TRAVELERS NATIONAL PARK – An alleged tasing incident involving a houseboat rental operator in Ash River and reports of overzealous law enforcement here by park rangers have commercial operators in the area concerned that these actions are creating a atmosphere that will drive future customers away unless something is done quickly to remedy the situation.
That was the message nearly two dozen Crane Lake resort owners, business associates and citizens had for VNP Superintendent Bob DeGross last week during a July 21 public forum in Crane Lake Chapel, the latest in a series of four such meetings organized by DeGross to gather feedback from residents of gateway communities on flood operations and other park issues.
After hearing DeGross’ opening statements about the flooding situation, it was clear that the attendees at the Crane Lake meeting were far more concerned about “other issues.”
“I want to address the elephant in the room,” said the resort’s former owner, Jim Janssen. “My question is what has changed as there seems to be a lot of friction with the ranger staff and guests in particular. There are many reports of agents not treating guests with respect. They are a bit pejorative. Aren’t they supposed to be the park’s ambassadors? Why do we harass customers? I understand the need to stop boats and I understand the need to do security checks, but don’t rangers want to be treated with respect? It seems like a real problem.
Janssen said he himself was arrested a few weeks ago.
“I got arrested on Namakan. This is the first time in 30 years that I’ve been arrested, not that I should have been. I didn’t do anything, they just arrested me. But my question is, does the change concern the head of the rangers? Because it didn’t happen (before) at all.
The “Chief Ranger” referenced by Janssen is Chief Ranger Josh Wentz, who arrived at VNP last November with 14 years of NPS experience in eight national parks and recreation areas under his belt. Wentz had attended past town hall meetings, but DeGross said he was unable to attend the Crane Lake meeting due to a personal issue.
Participants were courteous with their remarks, but their emotional intensity was evident as they took turns registering their frustrations and concerns about the VNP’s law enforcement activities. Here is a sample of the questions raised during the hour-long meeting:
A culture of unwarranted and excessive stops, based on customer reports.
Guests who have been stopped several times in their boats by rangers during short visits to the lake.
Rangers acting rudely or in a degrading or belligerent manner towards guests.
Fear of reprisals among guests and business people if someone makes a formal complaint about being arrested or about the conduct of the rangers.
Concern that Wentz is responsible for reviewing law enforcement complaints rather than having an independent committee including community representatives to do so.
A lack of transparency from park officials on law enforcement activities, particularly in relation to the Tasing incident.
Creating a hazard by placing three buoys in a navigable channel outside park waters.
Rangers interfering with resort staff when trying to handle a situation involving their guests and boats.
Guests who cannot return.
The park risks developing a negative reputation for excessive law enforcement activity which will negatively impact business.
“We know Crane Lake is on board for a welcome center, and I have to be honest, there are people in town saying we don’t want them here if that’s how they’re going to treat the guests. ” says Janssen.
As the hour-long litany of concerns, complaints and suggestions for improvement unfolded, DeGross declined to comment on specific incidents or personnel, but actively responded to general concerns expressed by the group.
“Essentially, we’re going to be talking about high-level stuff here and comments like that are the things I want to hear,” DeGross said. “And I will work with staff, because the aim is for all staff to work professionally and respectfully with visitors and businesses. We’ve heard that in the other meetings as well, and that obviously means we have to look at this. what we are doing and what we can improve.
Drake Dill told DeGross that it was his responsibility to set the conditions described by the participants.
“You’ve got a whole generation of grudges that’s lived in this community and in Ash River and all the surrounding communities that have finally warmed to the idea that this (VNP) is going to work,” Dill said. “Attendance is up, people are happy. It’s good. But your enforcement actions come directly from you. You have families taking advantage of your park and you tasered an innocent. This must stop. It’s garbage. We can do better than that. »
What most of the meeting attendees know about the taser incident, and what the rest of the audience knows as well, must have come by word of mouth. VNP officials have been keeping tabs on any official information about meeting earlier this season with Ebel Houseboat owner Justin Ebel. No statement or press release was issued and no details were provided by DeGross at the meeting. Several subsequent requests from the Timberjay were met with the message to contact the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Minnesota.
But there was one person at the meeting who knew as much as anyone, Katy Ebel, Justin’s mother. As the meeting was about to end, Ebel gave a closing statement which included some details.
“I attended all the meetings that were organized in each of the gateway communities. Many of you know who I am. I am Justin Ebel’s mother,” she said. “He was the one who was tasered not once but twice. He was pulling a boat off the rocks in the wind, and he was trying to bring that boat back to Sullivan’s Bay or bring it back to our base to check if it was there were holes in the pontoons. He was stopped and told they were getting on the boat. He told them he wanted to do some safety first. He wanted his customers to go back at least in Sullivan’s bay if not at the dock because he checks every boat that goes on a rock to see if it’s damaged or not. This boat has suffered damage. Now this boat they wanted to board. They don’t have never done it.
“Justin is a good boy,” Ebel continued. “He met you personally, Bob in the winter, and said he wanted to meet the rangers. He also met you and Josh Wentz at a houseboat operators meeting and asked to meet the rangers. Now guess what? Justin met the rangers. That’s all I have to say.”
But earlier in the meeting, others had things to say about it, including Rob Scott. He questioned the lack of transparency about the incident and the actions taken by the park to address it, saying the lack of information has created a serious problem with people’s perception of the park.
“You have law enforcement as a sort of banner in Voyageurs National Park right now, and it shouldn’t even be on the flagpole,” Scott said. “What the hell is this law enforcement thing? You don’t have a bunch of mafia Chicago people hiding here. You have tourists, people with kids and I’m assuming, because I haven’t seen anything different, that this person who did the tasing is still meaningfully employed, not on furlough, not in jail, just doing their assigned job in the park. This tells outsiders looking at him that he hasn’t done anything wrong.Tasing action is not a normal thing.
Scott said the situation gave the park a bad name. “This negative perception makes people who want to come to the park to escape all the challenges of law enforcement issues in the Twin Cities or other urban areas thinking twice about coming. This is all a systemic extension of law enforcement in Minnesota, disguised in a National Park uniform, and you have to take care of that perception. In my years in the military, if something like that happened, the first thing you do is put that on the marquee that you’re above, that you handle the situation,” Scott added. “I haven’t seen anything in the press, I haven’t seen any emails at this level of action. I’m talking about a park ranger who tasered an individual twice. You can’t say ‘We can’t talk about it.’
Steve Bergerson relied on Scott’s remarks.
“People were coming here and they were going to the park to relax, like you said, get away from… whatever the city was,” he said. “This year, for the first time, it looks like people are walking into the park walking on eggshells, rightly or wrongly. Something needs to be done to correct that perception.
DeGross again stressed that feedback from all four meetings would be carefully considered and that he would release a follow-up summary around Aug. 15 that also includes corrective action plans that the park would attempt to implement. But he also said he works with staff after each meeting to review feedback received and discuss what they can do to make changes.
“I feel like the meetings went well,” DeGross said after the meeting. “Obviously there is frustration and that frustration is probably compounded by some recent incidents, as well as the stress people are going through from the flooding and two years of COVID. I hope residents , visitors and business owners know they can contact us at the park to discuss these frustrations and hopefully find a way forward to resolve any issues that may be identified through this.