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Missing in Action: How a Backcountry Ranger With 28 Years Experience Disappeared

Did High Sierra ranger Randy Morgenson succumb to depression or disaster?

SEKI’s senior science adviser, David Graber, considered Randy the parks’ most enthusiastic and dedicated expert for all things backcountry. He felt something was amiss when he saw Randy briefly at park headquarters at Ash Mountain.

They shook hands, and Graber–who had always counted on Randy to offer his passionate, curmudgeonly opinion on how the NPS wasn’t doing enough to preserve his beloved backcountry–brought up an ongoing wildlife study they had been compiling for years and a current study on blister rust, a fungus that was spreading through the park, infecting and killing white pines. Randy didn’t even entertain the topic.

“Why bother?” he said with a shrug.

Graber at first assumed that this blasé response had something to do with Randy’s discontent with the park service, which was no secret. In the past, Randy had conveyed his feeling that higher-ups in the NPS didn’t appreciate backcountry rangers’ duties–that the rangers, like the backcountry itself, were being increasingly overlooked. “Out of sight, out of mind” was a popular cliché among the veteran rangers, who joked that they put up with their second-class-citizen status because of the excellent pay.

After covering bills, gear, food, and the gas it takes to get their vehicles–old Toyota pickups, rusting Volkswagen vans, and the like–to park headquarters, where they’d sit and leak oil till October, maybe a few dollars would trickle into a savings account. They certainly weren’t in it for the money. It is an accepted truism that rangers are paid in sunsets.

In truth, there was one financial benefit backcountry rangers could count on. All rangers with federal law-enforcement commissions are eligible for the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program, enacted by Congress in 1976 “to offer peace of mind to men and women seeking careers in public safety and to make a strong statement about the value American society places on the contributions of those who serve their communities in potentially dangerous circumstances.” The law offers a “one-time financial benefit paid to the eligible survivors of a public safety officer whose death is the direct and proximate result of a traumatic injury sustained in the line of duty.” In 1976, the amount was $50,000; in 1988, it was increased to $100,000.

After 28 years of summer service for the NPS, this was the only employment benefit for which Randy was eligible. Of course, he would have to die first.

As Graber’s conversation with Randy progressed, he interpreted the ranger’s apathy and uncharacteristic lack of passion as depression. “His eyes were blank,” says Graber, “but I knew how to push Randy’s buttons–he’d lobbied for meadow closures his entire career. I never knew anybody who took a trampled patch of grass more personally than Randy. And wildflowers–he was a walking encyclopedia. You could always get him going about flowers, so I brought that up, something along the lines of, ‘Nice and wet up high, good year for flowers.’

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