Ask A Ranger. Violence Is Nothing New To The Blue Ridge Parkway.

What seems to make the Blue Ridge Parkway a magnet for crime? Owen Hoffman photos.

Editor's note: If comparing per capita crime rate of cities to per visitor crime rate in parks accurately reflects the relative crime rate in a park, then the national parks are some of least violent places to be in the United States. But it would be unrealistic to assume crime doesn't occur in them, and irresponsible to ignore it. The following story from the Blue Ridge Parkway reads, unfortunately, like a crime blotter. We run it not for sensationalism, but to acknowledge the realities that exist.

Wayward bears addicted to Kentucky Fried Chicken are the least of a park ranger’s worries. Just ask Bruce Bytnar, who worked at the Blue Ridge Parkway for 27 years before he retired in 2008.

In his book, A Park Ranger’s Life: Thirty-Two Years of Protecting Our National Parks, Mr. Bytnar tells the real story behind what it is like to patrol a 469-mile long park through some of the best scenery the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina have to offer.

“Dealing with real-world life and death were not what I considered when I became a national park ranger,” he writes. “Little did I know that I would repeatedly respond to human fatalities, murders, and scenes of child abuse.”

At times Mr. Bytnar’s misadventures with wily fugitives, inept sheriffs, and park managers who make rattlesnakes seem cuddly are hilarious for us to read. Although these events must have seemed less funny at the time Mr. Bytnar was experiencing them. “Living in a national park is not the ideal situation that most people envision,” the veteran park ranger tells us. “You end up living with your job 24 hours a day.”

With his modest and articulate voice, Mr. Bytnar epitomizes what we would like our park rangers to be. Sturdy, good-humored, and fearless, he is a real-life Dudley Do-right who adores his family and pays for the apple coveted by a hungry but penniless boy inside a country store. But even for the likes of Mr. Bytnar something has to give.

Eventually, the heart-breaking tragedies, the ungodly long hours, the unsympathetic taxpayers, and the politics played by clueless park managers eventually take their toll on the park ranger. “At times,” Mr. Bytnar concludes, “it becomes hard for an idealist to learn how things are done in the real world.”

And in the real world people get shot at Rock Point Overlook and a park ranger is 12 times more likely to die on the job than is a Special Agent with the FBI.

According to the National Parks Conservation Association, our national parks are “extremely safe.” Yet an Internet search of the words “Blue Ridge Parkway” with “murder” turns up lots of bodies.

In 1994 a Swedish man was found shot to death near Deep Gap. In June 1997, a 24-year-old woman and her 5-year-old son were brutally stabbed before their bodies were dumped inside the park. Then, in the summer of 1998, a shirtless man seen sitting at a Big Witch Overlook picnic table with a rifle in one hand and a beer in the other shot and killed park Ranger Joe Kolodski. In March 2004, park rangers found the head, arms, and legs of a murdered cattle farmer scattered along the roadside. Two years after that grisly discovery, in April 2006, the body of male homicide victim appeared six months before rangers found the remains of a 22-year-old graduate student murdered by a serial killer who drove the dead woman’s car to Florida before he took his own life during a police standoff.

The park’s 75th anniversary year appears to be off to a particularly violent start. In February 2010 authorities recovered the remains of another murdered man two months before newspapers published reports that a crazed gunman had pointed a shotgun at a couple enjoying the view at the Rock Point Overlook, killing a disc jokey and wounding his 18-year-old female companion.

Of these nine murders, only three of the killings are known to have occurred inside the parkway's boundaries. Chief Ranger Steve Stinnett reports that the amount of violence occurring on the Blue Ridge Parkway is small when you take into consideration the crime rates of local communities. He says the bodies found on the parkway are more often discovered near urban areas like Asheville.

Yet when the locations of the above crime scenes are plotted on a map, it appears that less than half were found in immediate vicinity of towns. Seventeen million people recreate in the park each year and many roads access the parkway along its 469-mile length. Perhaps the easy access to remote locations makes the parkway convenient for murderers looking for a place to dump bodies or take their victims. Perhaps, as Chief Ranger Stinnett believes, a surprising number of bodies are found along the parkway only because more people are hiking in the area.

As if park rangers didn’t already have enough problems, this year a new law loosened gun restrictions along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Today anyone who can legally carry loaded firearms under federal and state law can now possess those firearms while visiting a national park. Mr. Bytnar says this new law makes protecting the public an increasingly tricky and dangerous business for park rangers. Those assigned to the parkway now must enforce the confusing and conflicting gun laws of two states and 29 counties.

Both sides of the right-to-carry debate claimed the recent shooting on the Blue Ridge Parkway as evidence supporting their positions. Meanwhile, park rangers like Mr. Bytnar know that violence is, and always has been, an unfortunate reality in our national parks. And to learn how far back the landscape’s bloody history goes all you have to do is read the signs at the overlooks.

For example, at milepost 264.4 a wooden sign highlights the saga of a brutal murder immortalized by the Kingston Trio’s “Ballad of Tom Dooley.” Behind the sign, you can climb a hill locals call “the Lump.” From the top of the Lump you can peer down into a shady valley where, in 1866, a former Confederate soldier named Tom Dula allegedly resolved a complicated love triangle by stabbing his pregnant girlfriend multiple times with a large knife before burying her body in a shallow grave on a hill above Reedy Branch.

You won’t read what follows in any park service brochure but, 143 years later, history appeared to have repeated itself. On a crisp fall morning in 2009, a hiker found the naked and burned body of a 21-year-old woman near Glenn Gap. An autopsy revealed that the woman was pregnant. Cause of death? Blunt force trauma to the head. Family members told the press the young woman had recently made up with her former boyfriend before she was found dead along the roadside. To date her murder remains unsolved.

Andrea Lankford is a former park ranger and the author of Ranger Confidential: Living, Working and Dying in the National Parks. For the real stories behind the scenery visit www.andrealankford.com.

Comments

"Mr. Bytnar says this new law makes protecting the public an increasingly tricky and dangerous business for park rangers."

Rangers have no legal duty to protect anyone, and risk no liability should they fail to do so.

Comparing per capita crime rates between cities and national parks without considering that the city statistics reference a 24 hr day resident while the average national park visit has been reported as 3 hours is misleading. Secondly a disproportionate amount of crime in a city occurs at night while the overwhelming majority of national park visits occur during daylight hours. Use of raw statistics can cause dangerously inaccurate perceptions. On a per capita basis, walking in Times Square for a given period of time during the day may be just as safe as hiking in any national park for a similar given period and time.

Where can I buy this book?

Lee, You can order Bytnar's book through Amazon. A Park Ranger’s Life: Thirty-Two Years of Protecting Our National Parks.

http://www.amazon.com/Park-Rangers-Life-Thirty-two-Protecting/dp/1604943459

You may also like his blogspot http://aparkrangerslife.blogspot.com/

And those of you on facebook can link with Bytnar here

http://www.facebook.com/pages/A-Park-Rangers-Life/193332888227

"Rangers have no legal duty to protect anyone, and risk no liability should they fail to do so."

I am not sure the point of this comment. Does this allude to the idea that National Park Rangers should or could ignore providing protection to persons visiting parks? During my 32 year career in the National Park Service we were always told that a major component of our job was to protect visitors from criminals, nature, and themselves.

Unitied States Code
TITLE 16 > CHAPTER 1 > SUBCHAPTER I > § 1a–6 states in reference to National Park Rangers:
"..certain officers or employees of the Department of the Interior who shall maintain law and order and protect persons and property within areas of the National Park System.."

That seems to establish a responsibility for protecting persons within the parks.

As to the civil liabilies of not protecting a person that is threatened....I would leave that to the courts who tend to rule on a case by case basis. But I can not remember one park ranger I worked with that would have disregarded their duty to protect persons and resources from any threat.

NPS protection rangers are federal law enforcement officers and have the same responsibilities to protect the public that any police officer has.

You can also purchase Bruce's Book from the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation Store (and support the Foundation!) by visiting:

http://www.blueridgeparkwaystore.com/prods/82943450_1888_a-park-rangers-life-thirty-two-years-protecting-our-national-parks.asp

Bruce is also a prolific blogger on the Blue Ridge Parkway Blog. Come and join in on the conversation!

http://www.blueridgeparkwayblog.com/

Bruce Bytnar's book is a masterpiece of behind-the-scenes life in the National Park Service. He has written a fun and compelling work that best reveals a perspectice from the field. I bought the book on the Blue Ridge Parkway and enjoyed his experience and commentary. If I ran a park area I would insist every park employee read this book. His discussion of "government fads" whether it be cars or policies is worth every penny in cost to purchase.

However, I would also say that park management deserves a right to explain their side of this fascinating story, and that the Blue ridge PKWY itself is one of the most complicated managment units in the national park system itself.

Kurt, I love the new look for your website, and your commitment to discuss important NPS business.

Ben Lord

I worked with Bruce and concur he is/was a good ranger. On his blog, he cites an LA Times article that he says supports his contention that anti-government rhetoric is fueling the incrrease in incidents of violence against NPS protection personnel. The article goes on to state that there were no reported incidents in Yellowstone or Grand Canyon and a few in parks like Yosemite. According to the article, Lake Mead National Recreation Area led the way with 58 such incidents. My question is, what accounts for such a disparity? Are people living in Las Vegas and surrounding areas so much different than those living near Yellowstone or Grand Canyon? Do they feel more anti-government anger than people elsewhere in the US? Or are the rangers at Lake Mead more aggressive in their law enforcement tactics. We once did an analysis of all the incidents of Assault on a Federal Officer (AFO) in a park in which I worked. We found a surprisingly high number committed against a single ranger. Once we were able to rachet down his aggressive approach to visitors who were violating park rules and regulations, the number of AFOs decreaserd measurably.

I am not saying that Lake Mead rangers are acting too aggressively, but it is one thing I would look at were i the chief ranger.

Rick

Rick

Rick, your tone of prejudice toward Lake Mead rangers sort of reminds me of comments like this:

"i'm not saying she asked for it, but she could have been wearing a longer skirt."

Please check the most recent comments about assaults on rangers. Several Lake Mead interpretation rangers are complaining of being threatened while in the performance of their duties.

Lake Mead is a recreational area and one of the highest visited park units. The use of alcohol and controlled substances is high. The park is near a major city which attracts millions of people looking to party and cut loose. (Whatever happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.) This city also sees a good share of gang and organized crime activity and one would be a fool not to expect some of that to spill over into Lake Mead NRA. On top of all this, I believe reports show that the staffing level is not adequate at Lake Mead considering the work load. Taking all this into account...Your first offer of advice is to suggest that the Chief Ranger look into blaming the victims. Ouch.

Jees, Andrea, I don't remember asking the Chief Ranger to blame his/her rangers. I simply said that were I he/she, it's one of the things I would look into. Sorry my comment struck you the wrong way.

Rick

David Codrea wrote "Rangers have no legal duty to protect anyone, and risk no liability should they fail to do so." While Mr. Bytnar was able to show that the law requires that Dept. of Interior personnel "protect persons" it does not require them to provide individual protection, per se. Should I be attacked by someone in the park, the legal system would never hold Mr. Bytnar accountable under that law. In fact, "a government and its agents are under no general duty to provide public services, such as police protection, to any particular individual citizen." Warren v. District of Columbia, 444 A.2d 1 (D.C. App.181).

The Blue Ridge Parkway is subject to the same crimes we experience every day, living on the East Coast. It's one of my favorite nearby National Parks and the statistics of the crime that occurs there is not enough to keep me away. We encounter the same risks there that we do everywhere else in that region. However, I am pleased that I am now authorized to carry for self-defense, just as I can do so legally in all surrounding counties that border the park. Look to the statistics of the surrounding areas to better understand how the new firearm law will impact the park. There shouldn't be any difference. Yes, these new laws will be initially confusing, just as any new law is. However, I trust that the Rangers will be able to work through it. I just hope that the most anti-gun Ranger can uphold the law without any personal bias.

Rangers throughout the US are not immune to the issues experienced in surrounding communities by local law enforcement. I commend the Rangers for their selfless service and hope that every positive encounter I've ever experienced with them continues until the day I leave this earth.

The book is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.com as well as other on line sources.

Mr. Codrea, from your comment I'm not sure if you're aware that there exists two general types of National Park Service Rangers: law enforcement (known as Protection Rangers), and non law enforcement rangers (interpreters, guides, maintenance personnel, etc). National Park Service Protection Rangers are fully-credentialed, highly trained federal law enforcement officers, who are armed and carry full powers of arrest. They are very much legally obligated to protect park visitors, staff and resources, just like any law enforcement officer in any jurisdiction. You can find out more information about the Department of Interior's law enforcement positions and programs by starting here:

http://olesem.doi.gov/jobs/fields.html

Revisiting this thread after a long absence--I just ran across it again while researching something else.

Mr. Fifer, unless there is a legal "special relationship," no LEO ANYWHERE has an obligation to protect individuals, with attendant liability should they fail. Suggest you read "Dial 911 and Die" by Richard W. Stevens.

http://www.amazon.com/Dial-911-Die-Richard-Stevens/dp/0964230445