Two years ago, state park rangers reluctantly strapped on .357-caliber sidearms for the first time.
"We didn't like the idea at the time, but we've changed our minds since," said Roy Birrell, Southwest Region Manager for the Division of Parks and Recreation. "It was the public who changed our feelings about carrying firearms."That changing attitude is expressed by rangers across the state as they interact with park visitors who have responded favorably to armed rangers. Since most parks visitors are from urban areas, most say the presence of armed parks rangers is neither offensive nor unusual.
In fact, it makes them feel more comfortable. One regular visitor to Utah told Birrell, "I'm glad you guys finally got dressed."
Visitors report they are much more at ease camping in Utah's scenic wonderlands knowing there is a trained peace officer a short distance away.
"It gives them peace of mind, especially overnight campers and older folks," said Southeast Region Manager Max Jensen.
"The public doesn't even notice any more," said Birrell. "It's an accepted fact anywhere you go these days that an armed ranger comes with the territory. The public wants it and expects it."
They often expect it because many state parks turn into small cities on weekends and holidays. And people bring their problems with them.
"We have our drunks, we have our family fights, we have all the problems a small city has," said Jensen. "And the nearest law enforcement backup may be two or three hours away."
Not only do the weapons provide added security and safety for parks visitors in isolated locations, but the pistols serve as a deterrent to criminal, drunken and obnoxious behavior too common in campground settings.
The deterrent effect of rangers with guns has defused many volatile situations. Utah park rangers have had only one occasion in the last two years to even draw a weapons. That incident involved a suicide attempt at East Canyon Reservoir.
"If you have the equipment, if often carries the authority with it," said Stephen Olson, a ranger at Edge of the Cedars State Park. "It stops a lot of problems before they happen."
The sidearms are a tactical advantage that state parks rangers didn't have until 1986. Rangers may like the idea now, but they are still careful not to emphasize the fact they are armed peace officers.
"We would rather be seen as knowledgeable and helpful than swaggering tough guys with guns," said ranger Roland Bringhurst. "We want people to feel comfortable coming to us with a question about the flora and the fauna."
"Our rangers came to work here to manage recreation resources and to work with the public and interpret things for them," said Jensen. "We didn't, as we still don't, want to lose the positive public image we have had over the years. When we started carrying guns, we were afraid some people might be uncomfortable coming up to us for help. But it just hasn't happened."
While law enforcement duties are a highly visible part of the job, they also are a very small part of the job. Most of a ranger's job deals with traffic control, zoning, medical services and sanitation. "Our people wear a lot of hats in a given day, not just public safety," Jensen said.
Still, law enforcement remains a major element of a ranger's training. Each ranger is required to graduate from the state police academy and to complete 40 hours of law enforcement training every year, as well as advanced first-aid training and search and rescue training. In addition, rangers spend considerable time learning management techniques, human relations and interpretation of resources.
Only 15 to 20 percent of a ranger's time is actually spent in law enforcement duties - issuing citations, investigating complaints and conducting routine patrols. But rangers say it is satisfying to know they are trained and equipped to handle whatever situation arises.
"A weapon is like a fire extinguisher," said Jensen. "You hope you never use it, but if a situation arises, nothing else will do."