By Katia Protsenko
Affectionately dubbed the "Lone Ranger," John Wallace has been patrolling over 2,000 acres of Santa Cruz public parks alone for the past five years. But the "Lone Ranger" will soon be getting some partners to help him keep the city’s parks, levies and open spaces clean and safe.
Last November, Santa Cruz residents passed Measure H to permanently raise the city sales tax to 8.5 percent. Some of the extra money will be used to repair public roads, but the bulk of it will go toward the Department of Parks and Recreation to improve the condition of public parks.
The city plans to hire more park rangers, and the Santa Cruz Police Department is hiring personnel whose sole function will be to patrol and maintain law enforcement in the city’s parks.
"It’s been a creative challenge, figuring out ways to get compliance [in the parks] and to educate people by myself," Wallace said.
However, according to Zach Friend, Santa Cruz Police Department spokesperson, there will be plenty of help on the way soon.
"We plan to hire four CSOs [Community Service Officers] and a police sergeant," Friend said of the parks team that will be added with the increased funding. "The condition of the parks has been degrading. There have been illegal activities and environmental degradation."
Wallace points to narcotics as the main reason behind the parks’ deterioration.
"Drugs changed the culture of those areas," Wallace said, in reference to the growing popularity of methamphetamine. "People should come to the parks and enjoy them, not worry about drug deals."
Wallace added that illegal homeless camps have also sprung up in many parks, but believes that issue can never be fully eliminated.
"Getting to know the homeless, I have a lot of empathy and respect for them. [Being a ranger] is a fantastic learning experience, and has made me appreciate what I have," he said.
Santa Cruz resident Debra Botts will be relieved to see an increased security presence in city parks, many of which she finds dangerous.
"I like the combination of the different kinds of parks, and that so many of them are in close proximity, but I can’t go to any of those places after dark," Botts said, adding that she would also like to see the money go toward drug and gang prevention.
Wallace believes that added personnel will improve safety and enhance overall park-going experience.
"The addition of rangers and CSOs will secure all areas. The ranger program will be more diversified," he said. "They will show trails and talk about the history and wildlife of the area.
"Our goal as rangers is to keep the people safe, so they can enjoy the natural habitat," Wallace said. "It’s beautiful, with a lot of historical value, plants, and wildlife."