We like to think that national parks are just that: serene, picturesque "parks" where we can, if only for a moment or two, escape the ugliness and stress of the world beyond their borders.
But as the New Year's Day shooting at Mount Rainier National Park that left a young ranger dead proved only too well, national parks are not always the sanctuaries we'd like them to be or envision them to be.
The monstrousness and brutalness of society has a long reach, one that national parks are not immune from.
Margaret Anderson, a 34-year-old law enforcement ranger gunned down by a man wanted in connection with a shooting earlier in the day in Seattle, is only the latest victim. But that does not, nor should it, diminish the loss nor ease the pain.
But it should force us to step back, longer than just a moment, and reflect not just on the role national parks play, but on the role of all rangers, and on the harshness of the world and what can be done to mute it if only a bit.
Though we view them as "national" parks, places such as Mount Rainier and Yellowstone and Great Smoky and Acadia also are communities of park and concessions employees. Many of these workers are somewhat itinerant. In the case of Park Service staff, many are constantly moving around the National Park System as they strive to move up the ladder. For concessions workers, they often move with the seasons.
It can be particularly tough for couples longing to stay together. For Ranger Anderson, who first sampled Park Service life in 2000 at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, she and her husband, Eric, also a law-enforcement ranger, somehow managed to make it work. From Bryce Canyon they moved to Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park before heading back West to Mount Rainier in December 2008. There they both settled into jobs in the park and began to build a family around their life.
That life together, with two young daughters, crumbled on New Year's Day when Benjamin Colton Barnes leveled a shotgun at Ranger Anderson and pulled the trigger. Another, unidentified ranger who was responding with Ranger Anderson to intercept Mr. Barnes also was shot at, but fate was on his side and he escaped uninjured.
On first appearances, law-enforcement rangers with their Kevlar vests bulging under their shirts, sidearms and batons strapped to their waists, and business-like demeanor can appear brusque and standoffish. They do not immediately conjure an image of the friendly interpretive ranger who will lead you down a trail, pointing out wildflowers and animal tracks.
Today's fears -- of terrorists, criminals, and gang-bangers -- have made them so. Too, those fears have, perhaps, made law-enforcement jobs easier to obtain than other positions in the parks, as security has risen in prominence since September 11, 2001.
Ranger Anderson, who grew up in Westfield, New Jersey, received a bachelor of sciences degree with honors in fisheries and wildlife from Kansas State University in 1999, and then a Master’s in biological sciences from Fort Hays State University. She also had attended Northern Arizona University and Deakin Univesity in Australia, worked for several seasons at Spruce Run State Park in New Jersey, and for a brief period was a naturalist for the state of Kansas. Despite this rich and deep background in science, she worked to enforce the law in the parks.
But law-enforcement rangers like Ranger Anderson and her husband are working in the parks in no small part because of the love they share with us for these places, and a sense of duty to protect the public.
While Mount Rainier officials are reticent to go into detail about the New Year's Day shooting, it's not hard to appreciate that Ranger Anderson, in blocking Mr. Barnes' path to Paradise where more than 100 visitors were welcoming the new year with sledding, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing, very likely prevented a much greater loss of life by doing her job.
“It would be speculation, but I can certainly say the stop was made just below the visitor center there, the Jackson Memorial Visitor Center, so that was done away from an area where the public would be directly engaged," said park spokesman Greg Shine.
While more than a few have pointed to a regulatory change in firearms laws that Congress foisted on the Park Service in 2009 with an amendment tacked onto legislation dealing with credit cards as a factor in Ranger Anderson's death, that will continue to be debatable.
What shouldn't be debatable, though, is that today's gun laws are not perfect; they have too many loopholes and allow too many military-caliber weapons to land in the wrong hands.
Too, how veterans returning from foreign lands are diagnosed and treated for post-traumatic stress syndrome must constantly be evaluated and improved.
In the end, we need the national parks and what they offer. We need the peacefulness that can be found down a hiking trail or along a lakeshore or river, we need the rejuvenation that can be found, the knowledge that awaits those looking to learn, and the comfort of wilderness.
And we need to thank and remember rangers like Margaret Anderson for working to preserve and protect those very things for the rest of us.
Editor's note: Consider donating to a fund set up by the National Park Foundation to benefit Ranger Anderson's two young daughters.