Halt! Drop the Starfish!

AUG. 3, 2010

Advocates for big government can always be expected to stoke our fears to justify higher taxes, more regulations and the hiring of additional government workers. One of the most sensational examples of this phenomenon was provided last week as the Sacramento Bee published a front-page investigation warning about a crime wave threatening safety at the state’s parks.

Crime is hitting record levels, the series explained. Business owners are bemoaning their “vulnerability,” and a former ranger warns the newspaper that “the entire system is teetering on the brink.” Staffing within the ranger system is flat even as the state has added parks to the system. As the Bee puts it, the net result is “crime last year reached record per-capita levels.”

The series echoes the concerns of supporters of more park funding. An initiative is on the November ballot that would increase park fees to pay for, among other things, additional staffing.

Despite the hysteria, there’s no reason to avoid state parks or in any way be alarmed. The series doesn’t document a crime wave so much as it details how the Nanny State criminalizes even the most modest rule-breaking. We don’t see a rash of violence or assaults, but the increased willingness of law enforcement to treat smoking, drinking, rafting without life preservers, noise-making and trespassing as crimes, rather than as the normal aberrations found at parks since time immemorial.

The clues that this investigation is overwrought come early. The big front-page photograph shows a park ranger pulling over “a raft crowded with youngsters, none wearing life jackets” at Folsom Lake. The youngsters look like teen-agers or young adults, not vulnerable little kids. The other photo shows a “top-ranking law enforcement officer at Huntington and Bolsa Chica state beaches” confiscating and dumping a small bottle of liquor taken from a middle-age man.

One has to be a true scold to think of rafting without a life preserver as a crime. Certainly, having a small bottle of liquor is against park rules, but it hardly amounts to terrifying criminal activity.

Yes, some serious crimes take place at state parks, just as some serious crimes take place wherever people are gathered. But the article strains to find terrible things to report. Last year, for instance, rangers had to contend with “car surfing” at Folsom Lake, as young daredevils jump off a car roof and into the lake – a stupid and dangerous activity that nevertheless endangers only those who do it. It refers to “grave-robbing” – or, more accurately, people who remove Indian artifacts, such as arrowheads, from a park. It points to “illicit sex in parks” and to “The death of a 24-year-old rescue volunteer crushed by his vehicle while responding to an accident.”

“Illicit” sex is a fact of life in parks. The death of the rescue volunteer was tragic, but was an accident, not the mark of a crime wave.

Even the writers seem to admit that this is much ado about nothing. Under the heading, “Trespassing leads offenses,” the article explains: “The most frequent state park crimes may appear benign but hint at a growing disregard for park rules.” Mainly, the public-employee unions are looking for ways to gin up their budgets during a recession – which is the reason California voters need to be on the lookout for this sort of thing.

Here’s one of the big increases in crime: Rangers reported 35 incidents of marijuana cultivation on state parks versus 30 incidents 11 years ago. And so it goes, as park rangers extinguish “illegal campfires,” try to clamp down excessive noise, prosecute nudists who, by the way, had long been allowed to do their thing at a small section of San Onofre State Beach. We’re told of an assault on the “coast’s sensitive tide pools” – i.e., people who take starfish or snails. In a normal day and age, kids would be instructed not to take shells from the beach, but today such misbehavior is considered a serious environmental crime that demands increased law enforcement staffing.

The real news is that there are surprisingly few serious crimes at California’s state parks. Mostly, the advocates for higher fees want more “boots on the ground” to catch average folks who might have a bonfire and drink some wine. Park advocates also champion the volunteer park busybodies who confront park-goers who aren’t following the rules. Perhaps this is indicative of the new California. Why should the lifestyle at beaches, mountains and lakes be any different from any other aspect of life in this highly taxed, carefully monitored and absurdly regulated state?

I might as well declare that a crime wave has descended on my neighborhood, given that some neighbors regularly drive 5 mph over the limit, jaywalk, drink beer while they walk the dog and make a little noise during pool parties. Somehow, in the spirit of freedom, I prefer to deal with these piddling matters on my own (mainly by ignoring them) rather than call for the hiring of additional police officers to patrol the street, hand out tickets and snoop in our yards.

Last time I went rafting on the American River, we all had to wait while a surly park ranger searched our stuff to make sure no one was bringing along any beer. Is this really necessary in every aspect of our lives? This is more a story of the criminalization of recreational behavior and of the security-state mentality – which sees more police, more cameras, more searches and more rules as the answer to everything, lest anyone do anything wrong.

A broken rule is hardly a crime wave – unless one has a not-so-hidden agenda to increase “revenue” and expand the government workforce.

-Steven Greenhut

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