Protect our park rangers

Council shouldn’t bolster police force at detriment to green spaces

For years, Bidwell Park—ostensibly the crown jewel of our community and indeed one of the main attractions for visitors—has been badly neglected by the city of Chico.

During the Great Recession, the level of staff dedicated to maintaining the 3,600-acre property, plus the other city parks, was cut to the bone. There’s been little emphasis during the economic recovery on recouping those lost positions. And now, there’s yet another effort afoot that will further endanger the preservation of our green spaces.

We’re talking about a proposal to take the rangers who are employed by the city under the auspices of the Public Works Department and put them through law enforcement training and under the supervision of the Chico Police Department. The city uses the term “sworn rangers” to describe their would-be roles, but what we’re really talking about here is eliminating rangers in favor of a couple more police officers. Indeed, they would be armed and focused on enforcing laws. In other words, say goodbye to the interpretive, environmental and community engagement services the rangers currently provide.

What we propose is that the police dedicate existing officers to patrols in those regions. After all, the department’s ranks have swelled over the past few years, from a low of 82 in 2013-14 to the 94 proposed for 2017-18.

We’re not the only ones in opposition. The public has repeatedly weighed in on the issue, calling on officials to stick with the status quo. One of the voices of authority on the issue was “Ranger Bob” Donohue, a beloved longtime local park ranger.

During the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission’s last meeting, June 27, Donohue warned its members that moving forward on such a proposal means stripping the park of a valuable asset. He recalled working side-by-side with a police officer at certain times of the year—his focus on interpretive work and the officer’s on enforcement. It’s an arrangement that worked well, he said, and one that should be reconsidered.

We fear that the City Council, when it takes up the issue, will choose the blue rather than the green path and opt to arm all three rangers, even though the park commission recommended arming just two. For us, neither of those options is good.

Donohue passed away suddenly last week. His time serving Chico left a lasting impression for many members of the public. We hope his work—and message—inspires the council.