"It's ridiculous," said Richard Macklin, a 14-year veteran of the Forest Service who works in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in eastern Tennessee. "We've lost more men this year than in the last three combined. We used to just have to deal with the occasional criminal gang or fights over prime camping spots. But this is different. This is war."
As could be expected, both sides blame the other for the escalation in violence. "Those 'Eco-Guerrillas' were hiding in the parks, launching attacks and then retreating to their precious sanctuary," Tennessee Big Game Association vice president Will McDonaugh said. "Our tax dollars support that park, too. We won't put up with those pansies hiding behind the wildlife they profess to be protecting."
A spokesman for the Smoky Mountain Wildlife Preservation Society, who asked not to be identified, said, "It's not enough for those butchers to roam the countryside at will. Now they're violating the sanctity of the last refuge of many species of wildlife. They must be stopped, and, regrettably, violence seems to be the only way to get through to them."
But it's the park rangers who get caught in the middle. "I get it from both sides," Macklin said. "The hunters want to know why I'm not kicking out the preservationists. And the wildlife protectors want to know why I'm not arresting the hunters. Both sides think the park is theirs. Well, they're both wrong. It's everybody's."
Macklin patrols the park in a stock USFS Ranger Special, along with his gunner, Sam Danko. Danko's a rookie in the Forest Service, but dabbled in off-road duelling before joining up. A love of nature was the reason he joined. "Politically, I agree with the preservationists," he said. "There are too many beautiful species of animals out here that would be blown off the face of the earth if all the hunters had their way. But killin' people is not the solution. It makes the wildlife folks just as bat as the hunters."
The Ranger Special is a new off-road vehicle, just recently developed to help park rangers deal with the heavier firepower that has moved into their territories. Macklin has made a couple of modifications of his own, too. "I added a few extra pipes and a flexible hose to the fire extinguisher system. That way, we can put out small fires, like unattended campfires, without having to call in special fire equipment. That's still a big part of a park ranger's job, though it seems like lately we've been busier with firefights than firefighting."
A recent experience of Macklin's is typical of the perils facing the park ranger of today. "We were just cruising along the Dyson ridge," Macklin remembers, "when all of a sudden all sorts of gunfire erupts to the south. Well, we head over there as fast as we can, and we burst out of a thicket in this little gully. Over to the right is a couple of hunter trikes, and one of 'em's got a laser. They're blasting away at four or five GreenSpacers dug in on the hillside to the left. The GreenSpacers are getting the worst of it, but the idiot with the laser is starting some fires. Danko uses his hand-held lobber to put a couple of smoke grenades on top of the space jockey, and that shuts down his laser, but good. All of a sudden, though, the others one's pumping recoilless rounds in our direction. Now, the Ranger Special is a nice little trike, but it can't take a whole lot in the way of heavy damage. So after the right side armor caves in and Danko's body armor takes some shrapnel, I decide it's time to get out. The kid's callin' for air support on the radio and firing the turreted Vulcan, all while I'm trying to turn some fresh armor to the big guns. All of a sudden, though, a LAW comes screamin' in from where the GreenSpacers were dug in, and our buddy loses his recoilless, and his turret. By the time the chopper shows up, the hunters are gone, and so are the eco-freaks. And about the only thing left of us was a quarter-inch of armor on one side. We were lucky we didn't run into a kid with a varmint gun on the way back, or we'd have been history."
Macklin figures the guerrilla war can't last. "Pretty soon, one side or another will decide it's more fun being home with the family than out blastin' each other to bits over some stupid principle. Maybe they'll both figure it out at the same time. And then, I can go back to bein' a park ranger." Macklin's sure it will turn out that way. "I just hope I live to see it."
USFS Ranger Special - X-hvy. trike, OR suspension, 3 OR solid tires, super trike power plant, driver and gunner, Vulcan in turret, 2 linked RLs (one right, one left), fire ext; 2 targeting computers, brushcutter. Armor: F16, R12, L12, B12, T10, U5. Accel. 5, HC 2 (3 off-road), 3,596 lbs; $17,422.
Richard Macklin is a Driver, Cyclist +2, Gunner +1, Handgunner +1. He has body armor, a heavy pistol, and a shotgun. Sam Danko is a Driver, Cyclist, Gunner +1, Handgunner, Runner +1. He has body armor, a hand-held grenade launcher loaded with smoke grenades, and a heavy pistol.