June 14, 2001 – As guardians of natural, cultural and historical resources and of the visitors and residents who seek to enjoy them, the protection rangers of the Virgin Islands National Park provide invaluable services. To them falls the sometimes unpopular task of enforcing rules and regulations. But their skills and responsibilities extend far beyond writing tickets and asking beachgoers to respect the territory's nudity laws.
Protection rangers are goodwill ambassadors for the park and often perform interpretive services. They educate visitors about park resources, rules and regulations and readily cite their reasons for warning or reprimanding visitors about their actions. To promote safety, they may attend to an injured donkey in the middle of the trail, a loose railing at the Annaberg ruins or boat debris at a popular beach.
They determine the need for directional and regulatory signage throughout the park — and see to its installation. They also are in charge of the park's lost-and-found office. And after a hurricane, they are among the first people out clearing roads islandwide.
As law-enforcement officers, they are in a league with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents, Immigration and Naturalization Service officers and U.S. marshals. All spend 16 weeks at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga., in order to become commissioned, which allows them to carry firearms (one way to tell protection rangers from interpretive rangers) and make arrests.
The course includes fields training in physical endurance, firearms use, high-speed vehicle maneuvering and officer survival skills. In the classroom, the candidates study criminal law, search and seizure, human behavior and investigative techniques. Once assigned to a national park, the rangers get supplemental training in search and rescue, medical and emergency services, and specific resource protection. They must meet physical fitness standards twice a year.
At work on land and water
Since half of the V.I. National Park contains marine ecosystems, its protection rangers must be adept at boating skills. Enforcing regulations is the most common activity while on "boat patrol." Rangers routinely check for anchoring on corals and seagrasses, on-board marine sanitation compliance, other water polluting, boat in off-limits areas, illegal fishing practices and boating safety regulation compliance.
They also conduct vessel inspections, dealing with drug interdiction and illegal aliens coming ashore on park property. Any mariner with engine problems or other difficulties at sea can hail protection rangers on VHF Channel 16, which they constantly monitor. The U.S. Coast Guard San Juan office relies heavily on rangers for this response, since there is no Coast Guard station close to St. John waters.
On land, protection rangers deal with marijuana cultivation and people camping or squatting on parkland. If a hiker is reported overdue from an outing, perhaps clinging for dear life on the cliffs of Ram Head or needing to be carried out of the Reef Bay Valley on a stretcher, protection rangers respond. Car and boat accidents, thefts of personal property and park resources, assaults, disturbance of the peace and crowd control are all part of their job. They often work closely with other local and federal law-enforcement agencies.
There are periods of relative calm and occasions of exceptional excitement. "It's quiet most of the time," Troy Williams, a protection ranger since 1996, relates, "but every once in a while you get something like catching a national fugitive." He was referring to the apprehending in December 1999 of the suspect in the robberies of three V.I. banks — who was also wanted in Maryland and Virginia for bank robbing and car-jacking. An investigation of thefts at the Cinnamon Bay Campground by Ranger Bill Stoner, assisted by Williams, led to the arrest.
Occasional celebrity encounters
Ranger Steve Clark has only been on St. John for about a year but already had made the not-unusual contact with celebrity. On a recent patrol, he gave a verbal "regulations violation" warning to a crew member aboard a large yacht moored in Maho Bay. Word of the encounter must have reached actor and martial arts expert Chuck Norris, who was on board. Later that day, in Cruz Bay, Norris came over to Clark, introduced himself and apologized for the violation.
Oscar James, a retired ranger and a St. Johnian who started working as a lifeguard in 1966, met then-New York governor Nelson Rockefeller at Trunk Bay. Unbeknownst to James, the governor had left his watch on the back of the lifeguard stand while he went for a swim. Long after Rockefeller and his party, which included conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein, left the beach, an aide approached James and asked if he had seen the watch. "No," the lifeguard replied. "Probably he forgot it someplace else."
James recalls that the aide responded, "The governor may have left it, but he never forgets." The watch was soon found where Rockefeller had put it.
Protection rangers also get involved in community-outreach initiatives. Ranger Steve Clark conducted a Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) course at Pine Peace School in May. Williams, an active member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary, was involved in Safe Boating Week activities.
Elmo Rabsatt, a ranger for nearly two decades, has been involved in St. John Rescue Service and the national Red Ribbon Week anti-drug program. He has received commendations from the U.S. Attorney's Office for his outreach to troubled teens. Every year at the V.I. Environmental Research Station in Lameshur Bay, Rabsatt coordinates a series of in-depth workshops for youngsters and their parents that include presentations by social workers, judges, police officers and others in a holistic effort to combat juvenile delinquency.
On one plane, a national park is only as good as its enforcement and safety capabilities. Protection rangers form the shield that holds a park intact and allows its other personnel to do their jobs to fulfill the park's mission. With their training and experience, the protection rangers of the V.I. National Park are effective in protecting visitors and resources, despite the challenges of ever-increasing park usage and budgetary and staffing constraints — the realities of most national parks today.

Editor's note: Don Near is an interpretive ranger in the V.I. National Park. This article is adapted from one which appeared in the June issue of the St John Times newspaper.


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