Park Watch plus

City pitches ranger reserve program, compromise on park policing

“This has been a dream job most of my adult life, and I’ll be sad to walk away,” Daniel Hiemstra says of his decision to resign as a Chico park ranger.

“This has been a dream job most of my adult life, and I’ll be sad to walk away,” Daniel Hiemstra says of his decision to resign as a Chico park ranger.

Photo by Ken Smith

When Daniel Hiemstra turns in his Chico park ranger badge at the end of June, he’ll be walking away from what he calls his “dream job.”

Hiemstra outlined the path he took to become a ranger—and why he’s decided to leave—during an interview Tuesday (May 30) at Bidwell Park’s Cedar Grove. A native Southern Californian, he studied recreation management with an emphasis on parks and natural resources management at Chico State, interned at Whiskeytown Lake, and has been working in his current position for two years. He decided to resign the day he heard the proposal to transition Chico’s rangers into armed, fully sworn peace officers operating under the management of the Chico Police Department.

“It’s not really an issue of the gun for me, it’s the focus,” Hiemstra said. “As a park ranger, my focus is environmental interpretation, the outdoors, education and stewardship. I’m not a law enforcement officer, and never intended to be.”

The plan to transition the city’s three rangers—whose areas of responsibility include the city’s 3,600-acre Bidwell Park, downtown’s City Plaza and other parks and green spaces—first came up during a budget pitch by Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien at the April 18 City Council meeting. O’Brien cited increased crime in the park as a reason to make the change.

The idea was kicked down to the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission for discussion and to make a recommendation, but the decision ultimately lies in the hands of the City Council. The BPPC first discussed the idea at its April 24 meeting, where nearly two dozen citizens voiced their disapproval of the idea of rangers carrying guns and being diverted from other duties. That conversation carried over into the BPPC’s meeting Tuesday (May 30). A third meeting devoted to the issue will be held June 26.

On Tuesday, Assistant City Manager Chris Constantin presented the commissioners with three options: a full conversion of the three ranger positions to fully sworn status by July 1, 2018; no change at all; or a hybrid plan in which two ranger positions would transfer to the police department and the remaining ranger would be retained by the city’s Public Works Department and oversee a reserve ranger program.

Constantin elaborated on that plan, saying his takeaway from the last meeting was that citizens want more, not less, of the interpretive, environmental and community engagement services that rangers offer. He said the city has been unable to provide proper resources to the park since city services and staffing were gutted in 2013. The hybrid program, Constantin said, could be a win-win, as two rangers would fill some law-enforcement need while the reserve ranger program would expand services beyond current levels.

The reserve program would include 20 to 25 volunteers, Constantin said, and the city would look into creating a partnership with Chico State to provide them with natural resources and environmental education.

“We currently have Park Watch,” he said, referring to the volunteer park ambassador program. “This would be ‘Park Watch plus,’ in terms of the baseline training we provide to them, and as far as what we would expect.”

During the meeting, Commissioners Jeffrey Glatz and Valerie Reddemann characterized the park as unsafe for families and expressed more support for more law enforcement. Others—notably Aaron Haar and Elaina McReynolds—expressed misgivings. Overall, the commissioners and citizens who spoke during public comment expressed more support for the hybrid option.

Several people spoke about the rangers’ own views on the issue, noting two of the three rangers (including Hiemstra) oppose a complete switch to peace officers. The other has expressed a desire to focus on law enforcement duties.

Earlier at Cedar Grove, Hiemstra explained that rangers currently encounter some sketchy situations and already spend much of their time performing law enforcement duties, but none have ever had to use the Tasers they carry. He’s pitched his own solution to the commission, that just one ranger become a police officer, but said he’s already found another job and will leave his position regardless of the city’s decision.

Hiemstra emphasized the importance of traditional ranger services—particularly now, as the park has aging, outdated signage and other infrastructure sorely in need of attention. He said such services are integral to the park’s posterity.

“When we talk about interpretation, we’re talking about connecting the outdoors and the park to people in a way that inspires them to take ownership and get involved,” he said. “That’s what makes people take care of this place, and secures the sustainability of the park so that it stays here forever.”