Out of the Park

Rangers Phil Bergman and Matt Khalar confront underage drinkers in a restricted area near Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

Phil Bergman’s office is like no other.

There are no walls. Instead, he is surrounded by 90 miles of stunning scenery, where endangered species fly above and waterfalls crash onto pristine beaches below. He is a California State Parks ranger, one of only seven that work in Big Sur.

In a nutshell, his job is to protect the parks from the people and the people from the parks. Shadowing his every move for a day reveals it’s not as Zen and cushy as some might imagine.

As Bergman slides into his white pickup truck to start his Saturday shift, he expects a tranquil day: It is partly cloudy with a light drizzle, an indicator that not a lot of people might choose the day to get outdoors.

He’s had his share of less-than-calming shifts. In three years as a park ranger, Bergman, 55, has lived through some experiences far different than what he saw in a long career as a graphic designer.

Bergman remembers accompanying a man, who had just fallen down a cliff in Julia Pfeiffer Burns after stepping on slippery ground – and whose injuries exposed bones – for about 40 minutes before paramedics arrived and airlifted him to a hospital. He recalls seeing a man caressing a white sheet that covered his deceased wife’s body, after she was killed by a runaway vehicle on Highway 1 as she walked along the side of the road. But his worst day, he says, came last year, when he saw a young woman fall to her death at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park while surveilling trails and campsites.

He knows the parks well and the spots that people like to access illegally. Every time he visits Julia Pfeiffer Burns, he visits the slippery slope, tucked behind some trees near a campsite, from which that woman fell last year.

“There’s a reason why places are closed off,” he says. “They are dangerous.”

Within 30 minutes of arriving at Julia Pfeiffer Burns and exploring trails, campsites and turning visitors away from closed-off areas, his attention shifts to a California Highway Patrol helicopter circling the beach. He worries the helicopter is scouring the area for a victim – a situation that unfortunately has become routine. A couple of minutes later, his radio beeps – and his face registers concern.

“I’m on the trail,” he blurts. “I will be there in two minutes.”

Bergman runs up a hill and into a roped-off area that overlooks a beach 100 feet below. He meet his colleague, Supervising Ranger Matt Khalar, who says an abandoned backpack on the trail led him to find four teenagers drinking in an illegal spot, where people have been injured before.

Khalar and Bergman whistle at the boys, who are a few feet down the slope, directly above McWay Falls – an alluring waterfall about 37 miles south of Carmel. The boys hike up, confronted with the rangers’ wrinkle-free uniforms and badges, facing a citation of more than $100 and a court appearance for underage drinking.

Social media has added an incentive for visitors to reach closed-off areas in search of an idyllic backdrop for their photos, Bergman says. But sometimes people can be careless in the pursuit of a good angle.

Bergman says he once saw a man trying to balance his toddler on a rock for a photo, except the toddler couldn't keep his balance and fell back on a hillside and began to slide. The father quickly snatched the toddler's foot and recovered him. "But then i saw the dad trying to balance the kid back up on the rock," Bergman says. So he intervened.

There are other tasks he attends to: spotting drones flying over federally- and state-protected waters, giving out park information to tourists, preventing hikers from treading into unpermitted areas, citing vehicles for illegal parking, or treating injured hikers.

In fact, Bergman deals with all of them on this particular Saturday.

He says most of the citations are handed out at Pfeiffer Burns. Last year, he says he gave out 100 citations there.

Since 2012, Bergman estimates attendance has gone up by 40 percent every year, meaning that in just four years, attendance in Big Sur has nearly tripled. As attendance increases, so do the problems. But staffing levels remain low, compared to what they were in the 1990s when there were 12 park rangers assigned to Big Sur, and attendance was not nearly as high.

"We are doing more with less, which stretches resources thin," Bergman says.

Considering he drives, on average, about 50 miles per day, responding to a medley of incidents including conflicts at saturates campgrounds, which have been booked for months, the workload is daunting.

But he says it is well worth it.

"When I have a bad day. I go back home and say to myself, 'You are one of seven people in the world who get to have this job,'" he says, "and I mean...what an office!"

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