Death Valley National Park issued a moratorium on new permits for sporting events in December 2013.
Since then, the Park Service’s representatives have been interviewed by the Los Angeles Times. Kathy Billings, the superintendent of the Park, has been quoted as saying that she receives over 600 permit applications per year – yet in the newspaper, she made special mention of The Darth Valley Challenge: “ Billings, who has been at her post for less than a year, has told the operator of the Badwater run and others that the park is receiving an increasing number of applications for special athletic events. One man who has completed a mile run in a Darth Vader costume during the peak heat of summer has said he wants to obtain a permit for a more organized event. It would include other “Star Wars”-costumed runners and be called the “Darth Valley Challenge.”
Ordinarily I might not see anything suspicious in this. Yet last year, I was harassed twice by a Park Ranger with the National Park Service. On completing the run, this gentleman approached me in an aggressive fashion and asked if I wanted my ticket “now or later”. I asked what he meant. He told me that he wanted to give me a ticket “for stupidity” – the criminalization of which I had not been aware.
I attempted to file a complaint but the staff at the visitor center persuaded me not to: this Ranger had been instrumental in coordinating two airlifts in two days, and was tired and – I assume – worried about my safety.
The next day I went for a solo run on the West Side road. I intended to run a mile, then back to the car, repeating until I got tired or bored. After a short while I noticed that I was being followed at a distance of around a quarter-mile. I’m a big guy, but there’s nothing out there. It was disconcerting.
Eventually, having run a mile, I waited for the same Ranger to catch up to me. When he did, I asked if I could help in any way. He looked at me, then said “When you collapse and die, I just want to know where your body is rotting.” He went on to lecture me about the amount of water I was carrying. I remained calm and friendly, and explained my plan – he told me my plan stunk, and that I was going to die out here.
So do I expect the Darth Valley Challenge to get a fair hearing from the Park Service? Given these incidents, and Ms. Billings’ use of the run to make a point about why she has temporarily ceased issuing permits, it’s hard to imagine.
That being said, I hope that my continued emphasis on safety, advocacy for the Park, and respect when dealing with its employees will eventually win them over.
As for the moratorium itself, I understand the need for certain rules – and self-policing is also important. I hope that the Park and large events such as the Badwater Ultra are able to work this out so that many athletes in the future can continue to safely enjoy this beautiful landscape.