American Park Rangers Open Up About Dealing With Suicides, Homelessness, Climate, Dangerous Situations


rick hatfield looks out over lost gulch, an area where he said that he could remember three suicides off the top of his head

BENJAMIN RASMUSSEN

A call from dispatch comes over the radio, late morning on a Saturday: A man with a gun—possibly multiple weapons—has been spotted by a trail runner at the Chautauqua Overlook. The air is warm, 75 degrees, and getting warmer.

College kids and families are out enjoying the 155-mile network of trails that make up Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP), owned, operated, and patrolled by the city of Boulder, Colorado.

The trail originates in a residential area—nice houses. Expensive houses. New construction, the occasional four-car garage, owners who work for the tech companies that have changed Boulder’s demographics over the past twenty-five years. Two rangers head up Flagstaff Road, a few blocks from the parking area. The trail is steep—Boulder locals like it because they can get a good workout in just a few miles.

When the rangers finally see the suspect, off the trail and sitting on a rock that drops off to a steep cliff, they realize it’s a kid. A teenager who looks just a little older than some of their own kids, wearing a rifle across his chest. A military-grade canvas bag droops by his side.

One ranger takes a deep breath and talks to the kid like a father would. Calmly. Asks the kid how he’s feeling. Where he lives. What’s in the bag.

Others respond. More rangers. The Boulder police. There are two dispatch centers that Boulder rangers are tied into with their radios, the city and the county of Boulder. So they hear any call that comes in about an incident on OSMP property and interact with the responding personnel. They also have a ranger on call who gets paged after hours to respond to emergencies in the park. Local law enforcement receives the same calls, but when a crime or a suspect is on OSMP land, rangers tend to be able to get there the fastest—they know the trails and the entire area so well.

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BENJAMIN RASMUSSEN

The team talks the kid into hiking down the trail. Someone picks up the bag, full of several other guns, ammunition, plans for something violent. There’s weight to it. More weight than a kid should carry. More than anyone should carry. But someone has to get it down the mountain.

Law enforcement is doing its best to clear the area, but like most trails in Boulder on the weekends, this one is packed. Other rangers and officers help out, walking right next to him, in front of him, and behind him. They’ve confiscated everything the kid had on him and with him. They try to keep him calm. Someone asks questions as they walk. Where do you go to school? Do you play sports? At one point, a ranger has a hand on the boy’s shoulder—it’s so small.

This kind of thing used to happen maybe once a year, maybe twice. Now it’s sometimes once a month, and some of the rangers on the team aren’t sure how much more they can handle.

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BENJAMIN RASMUSSEN

They follow protocol. Keep it together. This is bad—something happened to this kid. It also could have been worse, and still could be. The rangers need to make sure nothing violent occurs. The kid could lunge for the bag or try to run away. No way of knowing.

Minds are racing fast now. One step ahead. Three steps ahead. They have to solve this problem, at this moment.

They are in it.

Downtown Boulder sits below a series of foothills and rock formations known as the Flatirons. Trails tangle around the city limits. A fifteen-minute jaunt up the hill and you feel like you’re deep in the wilderness. An hour out of the city and you can be in a subalpine forest above ten thousand feet. Up where the weather is different.

In 1996, about three million people visited OSMP. By 2005, that number had risen to 4.7 million. And in 2017, it was 6.4 million. During the pandemic, numbers climbed beyond anything the rangers had seen before. With more and more people coming to Colorado’s Front Range—mountains within the Rockies that cut through central Colorado—parks and open spaces are becoming tougher to patrol. “This is our primary challenge,” says Rick Hatfield, an OSMP ranger. “How do we keep doing what we do as well as we can in the face of unprecedented population growth and park visitation?” Whereas people used to escape to nature to relax and exercise, many now carry their crises with them. More drugs, more homelessness, more mental illness, more suicides. More of what some rangers call “trail rage.”

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This article appeared in the September 2021 issue of Esquire
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Not to get apocalyptic about it, but when a society fills up with so many problems that they spill over into what was supposed to be the last refuge, you start to wonder where else a person can hide.

Hatfield, twenty-three years on the job and the leader of a team of seven rangers, wasn’t on duty the day they found that kid with the rifle, but his team was, and he debriefed them. They sat in a circle in the sun outside their office in Boulder. Hatfield helped his team process the events. As they laid it out, he thought about the specifics of the trail and what it’s like to get to the lookout. Whenever he’s out on a call that challenges him, Hatfield’s own mind jumps to comfort: the words to his sons’ favorite songs; his dog, Maggie; how good the beer tastes at Mountain Sun; something his wife said that morning. He knows what it’s like to be out there staring into the abyss.

Hatfield looks like the kid in Boy Scouts who took it all very, very seriously. Except now he’s fifty-two. Fit but not athletic, he makes good use of cargo pants. When he hears the story about his team on the familiar hard-packed dirt trail, fully exposed to the sun, all he can do is nod. It’s weirdly usual these days. But in the circle, they look like they’re at summer camp. Rangers always wear hiking boots and are always ready to get out on the trails. They also carry a radio, a gun, and handcuffs. There are nineteen full-time rangers in Boulder’s OSMP division and four seasonal rangers with nine-month terms. Hatfield’s team is close—they’ve been through a lot together.

Law-enforcement training for park rangers has evolved over the past twenty years, to keep pace with the escalation of bad shit going on in these woods. Over time, the city increased its mental self-help resources for first responders, including rangers. “Critical incident training” has become prevalent, to teach rangers to defuse and redirect a person’s anxiety or anger—how to get someone out of a crisis while they are deep in it.

Still, all of this has raised anxiety levels among the rangers themselves. Every day, it feels possible that the really big, awful thing could happen, the thing that might make it unbearable for some to come back to work tomorrow.

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When stressful things do happen—the kid on the trail with the gun, the suicide calls, suspects hiding from cops, assaults—the world, for these rangers, becomes very, very small. Nothing else exists. “Time slows down in a way that’s almost impossible to explain,” Hatfield says. “You become hyperaware of the danger to yourself and to other people, especially when you’re alone in a remote location—and for rangers, you’re often alone. Your eyes open up, your ears open up, and you have to fight allowing your senses to take over. You have to do the mechanical things. You have to get on the radio and get help and continue with a checklist of procedures even when your brain is telling you, Get out of there.”

And when it’s over? You have to forget. Push it out. If you can’t, “you cannot live your life.”

One morning on an off day, sitting in his kitchen, Hatfield smiles a little as he talks about how the job has changed: “It used to be, today I’m going to talk to a group of second graders about bears, and then I’m going on a good hike, and I’m going to check on bird nests.”

Burton Stoner, fifty-five, has been the Ranger Services supervisor for the past four years. He says that these days, having frequent check-ins with the rangers is crucial. OSMP recently implemented regular mental-health training for them. In the past, they would have high-stress debriefings—for instance, if they had recovered a body or had been involved with an extreme rescue, they’d talk as a group—but now those meetings and conversations are a regular part of the job. “I like to check in, just ask, ‘Where are you on the scale?’ to get a feel for where people are in terms of their effectiveness and emotional ability to manage,” Stoner says.

Another big change: It’s far more accepted to give honest answers now. Whereas a decade ago, the answer would always be “I’m fine,” “you don’t get to say that anymore,” Stoner says. Today, rangers are more forthcoming, and everyone understands when someone isn’t okay. Stoner sends them to clear their head. “I tell them to go patrol on a trail that’s farther away, less visited,” he says. “Get out on their favorite terrain or favorite spot in a park.”

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BENJAMIN RASMUSSEN

He holds regular shift meetings, relies on Hatfield to arrange briefings, and tries to be in constant communication with the team: “We’re taking the time to take care of each other in the right ways.”

Boulder parents shuttle their children to school and then run errands on e-bikes. Pearl Street is lined with cafés, gear shops, and brew pubs. During the wintertime, the parks department grooms one of the parks for cross-country skiing. It’s a college town, a tech town, and an endurance-athlete training ground. But like all places, it’s got its problems. Boulder County’s housing issues (lack of affordability) and population growth (more than 10 percent from 2010 to 2019) are putting stress just about everywhere.

Hatfield and his wife, Amanda, and their sons, Finn, twelve, and Jack, nine, live in a small community in Boulder County where every house has kids and every back door is always open. Their garage is filled with bikes and sleds and camping equipment. Amanda used to be a ranger, too, for the county, where rangers don’t carry guns and work alongside police departments. But city rangers, like Hatfield, take on law-enforcement duties themselves. They carry. And although he and Amanda had virtually identical training, over the past two decades, Hatfield’s role has become increasingly dangerous and stressful. On March 22 of this year, ten people were fatally shot in a Boulder supermarket, including an eleven-year veteran police officer. Park rangers were among the first responders on the scene.

The same week the kid with the rifle was out at Chautauqua Overlook, or maybe it’s a different week—everything runs together—Hatfield is patrolling an area known for illegal camping. [Editor’s note: The names of locations and some identifying details have been changed.] The encampment sits on the banks of Boulder Creek, which flows past the art museum and the manicured park where young professionals eat overpriced tacos on their lunch break. Just a mile or two up the canyon, a group of homeless people gather. A dozen of them, more, are living in battered tents or makeshift tarp lean-tos. A thin, scruffy man in his twenties balances rocks end to end, four stones high. A woman lies topless in a hammock. Dogs splash in the water. The smell is intense—the skunky odor of marijuana, the stench of meth, human waste, spoiled food.

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BENJAMIN RASMUSSEN

Rangers know not to be headstrong in a situation like this. They need to convey understanding. And in a lot of ways, Hatfield does understand. He had a similar start when he arrived in Boulder after college—there were just a lot more places to be back then. “I’m not there to kick them out. I’m there to explain that what they’re doing is dangerous, and why I want to help them find another option,” he says.

He asks them their first names and repeats them back to himself over and over. Hatfield doesn’t reach for his gun. If he can get the place cleaned up for the day—and get some of them to a clinic for help with addiction or housing—that’s the job. But it’s a temporary fix. He knows he’ll see most of them again. He hopes he can remember their names. Make them feel seen—and heard.

In mid-October, two fires ignite less than twenty-four hours apart in the mountain towns of Boulder County. The winds are intense, and both fires grow rapidly, to more than nine thousand acres overnight. Boulder receives less than an inch of rain the month of these fires. Any precipitation vanishes in minutes. In dry grass or sage, with a decent wind, you can drive a truck at fifteen miles per hour next to a burning field and the fire will race you—and win. Hatfield is inhaling two packs of forest an hour. It fills the lungs in such a way that all you can think is: I never want to sit around a campfire again.

He and nine other rangers are working on fire lines designed to stop the movement of the blaze. All fuels are removed, blade of grass by pine needle by twig by branch. The ground has to be scraped to the soil in a strip three feet wide, wide enough to stop embers that might roll across the line. This is protocol. It is also an act of hope. Smoke blocks out the sun and burns the eyes. Incinerated trees and animals fall in flakes of ash, like snow. It’s been raining ash for so many days that you just accept it as part of yourself. You are ash. With so much smoke, and darkened stumps in every direction, it’s hard to have any hope at all.

A week after the second wildfire ignited, an actual early-season snowstorm arrives. Hatfield’s been working fifteen-hour days, sometimes starting at 5:00 A.M. His body is caked with the kind of grit that sticks even after a week of hot showers. He and Amanda stand in their kitchen on a Sunday morning watching the snow fall in clumps. “We couldn’t be getting better weather,” Hatfield says with his hands around a huge mug of coffee.

He worked the entire week on fire mitigation and can barely keep his eyes open. The boys and their friends roughhouse upstairs and slide through on socked feet to grab a slice of last night’s pizza. Working wildfire is something Hatfield has done from early on, but it’s never been like this. “If you had told me that it was possible for a fire to jump the Continental Divide in October and then travel downhill at such speed, even a year ago I would have told you that’s impossible,” he says. “And everyone I’ve talked to who knows how fire moves has said, ‘Totally impossible.’ ”

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BENJAMIN RASMUSSEN

As a student at Ohio Northern University in the early nineties, Hatfield built a branch fort out in the woods west of campus, and he sometimes slept there instead of in his dorm. A couple years after graduation, he headed to Colorado to rock climb. He lived out of his truck for a while, then in a mountain cabin that had no plumbing or electricity. Sometimes Hatfield hikes there to remember how this all started. To remember who he was.

Back then, he’d sometimes run into a park ranger doing an annual bird count. Because he spent so much time exploring the rock, Hatfield could tell the rangers where he knew there were nests. He let them in on his secrets. In the spring of 1994, he started volunteering. Four years later, they offered him a job. He was told to survey the land, look for bolts that climbers had placed on the rock. (Historically, in rock climbing, permanent bolts have been drilled into cliff faces as a way to secure ropes, but they’re frowned upon in many parks because they can damage the stone and become unsafe for climbers.) Hatfield’s boss used to joke that he never wanted to see him because he should always be out on the trails looking at the rock. Hatfield saw an opportunity to work with climbers and not just go behind their backs determining when they were breaking the rules. He forged relationships. They worked together, keeping things natural, searching for nesting raptors.

Hatfield couldn’t believe he was getting paid to do this. Outdoors all day, every day, talking to climbers, looking for those raptors and noting their welfare, hiking incredible trails. He rarely encountered danger and felt almost no stress at all.

Maria Mayer, fifty-two, a ranger naturalist for the city of Boulder and Hatfield’s first boss and mentor, started as an intern in 1991. She left Colorado to work in Vermont in 2001, and when she returned to Boulder in 2018, she saw stark changes, to both the city and the job. “Not only were there local changes, there were huge nationwide changes,” she says. “The mental-health crisis, the opioid and methamphetamine crisis, homelessness, the changes in civility—acceptable ways to interact and communicate with fellow humans—and the erosion of trust between law enforcement and the public, which is now at total crisis level.”

When Mayer started out, she studied flora and investigated plant biology in the area. Another project was keeping tabs on invasive plants. “One of the neat things about this job was how much learning was involved—all of a sudden it would be your turn to work on a project and so you’d learn all about that topic.” Today, she faces the same challenges the rest of the rangers do. Even car thefts at the trailheads have increased. Rangers have busted whole crews of robbers who set up sophisticated lookout systems. They destroy security cameras or evade their lenses. Rangers are now trained in how to approach someone who’s wielding a crowbar in a parking lot—you have to remember they could be a decoy, a distraction, so you look in all directions.

You stare into the abyss and you wonder: Can the center hold?

The bad guys often head to the mountains to escape the advantages that law enforcement has in urban settings, like traffic cameras and a higher density of officers. “There are so many situations now when I have to draw my gun,” Hatfield says. “A lot of times we’re working with another agency, like the sheriff’s department. They’ll put out a call: ‘BOLO [be on the lookout] for a black SUV, broken headlight, this plate number. Involved in a kidnapping.’ We’ll pull into the Walker Ranch trailhead and there’s the car—we’re nose to nose with the vehicle or the party that we’re looking for, and our closest resource is fifteen or twenty minutes away.” It might not sound like a lot of time, but so much can happen in a matter of minutes.

More moments:

A call from dispatch before sunrise—a trail runner reported a man jumping from a magnificent rock formation a few miles from town. The path to the arch meanders through a grassy meadow and a pine forest, then up a long flagstone staircase, gaining one thousand feet in a few miles. An incredible place to watch the sunrise.

Another call, late afternoon—an area that’s out of town a bit. A popular, dog-friendly trail. A crystal-clear creek with a waterfall. A report of a car running, windows filling with exhaust. A body reportedly slumped over the steering wheel.

The times when the call comes too late: “It’s so difficult to do a body recovery. Rangers, we usually started this work imagining the kinds of rescues we’d be doing of someone who broke a leg hiking their favorite trail,” Hatfield says. “But body rescue is so lasting. You’re feeling empathy and vicarious trauma.”

Can the center hold?

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There are good days. On occasion, Hatfield still gets to talk to volunteers about cliff- nesting raptors and how the climbing community can help keep an eye on the birds. Those days are like being on vacation. “It’s weird—my team and I have gotten so good at the intense situations that sometimes, even when it’s traumatic, you have this feeling of accomplishment. Like, no one else could have done what we just did, and maybe it’ll haunt us, but we did it.” Hatfield is proud of the way his team has adapted and how well they’ve learned to take on constantly evolving situations.

Still, Hatfield sometimes smells a wildfire when nothing is burning. He hears loud noises that make him wonder if a kid on a hill is doing something violent. He sees flashes of horrible scenes. Senses get confused—or rather, tell the truth. “On the calendar, these moments last an hour or so, but in your head you’re building something that you’re just never going to forget. They get bigger and bigger and bigger in your head,” he says. On a Sunday in late fall, Hatfield is far from the trails he knows so well, the dirt and the rocks and the trees that used to bring him peace. He’s rounding his second loop on a stand-up paddleboard at Pinewood Reservoir, outside Boulder. It’s a small recreation area with campsites, hiking trails, and lake access. No motorboats.

Hatfield just upgraded his board—there was a special for first responders. “This one is much easier to maneuver,” he says. All four Hatfields and Maggie the dog come up to Pinewood most Sundays. They paddle the lake, they make dinner over a fire, sometimes they camp. Finn questions everything. Jack is bubbly and sensitive, easy to make laugh. Tonight, despite having SUPs and kayaks of their own, the boys are more interested in the mud. It’s good mud. They’re smearing it all over their bodies and tossing handfuls back and forth, giggling.

After hours of letting the breeze do its thing on the lake, Hatfield piles the kayaks and SUPs into the back of his new Tacoma while his sons do their best to clean the mud off in the lake. This—this is what he loves. This sky, this water. “All I want to do now is watch falcons,” Hatfield says. “I don’t want to go to work. I don’t want to supervise people anymore. I just want to watch falcons in the Flatirons.” It’s not that he or the other rangers don’t want to help people who are in trouble. But when there are too many people to help and too many terrible calls to answer, you start to question whether you’re really helping anyone at all. And during all those moments when you’re scared shitless that this might be the time—Will the kid lunge for his gun? Is she gonna jump? Are they armed?—you start to wonder whether you could use some help, too.

Amanda starts a fire so they can cook kebabs. When they realize no one packed utensils, Finn whittles makeshift chopsticks with an ax. Hatfield will soon have the opportunity to retire early, if he chooses. He’s not down and out every day. He’s not physically injured beyond function. But it ain’t great. And when he looks at his boys and thinks about the things he wants to be able to do with them in the coming years, early retirement from what was once a dream job feels disturbingly rational.

Sometimes it feels as if leaving the wilderness he has grown to fear might be the only way back to the wilderness he loves so much.



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