Rangers protecting parks: preserving natural pleasures and treasures

Find out what our ‘Park Cops’ do, to keep your favorite public space safe and habitable …

Portland Parks & Recreation activity specialist Chrissy Larson and Meghan Young helps Sophie Ciurlik-Rittenbaum with a craft. They’re joined by Park Rangers Jennifer Nelson and Linda Stambulski.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Many people who work during the summer for Portland Parks & Recreation (PP&R) spend their days and evenings making park visits fun by providing activities, monitoring swimming pools and hosting events.

But other PP&R staff members – the Park Rangers – fan out across the city every day, doing their best to make sure your next visit to your neighborhood park is uneventful.

“Our goal is to make Portland area parks safer for all users – both visitors and staff,” explained PP&R Park Ranger Supervisor Curt Nelson. “We make sure that children in a park playground are safe from undesirable individuals – ranging from sexual predators to unfortunate individuals who are homeless.”

The other part of their assignment, Nelson added, is to protect the park assets. “We’re in charge of protecting the beauty of the parks, and protecting the animals and wildlife within them.”

Although Nelson is new to Parks Bureau, he’s experienced at law enforcement, having joined the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office in 1980, and transferred to the Portland Police Bureau 1984 – until his retirement, earlier this year.

Finds it pleasant duty
“I enjoyed being a police officer,” Nelson remarked, “but much of the job is dealing with people who are breaking the law or are having a very bad day. As a Park Ranger, we mostly have positive contacts – 99% of the people who see Park Rangers smile and politely wave to us.”

And, being able to walk in nature is another benefit. “Here at Oaks Bottom Wildlife Preserve this morning, I was fortunate to see a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus).”

When a Park Ranger runs into troublesome people, the ranger doesn’t make an arrest. “We call for the outstanding men and women of the Portland Police Bureau to step in to do that. We have some public-safety authority, issuing ‘warnings’ that can lead to an exclusion order to stay out of a park – or be arrested for criminal trespass.”

PP&R Park Ranger Supervisor Curt Nelson, Park Rangers Linda Stambulski and Jennifer Nelson are on the trail down a trail at an East Portland park.

Calls it a great summer job
Park Rangers Jennifer Nelson (no relation) and Linda Stambulski came by, after talking with two PP&R activity staff members.

Both of them said this was their first season working as a Park Ranger.

“It looked like a good opportunity; I like to be outside and work with other people,” Jennifer Nelson said. During the year, she works in the wine industry, she added.

Linda Stambulski mentioned that she also work s in the travel industry. “But I needed to get out in the parks and see a little bit more of Portland. Things have been pretty mellow. Sometimes we run across situations a little out of my element, but nothing scary. Our presence in the parks is noted, and I think it is helping.”

Linda and Jennifer are part of the staff of 18 full-time and two part-time Park Ranger crewmembers that Nelson supervises during the summer season. Every day, two shifts of Park Rangers fan out across the City of Portland, covering much of the 10,000 acres of land at more than 250 locations owned by PP&R.

A diverse staff
“The demographic makeup of our Park Ranger staff is incredibly representative of the people we serve,” Nelson noted. “We have people of diverse ethnic origins, with a wide range of educational backgrounds, and we’re about evenly split between genders. Our youngest ranger is in their early 20s, some are in their 30s, some are their 40s, a number are in the 50s, and we also have a 65-year-old ranger.

“This benefits park users, in that they have the ability to interact with all of our citizens of Portland. We have one person who is fluent in Spanish, and he taught us how to say, ‘Please have your dog on-leash’.”

Doggie duty
One of their most common tasks, Nelson said, is dealing with dog-owners who set their pets free in leash-required parks. The three rangers said they’ve heard all kinds of lame excuses for not minding the leash laws:

  • “I have a really small dog, so isn’t it okay?”
  • “I thought, because it’s raining, it’s okay to have my dog off-leash.”
  • “You don’t make children wear leashes; this is my ‘child’.”
  • “I thought because it was Monday, my dog didn’t have to be on leash.”

Due to a quirk in the law, not even police officers can write a ticket for chronic offenders, Nelson noted. “We can act as an official City of Portland complainant, submit a form to Animal Control, who may issue a citation.”

Busting boozers
Ranger Jennifer Nelson said they have problems, occasionally, with illegal alcohol consumption and controlled-substance use in parks. “It can go one of two ways – it can be educational, and help them realize that they shouldn’t be doing this; or, in some cases, we can call in a police officer.”

Ranger Stambulski added, “Most people see others drinking wine at a park concert, or some other special event – but are not aware that those people have a permit for a special occasion. They don’t realize that if a permit has not been issued, they shouldn’t be drinking in the park.”

Helping out the homeless
The trio of Park Rangers agreed that camping in parks continues to be a problem.

Nelson reported that, since March 1, they’ve removed 450 illegal campsites from about one-third of the city’s parks. “We don’t have the resources to go through all the parks.”

But the amount of damage done by such campers is absolutely phenomenal, Nelson added. “One Forest Park campsite was left behind with 30 dump-truck-loads of garbage. And, because there aren’t any sanitary facilities, they leave behind human waste.”

Instead of rousting campers, Park Rangers give them time to move on. “First, we make sure they don’t need first aid or medical attention. We always offer them resources, to help them find alternative housing, job assistance, or other services.”

PP&R Park Ranger Supervisor Curt Nelson says he’s concerned that Portland Parks employs only one full-time year-around Park Ranger.

Says Ranger resources are thin
“I’m the only full-time year-around Park Ranger,” Nelson said. “Seattle has 15 full-time rangers, and about 20 parks to patrol. We have 11,000 acres at 250 locations. In order to keep people safe and protect the environment, we need more full-time rangers. Every governmental bureau says they need more staff. But, in this case, ‘one is a very lonely number’.”

Next time you see a Park Ranger, be sure to let them know you appreciate their service.

© 2009 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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