January 12, 2012, 9:00 pm
A Murder at Paradise
By TIMOTHY EGAN
PARKLAND, Wa. — The next time somebody mindlessly bashes a “federal bureaucrat,” as if the term itself were a parasitic disease, remember the bright young woman we said goodbye to here a few days ago: Margaret Anderson, a park ranger in a flag-draped casket.
In the West, most people live in sprawling urban centers not far from the public-land playgrounds that shape so many lives on the sunset side of the United States. When the worst of our world spills over into that other one, it is people like Anderson who hold the line.
She was asked to do so on New Year’s day, which dawned Technicolor bright on Mount Rainier, the 14,411-foot volcano that can get more snow in some years than any other place on earth. The biggest draw is Paradise, more than a mile above sea level at the high point of the main park road, named by an early visitor who gushed, “This must be what Paradise is like.”
On that first day of this year, an Iraq war veteran named Benjamin C. Barnes was steaming toward Paradise after a night of gunfire and partying. He blew past an initial stop where drivers were told to put chains on their tires. No one knows for sure what his intentions were, but it’s not unreasonable to speculate, as many in law enforcement have, that he might have fired on people enjoying the snow at Paradise.
Anderson was the daughter of a Lutheran minister, 34 years old, a mother of two little girls. She was the kind of park ranger familiar, by necessity, with flora, fauna and firearms. Just below Paradise, Anderson set up a road block.
“She put herself between the evil coming up the mountain,” said her father, the Rev. Paul Kritsch, “and the people at the other end.” The gunman opened fire on the ranger. At least two shots, one to Anderson’s head, the other to her torso, were enough to kill her. Barnes plunged into waist-deep snow. The next day he was found, dead of exposure and drowning, in the icy creek that drops quickly into a waterfall, the subject of countless pictures.
“Margaret Anderson is a hero not because she died,” said Jon Jarvis, director of the Park Service, “but because of why she died.”
You could not help asking that question — the why — as the horse at the center of the funeral procession passed by on a winter day, boots reversed in the stirrups of an empty saddle, in the military tradition. On both sides of the street were cops and park rangers, hundreds of them from all over the West and Canada, uniforms crisp, faces downcast.
It’s a terrible thing whenever anyone pays with her life while protecting the rest of us. But in the case of a park ranger, it’s exceedingly rare. In the nearly century-old history of the National Park Service, Anderson was only the ninth ranger to be killed in the line of duty. But five of those killings have occurred in the last 20 years.
This is a consequence, in part, of how the surging population has pushed toward the parks, making them more a reflection of society’s ills, clutter and excesses. When Rainier was established in 1899 as the nation’s fifth national park, this suburb where Anderson’s service was held, about 35 miles from Seattle, was mostly farms and forests. Now nearly three million people crowd the Puget Sound metro area. The park is an island of the natural world, a fragile 368 square miles surrounded by everything from strip malls to military bases.
The other point worth noting is about how selfless and valuable so many public employees are — especially those who work the parks, forests, deserts and wildlife refuges owned by every citizen. The hours are torturous, and the rewards inconsistent. Meth labs loom deep inside any number of national forests. A park ranger, at peak season, can have a workload that rivals that of New York City cop. And when the government shuts down because politicians don’t have the courage to find middle ground, it’s these public servants who are kept from the jobs they love.
“They don’t punch a clock,” said Pastor Kritsch of his daughter’s work and that of his son-in-law as well, for Margaret married another park ranger, Eric Anderson.
Rainier is a sanctuary, a living museum of the land without much of a human imprint. On most days, the big mountain is the embodiment of why national parks are called America’s best idea. You don’t expect a park to go on lockdown, as Rainier did briefly, with helicopters dropping coffee cups with handwritten warnings to hikers.
At the start of Margaret Anderson’s memorial service, the mountain was in hiding, as it is on so many winter days. By the time taps was played inside an auditorium packed with nearly 3,000 people, the mountain had come out, in all its glory — a fresh reminder of why rangers young and old are so passionate in defense of Paradise, and us.
Editors note: Mourning bands are authorized for uniformed employees to honor the life and service of Ranger Anderson until sunset on January 31, 2012.