Sunday, May 26, 2013

More Vandalism at Saguaro National Park; This Time, the Rangers Respond to Media

My photos of graffiti vandalism two weeks ago at Saguaro National Park
More vandalism of cactuses was reported at Saguaro National Park, where odious graffiti vandals defaced giant saguaro cactuses two weeks ago.

Here's the link in today's Arizona Daily Star to the latest vandalism. 

This time, I see, the crack National Park Service PIO and rangers at Saguaro East actually responded to media inquiries on a Sunday -- rather than trying to cover up the vandalism, as they did two weeks ago when I first reported it to the local media hours after finishing a shift as a volunteer, during which the ranger on duty expressed no interest in my report until I later took it to the local paper and KOLD-TV.

(I was subsequently fired as a volunteer park mounted ranger for "approaching the media" and refusing to recant my sins, an act of official insolence and stupidity that created a considerable amount of hilarity in Tucson, including when the Park Service attempted to justify the firing by stating falsely that I hadn't followed unspecified "procedures" -- even though I had in fact spoken with the ranger on duty who blew me off and made a total of seven  fruitless phone calls to report the vandalism, including one to 9-1-1.)

Let's hope that this time, the rangers at Saguaro National Park decline to go onto their defensive crouches and perhaps redouble whatever efforts they have made to actually find the criminals, rather than trying to block the media and the public from knowing about the trouble. (Which, then as now, occurred in full public view, making the efforts of park rangers like Paul Austin and his trusty PIO Ms. Fisher look even more self-defeating). I also am somewhat surprised that, so far, Park Service headquarters in Washington has failed to take public notice of this disgrace.


Saturday, May 18, 2013

A Federal Agency Fires a Reporter for 'Approaching the Media'

One of the photos I took on Sunday of graffiti vandalism at Saguaro National Park

Here's a sad update on that awful graffiti vandalism incident last weekend at Saguaro National Park in Tucson (see previous post). Yesterday, I was fired as an unpaid volunteer National Park mounted ranger for my role in bringing this incident to the attention of local media after I saw the vandalism last Sunday while hiking a park trail. The vandalism included shocking graffiti defacement of giant saguaro cactuses.

During the five days' time between when I reported the incident on Sunday and when I was fired on Friday, Saguaro National Park rangers repeatedly tried to persuade me to admit that I was wrong in calling attention to the vandalism that I and many other hikers saw Sunday morning on the trail. In several conversations, including a bizarre disciplinary meeting on Thursday, I was asked to recant  and to agree never to "approach the media," whether on duty or off duty. Since I have been a reporter for 45 years, I informed the rangers that this was an absurd request to make of a volunteer who lives in the neighborhood of Saguaro National Park and is a frequent hiker and rider on those trails.

I repeatedly refused the weirdly Stalinist order to recant, including at the disciplinary meeting I was summoned to at the park visitor center on Thursday. That session was run by the supervisor Ranger Paul Austin and by Ranger Andy Fisher, who is the park's PR "interpretive" agent. They evidently didn't have the nerve to fire me to my face; the next day I was fired on the phone by the supervisor of the volunteers, Ranger Michelle Uhr, who told me: "We can't have you representing us as a volunteer anymore."

I resisted the inclination to inform her that I do not represent them. I represent the public, which owns the National Park and has a right to know what happens in that park.

Ranger Uhr is a decent woman, a hard-working law-enforcement ranger who was clearly acting under orders. Ranger Andy Fisher (who has been brazenly misrepresenting the facts to the media) is another story, a low-level PR employee -- a "flack," as we on the other side of the media call people like her  -- who seems not to appreciate the importance of veracity when speaking as a federal employee. She, Ranger Fisher, is an example of the insolence of office, and low office at that. If you wonder how Benghazi and the IRS and media phone-records scandals got out of control on an infinitely larger  scale, just have a look at this sorry performance by a few federal employees trying to cover their butts on the east side of Tucson.

Now, as I said, this was an unpaid, volunteer job, which I did because of my deep love for Saguaro National Park and my enjoyment at being able to meet and assist park users. The Park Rangers do not own the park. We citizens do. So my connection with Saguaro National Park remains unbroken.

Meanwhile, since the Park Service's amusingly clumsy attempt to cover its butt has bumped a weird local incident into national media streams, here is my statement for any media seeking it:

I was fired by park rangers as a volunteer mounted patrol ranger on Friday for "approaching the media" last Sunday afternoon -- hours after my shift as a volunteer ranger had ended. In other words, I was on my own time and acting as a private citizen when I notified the local media about the vandalism -- ONLY after having made numerous unsuccessful attempts to get the Park Service to respond and take my report and photos during the morning.

During my unpaid volunteer shift on foot at the Douglas Spring trailhead from 7-11 am Sunday, after other hikers informed me of the vandalism they saw, I reacted entirely appropriately. I made seven phone calls to the National Park Service and 911 to report the vandalism. In one of those calls, at 11 a.m. Sunday, I spoke directly with the park ranger on duty, Steven Bolyard, and he said that the visitors center had informed him of my earlier calls to them, and that he would "try to get out there this afternoon sometime." He exhibited no interest in the situation. This was after a county sheriff deputy had already been on the scene and spoken with me. The county sheriff's department responded quickly, professionally and correctly to my report. The Park Service did not respond, even after I spoke directly with them.

At 11 a.m. Sunday, as I went off duty, I personally informed Ranger Brolyard that I was considering taking my photos to the media, since no one at the Park Service seemed interested in the report. He raised no objection to that. Nor did Ranger Brolyard state that he himself was going to call an emergency number in Phoenix, for whatever reason.

Now the Park Service, having become defensive because of adverse local and even national media publicity over their failure to respond to the situation on Sunday, is claiming that I did not "follow procedures" in reporting the incident, in that I did not call an additional number in Phoenix that I had been previously told was only for serious emergencies, notably serious injuries or in-progress crimes.

This is what is called a "red herring."

To repeat: I made seven phones calls to the Park Service that morning, and on two occasions spoke with Park personnel, including Ranger Broylard. I also met with and personally spoke with a Deputy Iverson of the county sheriff department, who did take my report. Hence the Park Service had access to all of my phone calls, including those to the visitors center, to Ranger Brolyard and to 911 by 11 a.m. on Sunday.

It is clear to me that the Park Service is saying that I had no right to report the ugly vandalism on Sunday. It is also saying that I failed to follow "procedures," and that I have no right to "approach the media" under any circumstances. This is an absurd thing to say to a journalist.

Besides me, dozens of park visitors saw and photographed the vandalism on Sunday morning. Many of them expressed relief that I was there to make my reports. All of them were horrified.

As a journalist with wide experience for over 45 years in many different roles, including covering law enforcement, I am astonished that the Park Service in Tucson is asserting that it had had the right to try to keep this obvious public display of vandalism from the media, and to try to muzzle a private citizen. What possible explanation can the Park Service offer for foolishly hoping to cover up such an incident?

On Monday morning, when the Park Service in Tucson did finally respond, the response was to issue a report and photos of the vandalism, no different than the ones I had offered them a day earlier.

I have never been fired from any job, let alone an unpaid volunteer one.

But it had been important to me that the principle be affirmed, despite the unpleasantness that taking this stance has caused me personally. as a reporter, I have no desire to be part of the story. But it's important to reaffirm that our national parks belongs to us citizens, not to hired bureaucrats, defensive because they dropped the ball, who seek to block the public right to know.

If the Park Service at Saguaro National Park East wishes to rectify this situation, here is what they can do:

Admit they made a mistake and that they issued incorrect statements. Admit they dropped the ball on Sunday. Apologize to the public, but don't bother with me.  There are lots of honorable volunteer organizations in Tucson.


Monday, May 13, 2013

Vandalism At Saguaro National Park

More than 15 saguaro cactuses were defaced by vandalism at Saguaro National Park in Tucson

What's "Soma?" See below.


For over a year, my wife and I have been volunteers with the Saguaro National Park mounted ranger patrol, meaning we ride on horseback in our volunteer park ranger uniforms along the trails and washes of Saguaro National Park on the east side of Tucson.

Usually, the job consists of simply being visible, while being available to give directions or other information to the occasional lost hiker, or prepared to provide water, assistance or simple first aid to hikers who run into trouble, most notably during the brutally hot season in the Sonoran desert of southern Arizona.

Occasionally, I also volunteer to be basically the Park Service's version of a Wal-Mart greeter, stationed on foot at one of the popular trail-heads, where I enormously enjoy meeting people bound for the trails, and providing useful information (we had mountain lion sightings last month, and you need to warn some people who don't look like regulars about snakes, bee-swarms and other potential perils to the unwary).

I was doing this starting at 7 a.m. yesterday when a hiker came back from the Douglas Spring Trail and told me that he had seen widespread vandalism. After a few other hikers reported the same, I hiked up a couple of miles myself -- and was appalled at what I saw (see my photos above).

Some moron or morons, with base malice, painted graffiti on rocks, signs and even on saguaro cactuses. I saw big saguaros defaced by these criminals, and I made some calls to various Park service numbers and 911 -- but the only response I got was from a county deputy sheriff, who arrived at the scene and was sad to explain that, while he did not have jurisdiction on federal land, he'd look around on the periphery. Which he did.

I went back onto the trail and took photos of the damage and, after my shift as a volunteer had ended,  I notified some people in the local media in Tucson.  KOLD, one of the local television stations, sent  a reporter and a cameraman to my house near the park, and I took them up the trail for a detailed report on what was obvious to anyone on the trail, which they ran last night. The local paper, the Arizona Daily Star, also asked for my photos and ran a front-page story this morning. At least one other local television station is following up today. [UPDATE: And the story went national after people got back to work and started returning phone calls on Monday]

Listen, I'm just a volunteer. I don't speak for the National Park Service. Staffing at the National Park Service is scandalously tight -- Park Rangers work hellacious hours, and they do it from a deep sense of duty.

This might be a very good opportunity, then, to address some of the effects on beloved institutions like the National Parks created by the budget shenanigans perpetrated by the now-thoroughly-disreputable U.S. Congress, specifically sharp budget cutbacks caused by sequestration at government agencies like the National Park Service. If the National Park Service is upset about not getting out front on this story yesterday, when the media interest became intense, the opportunity exists today and beyond to address the very real consequences of severe budget cutbacks in our glorious national parks.

[Updated: Dismayingly, I found on Monday and later in the week, the official Park Service response was focused way too much on the media -- as if the media could somehow be held back on Sunday till a "press release" had been prepared and cleared through burueaucratic channels, on an incident that had been in full public view, to anyone hiking those trails, for over 24 hours before the Park Service acknowledged it. The reaction of the National Park Service Tucson branch was depressingly of a cover-your-butt bureaucratic nature, mainly because the park dropped the ball on Sunday and didn't try to address the story till Monday, after it had been in the local and even national media.]

There have been other instances of vandalism in national parks, most recently at Joshua Tree National Park in California, where graffiti criminals defaced boulders. The vandalism at Saguaro National Park was less in scope, but rather more striking because as many as a dozen magnificent saguaros were defaced. Just look at those saguaros in the photos above. Some of those very saguaros, stately icons of the Old West in southern Arizona, have been standing in those spots literally since the days when Wyatt Earp and Geronimo roamed this desert landscape.

Incidentally, what's the significance of  "Soma" -- the graffito so unartfully scrawled on several of the cactuses and many of the rocks?

Well, it's probably futile to waste too much time trying to understand the mind of a moron. But one  potential explanation is that our criminal vandal[s] might be making a probably unintended literary allusion -- which I hope will be of good use to them once they are caught and subsequently enrolled in one of those arts classes that are taught in our state prison systems.

From the Wikipedia entry (full link here):

"Soma (Sanskrit सोम sóma), or Haoma (Avestan), from Proto-Indo-Iranian *sauma-, was a Vedic ritual drink[1] of importance among the early Indo-Iranians, and the subsequent Vedic and greater Persian cultures. It is frequently mentioned in the Rigveda, whose Soma Mandala contains 114 hymns, many praising its energizing qualities. In the Avesta, Haoma has the entire Yašt 20 and Yasna 9-11 dedicated to it. It is described as being prepared by extracting juice from the stalks of a certain plant. In both Vedic and Zoroastrian tradition, the name of the drink and the plant are the same, and the three forming a religious or mythological unity.

"... From the late 1960s onwards, several studies attempted to establish soma as a psychoactive substance. A number of proposals were made, including one in 1968 by the American banker R. Gordon Wasson, an amateur ethnomycologist, who asserted that soma was an inebriant, and suggested fly-agaric mushroom, Amanita muscaria, as the likely candidate. ..."

"...Soma is [also] the name of a fictional drug in Aldous Huxley's 1932 novel, Brave New World. In the novel the drug produces both intoxicating and psychoactive properties and is used in celebratory rituals. It is described as 'All of the benefits of Christianity and alcohol without their defects." Another drug derived from mountain growing mushrooms is featured in his 1962 novel, Island, in which it is used in a Hindu-based religious ceremony worshipping the god Shiva. Called moksha medicine it is portrayed in a positive light, as a key to enlightenment.

"In the books Junkie and Naked Lunch, author William S. Burroughs refers to soma as a non-addictive, high-quality form of opium said to exist in ancient India.

"In Neil Gaiman's novel American Gods, soma is referred to as "concentrated prayer", a drink enjoyed by the gods (who feed on people's worship), such as Odin.

"The single "Soma" by the indie rock band The Strokes focuses on soma and its effects."

Well then, some mystery clues for the constabulary to pursue.

Less grandly, Soma is also an old street nmame for the drug PCP.

But let's forget the fancy allusions. Probably "Soma" is just the name of some moron's gang girlfriend.


Saturday, May 11, 2013

Guns At the Airports (Continued)

Guns found at T.S.A. checkpoints this week

Ho-hum, another week, another haul of handguns that our fellow citizens insist on trying to take onto airplanes.

This week's haul, incidentally, is a record, the T.S.A. says in its weekly blog.

No one in the media pays any attention to this except at the start of a new year when little news items appear noting that a current year's gun-haul at the airports outpaced the previous year's.

Note, incidentally, that the vast majority of the guns being found in passengers' carry-ons are loaded.

And, given these numbers of guns being found, the obvious question is, how many guns, loaded or otherwise, are actually being carried onto airplanes, and not found by the T.S.A.?



Saturday, May 04, 2013

Cruise News

Another good reason for me to maintain my record of never having taken a cruise, or considered the idea:

Argentina has been accused in Britain of trying to ‘strangle’ the Falkland Islands by intimidating cruise ships. "At least 12 incidents of luxury liners being targeted have been reported to Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office since November. ...Protesters or industrial action by militant unions are disrupting vessels that have a stopover in islands on their itinerary. ..." (According to a report in the Daily Mail via etrurbonews.)

Only a Brit newspaper, incidentally, would use the term "luxury liner" to describe a cruise ship.