U.S. attorney upholds Olympic Park tickets; chief calls them 'absurd'

U.S. attorney upholds Olympic Park tickets; chief calls them 'absurd'
Olympic National Park Ranger Jennifer Jackson hands a ticket for "Violation of Closure (Government Shutdown)" to Leanne Potts of Sequim near Storm King Ranger Station at Lake Crescent over the weekend. The citation carries a $125 fine. (Photo by Kelly Sanders)
PORT ANGELES, Wash. - Two top North Olympic Peninsula law enforcement officials unsuccessfully lobbied federal authorities Tuesday to dismiss the $125 “violation of closure” tickets issued to people who visited the closed Olympic National Park over the weekend.

Clallam County Sheriff Bill Benedict and Port Angeles Police Chief Terry Gallagher separately wrote Jenny Durkan, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Washington, asking for the dismissal of citations.

They said Ranger Jennifer Jackson — working without pay since the partial federal government shutdown Oct. 1 — did not use “common sense” when she issued three citations in the Barnes Point lot at Lake Crescent on Saturday.

“It's absurd,” Gallagher told the Peninsula Daily News on Tuesday.

“There was absolutely no reason to issue citations to these people.”

Said Benedict: “Nobody is questioning the closure of the park.

“But to essentially issue a trespass citation to people for going to the park shows a lack of common sense and discretion,” he added.

Kelly Sanders, a Port Angeles sixth-grade teacher, was cited for driving past cones and signs declaring the park's closure when she took a group of international students for a hike to Marymere Falls in the park.

Her contingent included two students visiting Port Angeles from its Japanese sister city.

Tickets also were written to Leanne Potts of Sequim, who was planning to hike up the Mount Storm King Trail, and to the unidentified driver of a third car.

Both Sanders and Potts said they plan to challenge their tickets in U.S. District Court in Tacoma.

Rangers have contacted thousands of people in Olympic National Park during the 15 days it has been closed, said Olympic National Park spokeswoman Barb Maynes on Tuesday.

They have written five citations in that time, including the three issued over the weekend, she said.

The other two were written to a pair of bicyclists in the Quinault area who had been asked to leave the park several times, she said.

Durkan, in an email response to Sheriff Benedict, defended the ranger's actions, saying those ticketed drove past signs and cones that declared the park closed.

“But when they purposely decide to ignore the law (and the signs and the cones), there are consequences,” Durkan wrote.

“I never like it when a trooper gives me a ticket. But I pay it. And I know it is not his fault, but mine.”

Park officials also backed the ranger's decision to issue citations.

“We support the way the ranger was doing her job,” Maynes said.

The “violation of closure” regulation is included in federal code, Maynes said. It is typically used when areas of the park are closed due to mudslides, fallen trees or washed-out roads.

The main sticking point expressed by both Benedict and Gallagher was the ranger's choice to issue the tickets.

“What this is really about is the Park Service, whether this is ordered from on-high or not, using incredibly poor discretion,” Benedict said.

“If one of my deputies was to abuse his discretion to that extent, I would at least have to have some counseling with them.”

Police officers have the option of issuing a citation or not in any misdemeanor case, Gallagher said.

“I don't have a problem with the ranger enforcing the closure,” he said. “But the choice to issue citations was entirely discretionary.”

Since park rangers are responsible for all emergencies and criminal activity within the nearly-million acre park, they have the discretion to issue tickets, Maynes said.

“In order to have reached the point at which the ranger contacted them, they would have had to have driven past the barricades off the highway and gone less than 100 yards, where they would have seen three more barricades,” Maynes said.

Sanders and Potts told the PDN on Monday that the barricades were parted enough to allow cars inside.

They also said they were confused by the wording on the closure signs, which read: “Because of the federal government shutdown, this National Park Service facility is closed.”

Both said the term “facility” led them to believe the restrooms and buildings were closed, but not the park's trails.

The two also said that other cars reportedly drove into the parking lot Saturday while the tickets were being written.

Maynes said rangers have been frustrated in having to keep people out of the park.

“Our rangers went into this work because they want to help visitors enjoy the park,” she said. “Having to ask people to leave the park is the opposite of what any park ranger wants to do.

“Unfortunately, right now the park is closed, so their job now is to enforce the closure.”

Since the shutdown, the park's roster of employees has been reduced to a skeleton crew, Maynes said.

They are working without pay.

Durkan said federal employees' last paychecks were half what they would normally be because they were paid only for the week prior to the shutdown.

“The next pay check will be zero — unless Congress acts,” Durkan wrote in her email. “I know of no other law enforcement agency in the country that has its officers working every day under those conditions.”

Said Gallagher: “I know they're not getting paid.

“But I don't see what that has to do with deciding whether or not you're going to write somebody a ticket.”

Durkan defended rangers in her response, saying those who enter the closed park are potentially taking the attention away from rangers who may need to search for or rescue other people in the park.

“Often, those that drive around the cones or to enter a closed park are the same folks that get lost, fall down a slope or need other services,” she wrote.

Benedict countered, saying the Marymere Falls trail is a “benign,” relatively flat, easy hike.

“People don't hurt themselves on that trail,” he said.

He also said he has noticed the area is lightly patrolled when the park is open.

“In the probably-50 times I have been there, I have never seen a park ranger in that parking lot,” he said.

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The Peninsula Daily News is a media partner of KOMO News. Read the original Daily news story, with text of the officers' letters and Durkan's reply »