Paul Ehrhardt of Oregon looks like a cop, standing in his blue uniform, the silver badge on his chest glinting in the sunlight. A .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol is holstered on a thick black belt. But Ehrhardt isn’t a cop, the Los Angeles Times says, and neither are the 10 other members of his group, which organized a year ago. The group – a motley collection of gun hobbyists, volunteer firefighters, outdoorsmen and ex-military men and their wives – calls itself the Oregon Rangers Assn. Their self-appointed mission is to help keep law and order in the forests.
They plan to recruit more members and to encourage other citizen groups around the state to patrol their own regions. No government agency officially recognizes them, and neighbors call them vigilantes. Twice a week, the rangers conduct armed patrols, usually in pairs, driving and hiking on back-country roads in the lush mountains on either side of town. “You’re either part of the solution,” Ehrhardt says, “or part of the problem.”
The problem, says fellow ranger Bryon Barnes, is there’s “a whole lot of woods and not a whole lot of people patrolling them.” The rangers say Oregon’s forests are being desecrated by vandals and garbage dumpers, pot growers and poachers, and there aren’t enough police to stop them. The rangers’ goal is to deter the bad guys by simply being present in the forests and, when appropriate, to report crimes to authorities. Nothing remarkable has happened in this first year, but if things should get ugly, they’re prepared. The group’s arsenal includes two AR-15 rifles, six pump-action shotguns and numerous hunting rifles and handguns.
“They have no authorization to be doing what they’re doing,” says Doug Huntington of the federal Bureau of Land Management, which manages most of the public land patrolled by Ehrhardt’s group. “They give the impression they’re law enforcement and they’re not. When people arm themselves and go into the woods to enforce the law without any real authority, we can’t condone it.” Oregon law allows people to carry firearms on public lands, and every member of the group has a concealed weapons permit and is certified to be an armed security officer.
“We have a rather comprehensive invitation to be preoccupied with patriotism and domestic security right now,” says Richard Mitchell of Oregon State University. “It shouldn’t surprise us if some people take matters into their own hands. They’ll see it as a form of community service.”