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Maybe all of Alaska's state, federal officials should pack heat?

Craig Medred
Environmental Protection Agency deputy Alaska director Ken Fisher fielded angry questions from Chicken gold miners at the remote community on Saturday. Loren Holmes photo

Why is it that the state and federal officials already packing sidearms in rural Alaska are at such great risk of harm that they also require body armor?

Nobody thinks about armoring the thousands of state and federal officials out there who carry no sidearm for protection.

For Alaska State Troopers, yes, armor makes some sense, given that they are often called to defuse violent situations that regularly involve guns. It would be foolish for them not to wear bulletproof vests when hostile confrontations are likely.

But National Park Service rangers, Environmental Protection Agency agents and others working off the road system? Are they really in more danger than any other federal or state employee out there?

Why aren't biologists armed? 

Unarmed, unarmored biologists with the Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the Bureau of Land Management and others who go into the Bush to do field work regularly come into contact with people who might politely be described as "half-a-bubble off'' -- or sometimes a full bubble.

Why aren't these biologists armed and armored?

Not only do they often encounter oddballs, the oddballs are often armed. If you're a biologist in Glennallen doing field work in the range of the Nelchina caribou herd in August and September, you're daily meeting hunters carrying high-powered rifles. "Sniper rifles" as the Outside media would be likely to describe these weapons.

If you're a ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service studying bears or berries along the Russian River in summer, you're sure to encounter people carrying powerful handguns, short-barreled shotguns ("riot guns" as the Outside media call them) or even semi-automatic rifles (which the Outside media usually call "assault rifles.") The Russian riverside trail is often clogged with people packing heat because of their largely unjustified fears of bear attack. Who knows what random federal employee they might decide to shoot?

Gone overboard? 

Do government leaders just not care about the non-law enforcement employees? Are government leaders simply throwing them to the wolves, so to speak? Or have we somehow gone a little overboard when it comes to policing in this country?

I grew up at a time when parents taught their kids that the policeman was their friend. That policeman didn't wear armor. He was usually a guy who tried to act friendly. Same for the local game warden, who discretely carried a handgun under his coat. If you didn't know him as the game warden, you wouldn't even have thought him armed, unless you were a very good observer.

It's not hard to spot armed guys these days. They're the ones in the vests with the tendency to go all SWAT at the drop of a hat. The mantra of 21st Century policing in the U.S. has become "overwhelming force."

When police aren't actually employing such force, they're making a show of how they have it in an effort to intimidate, as was the case with EPA inspections of small gold mines in the Chicken area. Some obviously think this is a good thing. "We all know that violence has not been a stranger in remote mining country in Alaska," argues Alaska attorney James McGowan.

Well, I'm sure there has been some violence in remote mining country at some time in recent years, but the only recent violence I can remember was pereptrated by federal agents. An old man got mad, swore at them and headed for shore in his riverboat, so they aimed their guns at him, chased him to the beach, then tackled and handcuffed him before hauling him off to jail 100 miles away.

It was an unusual incident in all regards because, as anyone who follows the news knows, violence most often happens in Alaska cities and villages, and it most often happens to civilians. But there is no denying there are risks to state and federal employees.

Armor them all

I have friends who work at the National Park Service headquarters in Anchorage. They should all be issued bulletproof vests tomorrow. There are lots of people in this state who detest the park service and might take a shot at a "parky" at any time.

Yes, I know, they're all pretty safe for most of the day in their locked-down bunker downtown, but they do have to come out to get to their cars to go home. And some of them have had their photographs in news stories which makes them identifiable and subject to ambush anywhere.

It's the same for some other federal officials when they come out from behind the armed guards at the federal building.

Let's armor them all. And while we're at it, maybe give them all sidearms, too. There's really no telling when they could be in danger or from whom. McGowan is right about one thing:  Violence is no stranger to Alaska, or elsewhere for that matter. Violence is endemic to the human species. It can strike anywhere at any time. Those of us who avoid it should consider ourselves lucky.

What was that nonsense once muttered by some guy named Lincoln at Gettsyburg? "A government of the people, by the people, for the people?"

We wouldn't want that, would we? We shouldn't expect government officials to be out there among the people unarmed and unarmored, exercising the "servant's heart" as former Gov. Sarah Palin likes to say, should we? Speaking of Palin, let's get her armored and armed. I hear from plenty of people who seem to hate her. If memory serves right, it seems one just went to jail for taking the hate to a threatening level.

The world is a dangerous place. No doubt about it.

Few know that better than state troopers. Fourteen of them have died in the line of duty in this state. They and their families deserve our gratitude. But it is also worth taking a look at these deaths.

Only four of those officers died due to gunfire. One died in an assault. One died of a heart attack. One died of exposure. And what killed most? Aircraft accidents.

Seven troopers have died in aircraft accidents, and the trooper who died of exposure perished after trying to come to the aid of the pilot of the plane in which he was flying when it crashed. Thus eight of those 14 deaths -- or almost 60 percent -- are attributable to aircraft accidents

Maybe, in the name of safety, the best thing we could for state and federal officials in Alaska is ban them from flying in small planes.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com