. But since these parks are such an important piece of what we do as full timers, I felt it was important enough to write about. We are all concerned about our taxes, and everyone wants to get the most value for the money we pay. For me, the value of these parks is incalculable. That doesn’t mean they should get a blank check by any means, but the next time you hear about funding for our parks system, please keep in mind all the things that they do. I know I will.
Oh and I forgot to mention they also get involved in community events. Here at the Visitors Center they have annual tree lighting ceremony and Santa stops by. This year Santa came in a Ranger truck that was really cool. I got to talk to the volunteer who helped with that this year and he was an incredibly nice man named Scott. He is a retired police officer, brand new full-timer (May 2015), and despite not having raised any children was the perfect man for the job. He was a little nervous before he started, but was a natural. The local choral group also came and sang and the ranger’s and volunteers made cookie and punch for everyone. It was a really sweet small town event, and since the nearest mall is 1-1/2 hours away, possibly the only chance some of these kids will have to get a picture taken with Santa and it was nice to see the park system give a little back to the local community.
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