Kevin L. Hoover
ARCATA – If you use any of Arcata’s wildlands – its Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary, its three forests or any of its 26 parks, you’re likely to meet up sooner or later with one of two men in APD uniform. They would be Park Rangers Kevin Stonebarger and David Miller.
Up until recently, Arcata’s 2,235 acres of forest were without significant patrol or law enforcement, and the results in terms of illegal use and destruction were as inevitable as they were preventable.
When Ranger Bob Murphy retired in July, 2007, he left Arcata’s wildlands more user-friendly than they had been in years.Illegal campers were at a manageable level in both the Community Forest and Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary, and the usual drug and dog violations that rendered Redwood Park off-limits to children and families had been similarly reduced.
But when Murphy left, he wasn’t replaced, due to Arcata Police Department’s chronic understaffing. It wasn’t long before the dull roar of forest abuses again exploded into a free-for-all of illegal camping, rampant off-leash dogs and open drug dealing, the latter especially intense in Redwood Park’s 14th Street parking lot.
The fearful forest conditions frustrated law-abiding citizens, with the Forest Management Committee hearing numerous complaints. Park neighbors, families afraid to let their children use the play area, bicyclists and hikers, among others, all registered dismay at the domination of druggie denizens and campers.
Horror stories were rife. Young people attempting to use the Redwood Park ropes course were awash in marijuana smoke, with one youth group vowing never to return. A bicyclist participating in a forest ride was assaulted by a camper. Everyday hikers had to navigate sketchy campers and unleashed dogs. Meanwhile, the environmental degradation associated with the illegal camps – trash, erosion, tree damage – grew beyond the City’s ability to deal with it.
Recently, one citizen strongly suggested that forest abuse become a fixed agenda item at every meeting of the citizen-led Forest Management Committee. That demand was declined, on grounds that relief in the form of dedicated forest rangers was on the way.
It’s here. Every day of the week, at least one of two rangers is on duty. And they have a lot of duties.
Ranger Kevin Stonebarger
Ranger Kevin Stonebarger has been a Community Forest user for years, cross-country training on the trails with the legendary James Washington. These days, he prowls the same paths in an APD truck, on a QuadRunner and on foot.
Starting duty in October, he said the forest has come a long way back to user-friendliness for those who use it for its intended uses – recreation, study and nature appreciation – rather than camping.
“There was quite a bit of catching up to do,” Stonebarger says. “It took months to get to back to a semblance of normalcy.”
Crusing up Trail 9, he stops to take a side trip up a social trail. It leads circuitously to what at first looks like an idyllic campsite. On closer inspection, though, the forest duff is littered with refuse – cans, plastic cutlery, clothing – and trash stuffed into tree stumps. He calls the spot in to Environmental Services, whose personnel will come out and clean up the pollution as they have so many times before. “The amount of trash in this forest is huge,” Stonebarger laments.
Farther up the main trail, he encounters some horseback riders, and greetings are exchanged. “I love the equestrian people,” he says. “They really want to work on things and keep the forest clean for people.”
At one trash-infested site on the Campbell Creek watershed – an area cleaned out with great effort by Arcata High School students last year and already re-ruined – Stonebarger leaves a business card and written warning on a tent. If the gear is still there the next day, he’ll take it away.
As to the enduring mystery of how campers have the energy to carry weighty equipment and food containers uphill into the woods, but neglect to take the emptied or disused materials out when they leave, he has no answers.
When he encounters campers, Stonebarger says he is “firm and fair,” spelling out the law and its consequences for the abusers. “We have good laws saying what you can and can’t do,” he says. “I’m pretty strict. I tell them, and they go talk to their friends on the Plaza.”
Ranger David Miller
Ranger David Miller became a ranger in February, and enjoys the work. “I go to all the parks virtually every day,” he says.
Like Stonebarger – whom he considers the better ranger, at least so far – Miller has a sixth sense for forest abusers. Reading signs like a scout, he might see a loose dog or something as subtle as a freshly overturned fern along the side of a trail and let it lead him back to a secluded camp.
Within minutes of entering the forest, he has located a campsite with three occupants. Though they protest, per routine, they protest that in fact, they have been cleaning up the area – the abundance of rotting debris all around the area notwithstanding.
Unimpressed, the campers get Miller's standard lecture. “This is a park, not a campground,” he tells the young men. “Do not camp in my town. It’s unlawful and it’s biologically unethical.” On leaving, he tells how he calibrates his admonishment: “The younger they are, the longer the lecture.”
A visit to the “Kids the Woods” campsite, where a small village was located a few years ago, shows an area still battered, eroded and denuded, but in recovery. Truckloads of trash were hauled from the site after the "kids" abandoned it, and the area is regularly patrolled to prevent a resettlement.
On the way out of the woods, Miller encounters a number of hikers, many with unleashed dogs. Though several use the “My dog would never...” rationale, everyone gets a friendly warning. “There’s really no such thing as a non-biting dog,” he says. “Everyone’s dog doesn’t bite until it does.”
And then he comes upon the reason for all the enforcement – a young father walking with a toddler and pushing a baby in a stroller. Struggling up the sun-dappled path, they look happy – and vulnerable. Miller smiles at the family as they make their way up the trail.
“This is what I live for,” he says.