Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is a 1,000-square-mile wilderness that straddles three counties and is a popular destination for wildflower enthusiasts, hikers and campers.
It's also severly unstaffed.
Last year, there were eight to 10 rangers on staff, plus two supervising rangers and a superintendent.
Today, there are no supervising rangers. The superintendent position has been eliminated. And there are only four rangers patrolling the largest park in California.
The lack of coverage for the 600,000-acre desert, coupled with the exodus of a number of rangers after the suicide of a beloved ranger, has led former park employees to sound the alarm.
They say their warnings are not being taken seriously enough in Sacramento. State park officials said there are staffing shortages at all the parks, not just Anza-Borrego, and they are trying to fill the vacancies.
The retired park workers fear those hiring efforts may come too late.
"People will die," said Mark Jorgensen, a
resident who was the superintendent of the park for many years before retiring in 2009.
"There is no doubt in my mind that people will get themselves in trouble out there in the desert this summer," he said. "Under a full staff, you would have people patrolling the entire park by vehicle and aircraft. They are the ones that discover people in trouble."
Not long ago, rangers would be assigned specific 80,000-acre parts of the park to patrol. But with only four rangers now working (one of them is a pilot), Jorgensen and others say huge swaths of Anza-Borrego are being ignored.
"If you wait until some loved one at home says, 'my son was due home yesterday,' and it's 118 degrees out there, your son probably died yesterday or last night," Jorgensen said. "If you wait for dispatch in Perris, Calif. to call down here and say we got a cell phone call from a person stuck out in the desert, then you're just reacting and your not going to come in contact with those people in trouble on a timely basis."
Mike Wells, a former Colorado District District Superintendent who oversaw operations at Anza-Borrego and the other parks in the district including Palomar and Cuyamaca Rancho before his retirement eight years ago, was a young ranger in Anza-Borrego for four years in the late '70s and early '80s.
"During that time,we had nine patrol rangers and two seasonal rangers assigned to patrol (specific districts) in the park," Wells said. "There were two supervising rangers, a chief ranger and an area manager. They were all peace officers. There were 14 'badged' employees there. And I'm guessing that the visitation was well less than half of what we're getting now."
Wells said he fears there are parts of the park that don't get regularly patrolled.
"Rangers now go to where the visitation is heaviest," he said. But there are people in other parts of the park and those areas are not being as well covered."
A spokeswoman for the California Department of Parks and Recreation, Gloria Sandoval, did not dispute the current staffing levels at Anza-Borrego in written responses to questions.
"Hiring diverse, qualified and talented people to help us serve our visitors and take care of the nation's largest state park system has been a challenge," Sandoval said. "All 280 park units have staffing shortages."
She said Sacramento has made arrangements for four new officers who graduated from the department's training academy this past week to join the Anza-Borrego staff in the fall.
Recently, the department launched a new recruitment effort called "Live the Parks Life" designed to reach potential candidates who are "reflective of California's diverse population." Because of attrition rates and a desire to attract more diversity to the professional classifications, Sandoval said, initial efforts are focused on the recruitment of lifeguards and rangers.
She also said Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed budget includes funding for fixing state parks.
The 2018-19 budget allocates $1.5 billion to the park system, up from $846 million last year, and creates 54 new peace officer positions statewide.
Kathy Dice, who retired last year from her Anza-Borrego superintendent position, said public safety concerns are real, "but for me it's about damage to the resources.
"The park is losing some of its pristine qualities because of the lack of presence out there in terms of staffing," she said.
Anza-Borrego features more than 500 miles of dirt road, 125 miles of paved roads, and it has always been a battle for the rangers to keep visitors in line. Dice said people will create new roads or hiking trails which, if left untreated, will become established areas where people will drive and hike through sensitive areas.
She said things such as ground fires and fireworks violations are not being addressed simply because there aren't enough rangers to monitor the activity. Signs are going unrepaired, she said.
"I know the existing staff is very dedicated and working really hard," she said. "But government is very slow to overcome its shortcomings.Our hiring practices are archaic and very slow," she said.
Dice said the department's leadership seems to be lacking. "It's like they are frozen in place in terms of what they want state parks to look like," she said.
The departure last year of a number of rangers was preceded by the death of Ranger Steve Bier, a highly respected and well-liked employee. It is not known why Bier killed himself in March 2017. Many of the rangers who left or transferred out were involved in the search and discovery of his body and Jorgensen said it had a major impact on the morale of the staff.
"These people travel around on patrol with the thought of him every day," Jorgensen said. "You can't go anywhere without thinking of him. When he died last year, it was a tremendous shock. He was an icon of the staff."
Living in the desert can be tough and the isolation, combined with the sometimes grim work that must be done, takes its toll.
Four rangers, two married couples that had recently purchased homes in Borrego Springs, decided to leave Anza-Borrego in the months after the suicide.
His widow, also a ranger, turned in her badge and gun to take an administrative position. Others retired. None of those position have been filled.
Jorgensen, Dice, Wells and others all wrote letters to Sacramento last fall detailing their concerns about what was happening.
"The remaining rangers and maintenance folks have shown amazing resolve to do the very best they can under the circumstances, but the current situation has reached the level of being unbelievable and ridiculous," Jorgensen wrote.
Sacramento never replied.
"Not one of us got a single word," Jorgensen said. "What's the message in that? Nobody cares. Our park system is going to hell in a hand basket. I really believe that....what I've seen is a total loss of passion and love for the park system."
"I'm disappointed that the current generation of park staff and park leadership is not interested in our experience and our knowledge and our history," added Dice.