Park Rangers to the Rescue

by: Posted on: February 25, 2013

Editor’s Note: A sneak peak at a thrilling novel set in Yellowstone that cannot escape the reality of our underfunded National Park System.


America’s National Park System is at a crossroads. The ongoing Congressional squabble over the pending budget sequestration threatens to cut hundreds of millions from an already strapped National Park Service. The budget knife, like the sword of Damocles, has hung over and on occasion fallen on the park service, making it extremely difficult for the agency to preserve and protect our national heritage.

When I set out to write the novel Unleashing Colter’s Hell, a political thriller set in Yellowstone National Park, I wanted it to be a fun, roller-coaster story about a terrorist attack on the park. The story’s hero is a single park ranger named Grayson Cole.

Prior to writing my novel, I had read countless James Bond thrillers. No matter what the situation, Bond always defeated the bad guy. He enjoyed the backing of MI5 and an endless array of tools and gadgets to do his job. Whenever Bond got in a tough spot he always seemed to have just what was needed to achieve success.

But having infinite resources or just the right tool is seldom the case in real life, especially for the National Park Service. Park rangers are tasked with protecting not only the country’s nearly 400 national park sites, but also the more than 280 million people who visit the parks each year. No easy task, made all the more difficult with the park service’s extremely tight budget.

The park service operates on about $2.5 billion per year. That sounds like a lot of money but its actually only 1/14 of 1 percent of the entire federal budget. Or, put another way, the park service runs Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Gettysburg, Mount Rushmore and many, many more parks, on roughly what the Defense Department spends for a single Virginia Class nuclear submarine.

Yet, America’s small investment in its national parks produces significant returns for our country. National Parks are huge economic engines that pump more than $31 billion into state and regional economies. That spending supports more than a quarter of a million jobs.

Making matters worse, Congress’ continuing failure to address budget sequestration could cut another 5 to 8% from the park service’s budget. In fact, just this past month Park Service director Jon Jarvis sent a memo to park mangers calling upon them to prepare for across the board cuts. Here in the northwest Mount Rainier and Olympic will have to shave more than $1.2 million from their operations. If these cuts go through, park managers across the country will be confronted with Solomon like choices. Mass staff layoffs, reduced visitor center hours, closure of sections or entire parks could all be on the table.

I wanted my characters, specifically Grayson Cole, to operate under these real life constraints. How much suspense could be built if the lead character had infinite resources and tools to fight his enemies? I believe a more suspenseful, thrilling story is woven around a ranger who not only fights maniacal bad guys, but does it while stretching the limits of his available resources. Cole is Yellowstone’s Chief Ranger and with his contingent of roughly two dozen officers, he is responsible for a place that is larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined. That’s equivalent to one ranger for an area the size of San Francisco. He drives beat up government vehicles over cratered roads, rather than high performance sports cars on the autobahn. He has limited back up and lives in dilapidated Eisenhower era housing.

My novel is pure fiction. Thankfully, I am unaware of any terrorist plot to ignite the Yellowstone super volcano and destroy the park and country. However, the park service’s budget problems are real and have the potential to damage our park system and the country almost as much as a super volcano eruption.

Grayson Cole will take on the terrorists. To find out how he does this pick up a copy of Unleashing Colter’s Hell. However, Cole can’t save the parks on his own; he needs you to take on Congress. Contact your elected officials and urge them to hold the line on further budget cuts.  Together we can pass on a better park system.


Sean Smith is a former Yellowstone ranger and writes National Park thrillers from his home in Western Washington.  Follow him on Twitter: @parkthrillers or on Facebook:

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