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One ranger bears responsibility of patrolling Columbia's parks

Tuesday, April 27, 2010 | 4:44 p.m. CDT; updated 11:02 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, April 27, 2010
As the only park ranger in Columbia, Rosanna Arens is solely responsible for patrolling the city's parks. Although she finds pleasure in her work, she said she thinks the city could benefit from adding more park rangers.

COLUMBIA — As the city's only park ranger, Rosanna Arens shifts between her roles as a park ambassador and an enforcement officer.

She doesn't hesitate to direct dog-walkers to leash-free zones or hand out ranger badges to children attending the city's Tons of Trucks event, but she's also quick to prevent people from picking flowers in parks and to tell skaters younger than 16 to wear their helmets.

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"You want to make sure everyone's having an enjoyable time in the parks; they're there to unwind, have fun," Arens said. "But also I'm there to make sure they're not harming the natural resources in the parks."

Some days she picks up trash, helps with park maintenance and inspects playground equipment, among other duties.

"I have no typical day; every day is different," Arens said. "And that's what's so neat about the job."

She said she relies on two instincts: one as a mother and the other as an enforcement officer. Riding with Arens, this balance is obvious when she's talking to kids at the skate park or telling college students about the parks' special-use permit policy. Arens sometimes will offer warnings or lectures instead of issuing tickets or making arrests.

Arens, who became the city's first park ranger in 2004, said the job is not without its challenges. Specifically, she'd like to spend more time helping people enjoy the parks and wishes that rule enforcement didn't take up as much of her time.

Like Arens, the senior staff at the Parks and Recreation Department wants to increase the programming aspect of the ranger program, park services manager Mike Griggs said. That would mean adding educational tours about the natural areas of the parks, for instance.

Arens, a full-time parks department employee, said she feels restrained by the amount of time she dedicates to law enforcement. Her jurisdiction spans 2,989 acres of parks and 37 miles of trails in Columbia.

"I'm limited because I can't make it to all of the parks," Arens said. "It's frustrating that I can't be there for everybody."

For the city to offer educational programs in the parks, it would need to add at least one more ranger. But with most city departments trimming their staffs, Griggs said it's hard to justify asking the City Council to find money for another ranger.

Still, Griggs said he wants two or three more.

"Even if we had three rangers minimum," he said, "we'd at least be able to cover seven days a week then."

The price tag for one ranger's salary with benefits would be around $60,000 a year, Griggs said. There also would be the one-time cost of $30,000 to equip the ranger and buy another patrolling vehicle.

Arens reports to the same joint communications system that police officers do. While on duty, she handles all calls concerning the parks, which typically amount to roughly 25 percent of all police calls, Griggs said. The police department picks up the rest when she isn't on duty.

Before the city hired Arens six years ago, the police answered all park calls. More rangers would give police more time to patrol city streets.

"You always felt guilty about certain situations, like calling about somebody digging up plants," Griggs said. "It's important to us, but to the police in their overall picture, it's pretty minor."

That's Griggs' "selling point" to residents and to the City Council: Adding park rangers would help the police.

"It benefits both areas," Griggs said. "It helps the parks department and (each ranger) frees up about 25 percent of calls to the parks for the police."

The other good thing about rangers, Griggs said, is that they know how to handle park issues. In addition to Arens' 1,600 hours at MU's Law Enforcement Training Institute, the department also trained her to understand park-specific city ordinances, such as leash and campfire laws. Police officers don't receive this training.

Police officers are capable of handling park issues, department spokeswoman Jessie Haden said, but Arens' expertise and specific training allows her to act more efficiently. This concept is similar to the police department's geographic policing plan.

For example, Haden said, officers know it's illegal to steal a tree from a park, but they might have to find a specific park-related ordinance when making the arrest. Arens' parks experience means she's more familiar with what behavior normally occurs in each park, too.

At a Parks and Recreation Commission meeting earlier this month, commissioner Marin Blevins said there is a "good case" for adding a new ranger when the city makes progress on developing the southeast regional park. The new park comprises of A. Perry Philips Park and Gans Creek Recreation Area and is about the same size as Cosmopolitan Park.

Arens receives help from a part-time assistant ranger who works during the busy spring and summer seasons, but the position carries no enforcement ability. The assistant serves as a watchdog for Arens and police.

The parks department also fields more than 1,000 volunteers. Arens calls them her "eyes and ears" on the trails and in the parks. Many of them have Arens' cell phone number in case of emergencies.

That still doesn't give Arens enough time to relax her patrolling and engage in some of the more enjoyable aspects of the job.

"We've found that her time is more valuable doing the patrol and enforcement and regulation procedures," Griggs said.

Until the city agrees that there's a need for more park rangers, Arens will continue to be the lone ranger. She's OK with that for now.

"It is the probably the best law enforcement job you can have," she said.


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Comments

Michael Wilson April 28, 2010 | 9:17 a.m.

Thank you Rosanna for all you do. You do such a great job with a smile and positive attitude. Its been a great joy knowing you and working with you.

(Report Comment)
Jason Entermyer April 28, 2010 | 11:07 a.m.

Agreed! I think the park ranger does an excellent job...and I even got a ticket for parking on the grass! She told me she asked around to find out who owned the car to see about getting it moved, but when she couldn't find me, she had to write the ticket. I think that goes above and beyond the call of duty.

I've seen her take so much crap from some of these softball and soccer tournament parents, yet she stays calm and continues as if she's deaf. You got a good one P&R!!!

(Report Comment)

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