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Originally published Sunday, October 15, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Crime slowly creeps into parks, forests

Rangers call the July slayings of two Seattle hikers a "freak occurrence," but they also acknowledge more lawless behavior in the backcountry.

Seattle Times staff reporter

OLYMPIC NATIONAL FOREST — Though Jessie Jordan's "office" is a stunning stretch of the craggy Pacific coast, the beauty comes at a price.

Hopping into her white and green sport-utility vehicle, the 31-year-old ranger in the Olympic National Forest adjusts her straw hat and tugs at the bulky bulletproof vest beneath her khaki shirt. Behind her, mounted on a gun rack, are two shotguns.

When she graduated from the University of Colorado in 1996, Jordan dreamed of roaming the wilderness offering guidance to campers and hikers. Now that she's a park ranger for the National Park Service, she still sees herself as the protector of the natural resources in the national parkland stretching from Kalaloch to Lake Quinault, but Jordan says a big part of her job is that of small-town cop.

"Park rangers are the most assaulted federal officers," Jordan said. "Urban police officers had a lot more crime to deal with, but we have less staff."

It used to be that being a ranger in Washington state's national parks and forests meant guiding people through the great outdoors and serving as caretaker to plants and wildlife. But as cities and suburbs rapidly encroach upon wilderness areas, drugs and violence have crept into the outdoors.

Whether it's meth labs hidden amid lush forests or car prowls at trailheads, park rangers and forest officers are seeing an increasing amount of criminal behavior.

While neither the U.S. Forest Service nor the National Park Service keeps precise statistics about crime on federally protected lands, officers and rangers in Washington say that crime appears to be on the rise in the backcountry.

That fact was underscored by the July 11 slayings of a Seattle mother and daughter on a trail in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, killings that remain unsolved. The shootings of Mary Cooper, 56, and Susanna Stodden, 27, prompted hikers and campers to briefly stay away from the popular recreation areas near Mount Pilchuck at the height of camping season.

Such violent crimes are still quite rare in national parks and forests.

But the killings were a reminder of why rangers such as Jordan have become as familiar with firearms and evidence collection as they are with the best hiking routes and bear-safety tips.

"If you see it happening in the city, it happens in the forest," said Capt. John Klaasen of the U.S. Forest Service.

Crimes increase

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The officers Klaasen oversees in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and Olympic National Forest regularly encounter abandoned meth labs, evidence of marijuana growing and fugitives living deep in the backcountry who survive by stealing from campers.

In general, Cmdr. Barb Severson of the Forest Service said, crime appears to be increasing in the more than 1 million acres of national forest land that her 25 officers patrol in Washington state.

Between October 2005 and September, officers in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest handed out 709 citations and wrote an additional 2,197 incident reports, Severson said. Citations were handed out for everything from vandalism to illegal dumping to nonpayment of recreation fees and illegal off-road vehicle use, Severson said.

During the same time period, officers in the Olympic National Forest gave 262 citations and wrote 875 incident reports.

Severson didn't know how many arrests were made.

In 2005, rangers at Olympic National Park made 14 arrests and handed out 523 citations according to park spokeswoman Barb Maynes.

Of the more than 10 arrests by Olympic National Park rangers this year, most were for drunken driving, she said. This year rangers have handed out more than 215 citations.

Violent crime, though, is still unusual enough that Officer Mike Gardiner of the Mount-Baker Snoqualmie Forest called the slayings of Cooper and Stodden a "freak occurrence."

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) says the rise of crime in national forests is reflected in the increase in threats and violence toward employees of the Forest Service, National Parks Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management. According to PEER, attacks against employees of those agencies have increased from 88 reported in 2004 to 477 in 2005.

Jeff Ruch, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based environmental advocacy group, said federal forest employees in the Pacific Northwest also have significant problems catching off-road vehicle enthusiasts who are riding in prohibited areas.

"Safety is kind of on us"

In the summertime, Mark O'Neill, who patrols Olympic National Park, parks his patrol car along Highway 101, the main drag between Port Angeles and Forks, to catch speeders. During these traffic stops he often finds fugitives wanted on arrest warrants.

"We take weapons off people all the time," O'Neill said.

A rash of car break-ins at the Lake Quinault trailhead last summer resulted in the theft of nearly $20,000 worth of items from 21 people, Jordan said. By bashing car windows with a rock, thieves stole laptops, wallets and other items. Only six people recovered some of their possessions, she said.

During 12 years as a Forest Service officer, Shane Wyrsh said he's seen alleged gang members practicing shooting; he's helped investigate violent assaults and even stumbled upon "the mother of all meth labs." This was a property where people were exchanging cars, bicycles, generators and other stolen items for drugs.

Over the years he's also had several people threaten to kill him.

Wyrsh said he joined the Forest Service because he wanted to be a cop. He now believes working in the woods can at times be more dangerous than patrolling a city.

"It's probably one of the most unique styles of law enforcement there is," he said. "Safety is kind of on us. Backup is 30 minutes to an hour away."

Many park rangers and forest officers say park visitors often chide them about carrying guns and don't see them as serious law-enforcement officers.

Jordan, who will regularly respond to such comments with a history lesson about the role of the park service, is convinced that the confusion stems from the fact that their khaki uniforms look a lot like the ones worn by civilian park guides.

"They [visitors] view me as some sort of benevolent park employee or a Smokey the Bear," Jordan said.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com

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