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Crime rates tick up across national parks

Amid the daisies and national monuments, more rangers find themselves battling lawlessness.

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The smell of bacon mixed with wood smoke. The sight of a spectacular waterfall or field of wildflowers. The sound of a bugling elk ... or nothing at all in the backcountry wilderness.

National parks are meant to be laid-back places where the stress and strain of work and home are left behind for a more mellow experience.

But increasingly, those rangers in their Smokey Bear hats who give talks on nature and lead campfire singalongs - especially the ones trained in law enforcement - are facing crime and violence.

A watchdog group last week warned that law enforcement work in national parks is the most dangerous in federal service.

"National Park Service officers are 12 times more likely to be killed or injured as a result of an assault than FBI agents," the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility reported. "National Park Service commissioned law-enforcement officers were victims of assaults 111 times in 2004, nearly a third of which resulted in injury. This figure tops the 2003 total of 106 assaults and the 2002 total of 98."

"The National Park Service has an astoundingly poor safety record for its officers," says Randall Kendrick, who represents park rangers as part of the Fraternal Order of Police. "If anything, these assaults against park rangers are undercounted. If there is not a death or injury, pressures within a national park can cause the incident to be reported as being much more minor than it is in reality, and it is not unheard of for an assault to go unreported altogether."

So why all this violence and crime in places that are supposed to be tranquil and relaxing? Alcohol or drugs are part of most violent incidents. Hideaway methamphetamine labs and marijuana fields in rural park areas (some of them run by drug cartels) and illegal aliens crossing through parks near the US- Mexico border are part of a growing crime scene.

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