Ranger’s service to park focuses on safety

SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK, Va.— Clayton Jordan’s job is not what usually comes to mind when pictures of park rangers are conjured up. As the deputy chief ranger of Shenandoah National Park, he’s been doing a bit more than answering folks’ questions over the last 14 years about what the best sites are to see during their visit.

His title falls under the umbrella of law enforcement rangers, who are there primarily for visitor protection. While the other type of rangers, interpreters, are interacting daily with people in the park’s various visitor’s centers, Jordan and his team might be rappelling off a cliff face in an attempt to save someone who has been lost in the backcountry.

Shenandoah National Park Ranger Clayton Jordan (Staff photo).

Jordan, who lives 20 miles south of the park with his wife and two children, didn’t quite grow up exploring the woods as a child.

He was raised on the North Shore of Long Island, New York, but always had the park life within him.

“When I was 10 years old, I decided—and this is right after the stage when every young boy wants to be a fireman, policeman—right after that, I wanted to be a ranger. I’d never met a ranger; in fact I never met a ranger before I became one.”

Jordan remembers his mother as always being supportive of what he wanted to do, but his father remained unsure.

“My father was waiting for me to grow up and come to my senses. He exposed me to understanding that I’d make more money in other fields…. He always expected me to come back [from this job] and say ‘I can’t make it on my own’ and I never did.”

He began his experience as a volunteer with the Student Conservation Association at Mount Rainier National Park near Seattle during the summer of 1982.

He continued working in Washington state over the next two summers, performing tasks primarily related to fire safety and prevention.

From there, Jordan’s interest in law enforcement for nationally conserved sites drove him to get certified as a law enforcement ranger at a police academy in Glencoe, Ga. Before settling permanently at Shenandoah, he’d built his resume at places like Cape Cod National Seashore, Fire Island National Seashore (New York), and Olympic National Park on Washington’s coastline.

At Shenandoah, some of his day-to-day tasks include: supervision and management of district rangers, budgeting, attending meetings, and making decisions for the park. But his favorite day of the week is Saturday.

“Saturday is when I get to go out into the field see what’s going on with other rangers, so I can remember why I joined this outfit in the first place,” said Jordan, smiling.

One of Jordan’s duties includes monitoring of natural resources, including wildlife management. This includes the occasional “problem” bear that may be loitering in front of a lodge, or it may mean having to relocate rattlesnakes from campgrounds back into the woods. He explained that there is what he considers to be an unnaturally high deer population in the park but noted that Shenandoah does not engage in the shooting of animals for population control.

More importantly for Jordan is the safety and well-being of visitors. And, he said, animal attacks do not appear to account for many of the trying moments he has had in his career.

In 1996, two college-aged women were reported missing in the park.

“That was a situation where we were very confident we were going to have a quick and easy outcome to it because these two women were experienced,” he said. “They knew the park…this is not the type of situation where something happens to them.”

Yet Jordan followed the standard operating procedures of establishing a relationship with the women’s families, putting an investigator to work on finding possible motives in their outside lives, and sending out a search team. Every incident that occurs in the park is solely under Shenandoah’s jurisdiction unless federal agents are needed.

“We ended up finding one of their dogs wandering around the backcountry [one week later],” said Jordan. “We narrowed down the search to that area and twilight that day…two of my rangers came across the campsite and the two women were found dead. They had been murdered. Obviously, [that was an] extreme low, and then I had to call up their dads and report that news.”

The park entered into a joint investigation with the FBI, one that turned out to be the largest investigation in National Park Service history. The case is still open, but there is a suspect waiting for an indictment (the same man that is currently serving a 12-year jail sentence for an attempted kidnapping in the park that happened just one year after this incident).

It is the balance of positive moments, however, that keep Jordan going every day.

During the summer of 2003, Jordan dispatched a team of what grew to be 275 searchers to look for an eight-year-old child who was missing for about 33 hours in the backcountry without food, water or proper clothing.

“You’re really looking for a needle in the haystack and there’s certainly a science for finding that needle,” said Jordan. “You start out very optimistic with the family, but I was starting to have a pretty bad feeling…. We were still at least two or three days away from me actually making the decision to suspend the search but I was starting to make that slow transition and kind of preparing them that there may not be a good outcome to that search.”

The logistics that go into such a search include feeding, transporting, and figuring out exactly where to place each searcher. Perhaps the most important part of the search is figuring out how to evaluate the information and clues that each person is bringing back—something Jordan spent days and nights doing as the incident commander during this particular event.

“Then one of our searchers…found the child, who was injured but not life threateningly injured,” he said. “And being able to go to the family and tell them we have a find is just one of those extremely rewarding moments in your career.”

As a daily reminder, Jordan looks at a picture of the family hanging on the wall in his office.

“I spend most of my time in meetings, behind a desk, with my nose in a computer— it’s not very ‘rangerly’ type work, what I do these days,” he said. “But occasionally I get out there and get to feel like a ranger, and that was one of those days when I realized I played a role (among a great number of people) that had such a tremendous favorable impact on this family.”

Jordan describes being involved in several searches for people who thought it would be humorous not to report back to their friends or families, or wanted to make it look like they were missing.

“We tend to call those bastard searches ‘cause while you’re out in the rain and the woods at night looking for somebody, somebody’s up in a bar somewhere and the first thing that comes to mind is ‘you bastard!’”

Much of the Shenandoah National Park that Ranger Clayton Jordan serves is heavily forested mountain wilderness (Photo by Tenille Lively).

Amidst his joking demeanor, Jordan admits that being a law enforcement ranger today is not as safe as it once was. In the past three years, there have been several murders of rangers in parks across the country.

The most recent case was a ranger in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, in Arizona, who was killed while involved in a manhunt for Mexican nationals who were trying to smuggle drugs across the border.

There is currently a study underway by the National Park Service to find out the causes of these problems. Jordan believes much of it relates back to budget cuts that all parks are now struggling with.

“It’s real disconcerting because backup for our rangers is getting less and less available,” he said. “Rangers are out there working on their own more and more. The backup is a concern because federal National Park rangers are assaulted more than any other federal law enforcement officer…You know, if you tune into ‘Cops,’ you hear an officer call for backup and in three minutes there’s six other officers around. Here it might be 40 minutes or more before a second ranger shows up to help you.”

In addition to not having enough resources for law enforcement, other areas of Shenandoah are struggling as well. Some of these include visitor center hours of operation, numbers of seasonal rangers employed in the park, and, in some cases, issues of life and death.

“It’s taking us longer to respond to heart attacks and other emergencies like motor vehicle accidents, and so emergency services is certainly hurting,” said Jordan.

The term “emergency services” has taken on new meaning for park rangers since Sept. 11, 2001.

If the national terror alert is raised to the orange level, rangers from Shenandoah have five hours to be in Philadelphia, manning posts at such potential terrorist targets as the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. In order to make this time limit, every ranger in Jordan’s unit has to have a packed bag sitting under his or her desk, ready to be out the door within an hour.

“The job of the ranger has changed significantly…the role has grown to include homeland security,” explained Jordan. “It’s created rangers that recognize the world has changed and have embraced that that is the way it is now.”

Jordan certainly has seen many things change in his 22-year career with the National Park Service, but he has made sure that his ups have outweighed his downs. Shenandoah, he contends, holds a special place in his heart.

“Every place has been uniquely different. Mount Rainier is in my blood perhaps more than any other place in part because it was my first park,” he said. “This place [Shenandoah] is very special to me because of the people, the bonds; it’s a close and special staff. Each park has had its unique adventures.”

And if he had it to do all over again?

“Well, I used to say when I started that it’s like acting. Your odds of succeeding were pretty poor. Nowadays it’s not as hard. I think it’s a great field. It’s worthy stuff, being asked to be stewards of the national and cultural treasures of the United States.”

Park Ranger Clayton Jordan serves the entire Shenandoah National Park, but spends his time at the Ranger Station based at Big Meadows, near Skyland.


















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