When Jordan Fisher Smith first became a park ranger; he was motivated by the teachings of Thoreau and the ideals of the park system. Little did he imagine the park he would patrol for 14 years would be a virtual Wild West, where miners and guns, not hikers and backpacks, were the norm. Host Steve Curwood talks with Fisher Smith about his new memoirs, Nature Noir: A Park Ranger's Patrol in the Sierra.
CURWOOD: Before taking up his patrol of the American River in northern California, Jordan Fisher Smith thought being a park ranger was an idyllic and rather noble calling, rooted in the theories of preservation and the spirit of Henry David Thoreau. Little did he know that the park he wound up patrolling for the next 14 years was less a destination for nature lovers and more of an escape for armed convicts, sociopaths and miners, desperate for one last strike of gold. Still, Jordan Smith and his fellow rangers stuck to their handbooks, trying to preserve land even the federal government had written off. His new book is called "Nature Noir: A Park Ranger's Patrol in the Sierra." Jordan, hello.
SMITH: I'm delighted to be with you, today.
(Photo: Jim Herrington)
CURWOOD: Now, as you describe in your book, you arrived at the American River of the Sierras, with an idyllic view of the kind of land that rangers were meant to protect. What did you see first when you stepped onto this territory?
SMITH: Well, I think it was the strangest park I'd ever seen. It was the inverse of what I understood as a national or state park. This area that I came into, the American River, the north and middle fork, these 48 miles of canyons, was designated by no less than the authority of the United States Congress to be drowned forever under a huge dam. The United States Bureau of Reclamation that had been the author of this dam had bought up some 42,000 acres from either willing sellers or condemned ranchers and miners and homesteaders that lived there and evicted them and eventually burned down all of the dwellings there. So, this place that had been the heart of the goldrush country was rendered back into a sort of accidental wilderness area. However, the Bureau of Reclamation doesn't have its own land management rangers. And, during the time the dam was being built and then during the time the dam was delayed, this area was resettled by itinerant goldminers and squatters of all stripes and a good many fugitives from the law who were living in vehicles and makeshift shacks and tents all over the place. What I found there was a state of near anarchy. A good many people were armed; they pretty much did as they pleased and there were at the time when I got there, I think, five rangers trying to get by in those canyons without getting themselves killed.
CURWOOD: And, so there you are, patrolling and trying to preserve a place which by government intention is supposed to go away. What kind of person would choose to protect a place like that?
SMITH: You know, I can't congratulate myself for ever having chosen that. I more or less arrived there by chance and I probably didn't leave for reasons I still don't entirely understand, but partly out of stubbornness. I thought if we couldn't do a good job as rangers there, then what good was it.
CURWOOD: But, wait a second, it's all going to go away. It's all just going to get …
CURWOOD: Swept away.
SMITH: That was our conceit as rangers. I'm using that in the literary sense. We were sent there to bring the area under control after it had essentially descended into anarchy, people were being found in shallow graves and there were sort of disputes over mining claims. They had sent in the Federal Marshals Service for occasional sweeps and that hadn't worked. So, in 1977, the park rangers that were intended to be sent in later, when the reservoir was finished to run it as a recreational lake, were sent there, merely to get control of it. But, you have to remember that the only law book that a ranger has, is the law book that was designed to preserve these landscapes that make up most of the park system in perpetuity. So, we as rangers, just began enforcing the laws we had and treating the place as if it was a park. And, in some way, I think I knew and I think the other rangers knew that if we could just make it safe to be there, the people who could save that land would come down there and see how beautiful it was and begin working for it.
CURWOOD: So, you joined the cavalry as it were. And, at times your job seems like it could have come out of a classic western novel. I mean, there's a point where you describe a pretty typical, but it sounds like a dangerous part of that gig which was trying to collect the camping fees from miners living in the canyons. And, I'm wondering if you could read for me from that portion of your book, please?
SMITH: I'd be happy to. "I got out and faced him from the other side of the vehicle hood where the engine block between us afforded some cover if I needed it. He looked at me warily, 'Is there a problem?' he asked, arriving at the jimmy. I stepped toward him to stand directly to his right within reach of his gun hand. 'Could you please put that gun on the hood for me?' 'Why? Is there a problem?' His face darkened. 'You've got a gun.' His eyes narrowed. 'So? I haven't done anything illegal.' 'You can't carry it in this or any other state park campground,' I replied. 'This is a state park? No way,' said the miner, 'where's the sign? I thought this was just the American River. Anyway, it's never been a problem before.' Beads of sweat were breaking out on my face. O'Leary was out of the jimmy now, but said nothing. 'Look just put the gun on the hood and then we'll talk,' I told him. He gave me a 'don't you ever turn your back on me look' then slowly unholstered the gun and clunked it down on the hot, green steel of the truck's hood. I moved for it, swiftly but with steady nonchalance. Once it was in my grasp, I spun the cylinder and dumped the ammunition. The gun was loaded with six 357 hollow points. The miner's eyes bore through me. When I finished I turned my citation book toward him. 'What the hell is this for?' he asked. 'I haven't done anything wrong and I told you I'd pay you the next time you come. You don't have to be a jerk about it.' The man looked at O'Leary and his tone changed. 'Hey Ron, you know us, you've never hassled us. Tell your rookie to leave me alone.' 'Just sign the ticket. It's not my call,' O'Leary growled back at the man through his beard and sunglasses. It was plain he wasn't enjoying himself. I couldn't tell if he was more irritated at the miner or at me. Turning back to the miner I continued, 'you have been cited into Georgetown Court. Your appearance date is…' 'You can bet I'll be there,' he snapped back. 'Now, give me back my gun.'
CURWOOD: So, what happened to his gun?
SMITH: Under these circumstances where the gentleman wasn't a felon, the gun would be taken as evidence and at the time he appeared in court and was either sentenced to a fine or released. A release would be made on the gun and he would then come to the evidence custodian at the ranger station. It would be released back to him.
CURWOOD: So, did he come and get his gun?
SMITH: I believe he did, yes.
CURWOOD: But, by the time that happened, I imagine the word had gotten out about Mr. Jordan Fisher Smith, the rookie on patrol now in American Rivers Park.
SMITH: Well, I just did what, and it wasn't just me, you know, it was the other rangers, too, all of us, I think, right around that time realized what a hazard we had. There was gunfire all the time on that place. You'd go out, stand in front of the ranger station and you could hear gunshots at all times of day. And, we began going out and just enforcing the park law, which was that you couldn't carry a loaded gun in the place. And, in the next eight years there, I seized 108 weapons as evidence in these cases.
CURWOOD: Why did you stay as long as you did? What, 13, 14 years?
SMITH: I think there were two reasons. I think that one was that I began to see the incredible beauty of the place. This is a very interesting climate that you have on the west slope of the Sierra. It's the place where the desert southwest meets the Douglas fir nation of the northwest. The evenings in the summer, I worked a lot of evenings, were the most sort of silky warmth, after the setting of the sun there'd be a period of blue twilight. And, I thought that if I couldn't be a ranger there, then what good was it? I thought this was maybe something that I was meant to do. Looking back on it, I guess it was a strange form of protest against the dam. Most protests are done by breaking the law and in this case, it was a protest by enforcing the law, the law of parks in a place that was considered worthless.
CURWOOD: Jordan Fisher Smith has been a park ranger for more than 20 years and is author of "Nature Noir: A Park Ranger's Patrol in the Sierra." Jordan, thanks for taking this time with me, today.
SMITH: I really enjoyed it, Steve. Thank you.
[MUSIC: Howlin' Wolf "Wang Dang Doodle" His Best (Chess) 1997]