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Iowa park rangers have been evicted from government housing to avoid repair costs

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Iowa park rangers will no longer live in the parks they patrol. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources will evict rangers from government-owned housing to try to save $1 million on repairs for those homes. But critics say it will take longer for rangers to respond to emergencies such as accidents or power outages in state parks. We're joined now by Jason Bardsley, state trooper from Des Moines, who is also president of the State Police Officers Council that represents Iowa park rangers. Trooper Bardsley, thanks so much for being with us.

JASON BARDSLEY: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: What do you contend will be the effect of park rangers not being able to live in the park?

BARDSLEY: So one of the major issues that we have right now is just the understaffing of park rangers in state parks now. During high-peak seasons, they are there. Numerous times over the years where our rangers have been at the houses, people come to the houses for a variety of thing, from anything from a true emergency to something with their camping experiences, or they need help just in the park itself. By not having staffing there, if somebody needs something, then they're going to have to reach out to 911. We're not quite sure how that process is worked. It hasn't been explained. That's our concern.

SIMON: The Iowa Department of Natural Resources says that they don't see any benefit to having rangers live in the parks, that it's expensive to maintain those houses, and only a third of the parks have onsite housing for rangers anyway. I wonder how you'd respond?

BARDSLEY: Absolutely. The park housing has been a part of the state parks for approximately 50 years. Mostly - some of these houses were built back in the '60s. For the last 20 years, the Department of Natural Resources, in their own policy, has said the objective of the park bureau is to have at least one house in each park occupied full-time park employee. The citizens of Iowa like having that extra enforcement in their parks. We have some parks that have millions of people come through them, and removing park rangers from their state housing will make state parks less safe for Iowans.

SIMON: I doubt I'd have to tell you most state park systems don't have rangers with housing provided in the parks. I wonder if they've confronted the kind of problems you say Iowa would.

BARDSLEY: I cannot speak to other states on how they do with their housing. All I can say is for Iowa, 50-some years ago, the state deemed it as a responsibility to the state parks. And if you - this plan goes through and they remove them, are we going to be back here five, 10 years now trying to correct a problem that took place this year?

SIMON: May I ask, how much does a park ranger make?

BARDSLEY: A park ranger makes approximately mid-70s.

SIMON: And if they get free housing now but then have to pay for it, that's a big bite out of the budget, isn't it?

BARDSLEY: So with the rangers, if you were hired with the intention of living in that housing - some of these you're in a high-metropolitan area or a high-visited park. It's trying to find affordable living in that area. The cost of housing is soaring through the roof, let alone trying to find a house. And then you also have - some of these parks are out in - most of these parks are out in rural Iowa, where trying to find something even close to the house so the ranger can respond may not be physically possible. So you could be anywhere from 15, 20, 30 miles away from some of these parks. And now you have a response time of 30-plus minutes if a ranger gets called to get back to these parts and take a look and see what's going on.

SIMON: Jason Bardsley is president of the State Police Officers Council. They represent Iowa park rangers. Thanks so much for being with us, sir.

BARDSLEY: Thank you. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.