Perils of journalism
CN&R contributor cited for his trek in closed national park
Saturday morning, around 11 a.m., while my family and I lounged in pajamas in our off-grid country home, a car door slammed outside. Dogs barked. As a man dressed in park-ranger green approached the house, I quickly changed into jeans and my pink, tie-dyed John Lennon T-shirt.
Stephen Troy, a ranger from Lassen Volcanic National Park, was professional while telling me he was there to serve me with two citations—both for misdemeanors related to my recent trip to the park. Troy explained the charges and had me sign some forms. I was fined for illegal camping and disobeying a closure order. Total fine: $250.
It’s not surprising considering I’d written a controversial story with photos of me illegally entering a closed national park. I’d slept under the stars on a mountain that is restricted to the public, documented the experience, and had it published in a newspaper where 100,000 people, at the very least, could glance at the thing (see “Lassen Solitaire,” CN&R Cover feature, Nov. 7). I knew it might draw a bit of attention from law-enforcement agencies that don’t particularly see the humor in such a situation.
But I thought the journalistic value of covering a Republican-induced closure of a park, as well as the glorification of a national park that doesn’t get enough local visitors, and then tying that park to an important writer, Edward Abbey—the “Thoreau of the West”—just might get me off the hook. If the essay is written well enough, who could punish me? After all, I’m not a guy who breaks laws in a random fashion. I drive well under the speed limit. I even stop for squirrels crossing the road.
Late evening a few days earlier, my spouse had told me that a Lassen Park officer had phoned and wanted me to return his call. I was so anxious the next day that when I exited my car to go to a coffee shop, I left my lights on and my car door wide open—resulting in a dead battery.
Troy’s second call came while I was attempting to enjoy a latte. The officer, who was rather coy, said he had questions about my “Lassen article.” He wanted to hear “my side of the story,” as the park had opened an investigation.
“What are the charges?” I asked. Disobeying a law-enforcement officer’s order, violating a closure order and camping in a restricted area. “Sounds serious. What are the fines?” I inquired. “We can talk about that tomorrow,” Troy responded. “What’s the max penalty?” I asked. “We can talk about that tomorrow, if you meet with me,” he said. I agreed to meet.
Waiting for AAA to jump-start my car, my mind went wild: Felonies maybe? Perhaps serious enough to gain me a seat next to Bernie Madoff in a federal penitentiary? I called my wife, leaving her a message that her husband was in a bit of trouble (again). I ended up calling Troy back and canceling the meeting we had arranged. Could we meet later, I asked, after the holidays? (Maybe they’d forget about it by then.)
Not so. The next day, this past Saturday, Nov. 23, that officer arrived at my home.
I couldn’t help but engage in a little conversation with Troy, who, to his credit, acted professionally and businesslike. I told him that the article brought good publicity for the park. I told him that the little-known tie to Edward Abbey had made many people interested in visiting the Mount Harkness fire tower, including a person from a large public-television station and an executive editor of a newspaper chain in Southern California.
Troy wore a blank expression. I asked him if he knew anything about Abbey. No answer. I asked him about other enviro writers: Aldo Leopold? John Muir? Have you heard of them? What do you know about the history of your park? Of the park service? My wife mercifully got me to end my tangent.
Troy’s response: “Do you have any other questions about the citation?”
“How did you find out about this article?” I asked. “Did someone complain to you?”
“No,” he replied. “The Internet.” Evidently they have a Google alert—or some other search—set up for the park. “Any more questions about the citations?” Troy asked impatiently. “No.” He bolted to his pickup truck, after refusing to shake my outstretched hand.
One might think that it was foolhardy to climb a mountain when the park was closed and then write about it for thousands of people. I’d agree. And I’d do it again in an instant.
I’d been attempting to visit Lassen Park legally in the run-up to the government shutdown, and when closure happened, I was inspired in the spirit of Abbey, who encouraged such acts of civil disobedience. After all, the real criminal in this situation is a congressman by the name of Doug LaMalfa, along with his Republican cohorts, as well as the tea partyers who voted for the shutdown of the park in the first place. So, blame LaMalfa, not me.
In fact, Mr. LaMalfa, will you pay my fine? It seems to belong to you.