At 6:53 p.m. on August 12, at the end of FIBO (Fire Island Black Out) weekend, I wrote the following email to Fire Island National Seashore (FINS) Superintendent Chris Soller:
Dear Superintendent Soller,
I had the pleasure of meeting and chatting with Fire Island National Seashore Rangers Swindle and Mezzera, earlier this evening, as they were patrolling some of the innermost paths of the Meat Rack on foot, with a stated intent of separating and ticketing anyone they found having sex. They offered as the reasons for their presence the same old tired justifications--someone might be having a heart attack, someone walking though with children might happen upon some sexual scene, someone might be littering--while primarily succeeding in intimidating people, who are peacefully walking in the woods, by virtue of their patrol in official uniform.
When I pointed out to the Rangers that some of us, who feel as proprietary and protective of the woods as they claim to be, take care of the Meat Rack, voluntarily taking on such a task, as I do, of putting up trash bags and taking them down and out and replacing them when they're full, Rangers Swindle and Mezzera did not hesitate to tell me that 1) my hanging trash bags in the woods was technically illegal and 2) that a particular path leading toward a swamp, which I don't see a need to clean every single week, was filthy. Although they did not see fit to clean it up themselves, you can assure them that I've taken care of picking up all the litter on the offending path.
To sum up, surely there is some better use for the time of your Rangers, who are, after all, paid out of public tax money, including mine, than patrolling the most obscure corners of the Meat Rack with intent to intimidate members of a historically disenfranchised population, in what are far from public places.
I hope that what happened in the woods today did not signal that we are going to have a very unpleasant remainder of the season. I hope we have a peaceful August and September and I am sure that you hope so, too.
Editor, Fire Island Q News.com
Columnist, Fire Island News
Ranger Swindle volunteered that he had been on duty here for 10 years. Ranger Anna Mezzera, I learned in a later meeting with ranger supervisors, is new and was being shown these paths as part of her orientation.
On August 12, at 10:03 p.m., I received the following automated response from Superintendent Soller:
I will be out of the office starting 08/09/2012 and will not return until 08/21/2012.
I will respond to your message when I return.
The President of a Cherry Grove organization, whom I had cc’d on these emails, suggested that I forward my email of the 12th to FINS Chief Ranger Lena B. Koschmann, who has been in her position here since January, and I received this response from her on August 16, the same day that I had written to her:
I think that this is a conversation best held in person, rather than by e-mail. I would welcome the opportunity to sit down with you and discuss your concerns. Let me know when you might be available to meet, and I'd be happy to sit down with you.
Lena B. Koschmann
Fire Island National Seashore
Greg McMullen, another concerned Grove citizen, with whom I had shared the exchange of emails, wrote the following email on August 17:
Two years ago when similar sweeps of the Meat Rack were being conducted, I was in communication with Superintendent Soller and Bruce-Michael Gelbert. Superintendent Soller's response to our concerns was posted on http://www.fireislandqnews.com/. (Bruce-Michael, do you still have the email or post? Perhaps you can share?)
I was also in the Meat Rack last week and happened across Bruce-Michael and the rangers having a discussion. Bruce shared the details afterwards. During this time and after, I observed the rangers doing a very detailed sweep of the trails. This appeared (to me) not [to] be a patrol but rather an operation or (personal) mission. The rangers would sweep an area of trails, move on and then circle back for a second sweep. They appeared committed to catching men having sex.
Rangers Swindle and Mezzera seemed to be acting counter to the responsibilities and mission outlined two years ago by Superintendent Soller.
The Meat Rack has a long and well-know history of openness and freedom for gay men. And there are those of us that wish to retain these qualities. Bruce-Michael and others pick up and remove trash from the area to keep it pristine. We care about these woods. They are a huge part of our lives on the island.
Please continue to cc me on future correspondence and inform me of your conversation …
The in-person, relatively cordial meeting that Chief Ranger Koschmann had proposed took place on August 24, from approximately 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., at Greg’s home, and included, beside the three of us, Deputy Chief Ranger John Stewart, on the force here for the past 16 years. Rangers Koschmann and Stewart are the immediate supervisors of all the FINS Rangers.
Chief Ranger Koschmann explained the purpose of the rangers’ patrols. “Our mission out there is to protect the resources, to protect the people,” she said, emphasizing “human safety” and “resource safety” as the rangers’ primary concerns. “Having sex in a public area is technically illegal,” she reiterated, but pointed out that ticketing for public sex or nudity is left to “officer discretion” and that it was not their job to interfere with two men having sex ‘discreetly’ behind a bush. In that regard, both rangers concurred that “No citations for public sex or nudity have come across their desk,” and explained, “Our concern is the resource damage.” Contrary to rumor, the rangers said, there have been no complaints, this season, from either heterosexual or GLBT parents, walking in the woods with children, about coming across men having sex there.
Greg shared a couple of additional recent incidents, which took place during the weekend of August 18 and 19, another busy weekend, that of the Ascension party in Fire Island Pines. One was his experience of coming across Ranger Mezzera, with a male ranger other than Swindle, patrolling with what he perceived as hostile intent, and the other was that of a ranger confrontation with a Grovite, who was asked insistently what he was doing there—“Walking,” was his response to the rangers detaining him—and what he intended to do there next—“More walking.” His final comment, before leaving them, was, “I’m 71 and have to get my exercise.”
Two years ago, after the last reported period of intense ranger activity in the Meat Rack, the President of a Pines organization advised me that, in the absence of any ranger, male or female coming forward to say that they had been the ones confronting gay men in the Meat Rack about their presence and possible earlier nudity and sex, Superintendent Soller told him that he would institute mandatory sensitivity training for all rangers patrolling the Meat Rack or, as it is known officially, the Carrington Tract, certainly an admirable idea. According to Rangers Koschmann and Stewart, however, sensitivity training has not, in fact, been instituted, but they did agree that it was a good idea and left this writer with the impression that, on their watch, it might indeed become a reality. It is already happening, after a fashion, in the ranger application procedure, where candidates are asked about their attitudes toward both nudity and homosexuality, and a candidate who declared, “I would never go to Cherry Grove,” was rejected, Koschmann said.
Her mother the President of her local PFLAG—Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays—in Alaska and her Aunt Sarah a lesbian author, Koschmann seemed fairly well informed about GLBT history and about the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969, to which I’ve been comparing the recent Meat Rack incidents, as examples of uniformed officers raiding a gay meeting place, which we consider ours, regardless of its actual ownership, and she does not want the ranger uniform to convey intimidation, as it certainly has been lately. Ranger Swindle had said to me, “The woods are ours.” I pointed out, to him, and to the rangers at the meeting on August 24, that those of us who take care of them lovingly, trimming dead branches, building wooden bridges and paths through them, and attending to the litter, not to mention enjoying them recreationally, also consider them ours.
The rangers’ supervisors concurred that placing trash bags in the Meat Rack is technically illegal, but Koschmann said that she considers it “the lesser of two evils”—rather the trash bags than the litter—but mentioned her concern that an animal—a squirrel, perhaps?—could get stuck in the bag between the time I put it up and the time I pick it up, although in a decade or so of taking responsibility for these bags, I have never seen any animal, alive or dead, stuck inside any of them. She suggested that FINS placing covered wire trash baskets in the Meat Rack might be a preferable solution—sure—and proposed holding a general woods cleanup day in mid-September, involving rangers and Grove and Pines citizens—another good idea.
As for Ranger Swindle, my reporting that he flashed his summons book, announced his intent to ticket, and pointed out that there were, in fact, places where I had not picked up litter—i.e. on a relatively little-used path dead-ending in a swampy area, closer to the Pines than to the Grove, and due south of the Great South Bay—will be taken as an official complaint about a ranger’s inappropriate behavior. Okay.
There seemed to be agreement, among those of us attending this meeting, that the historic Carrington Houses, at the western tip of the Pines, should be protected against trespassing and vandalism, and that the meeting represented just the start of a dialogue between rangers and concerned citizens. Ranger patrols in the Meat Rack/Carrington Tract, an area for which the rangers feel responsibility, will not cease entirely, but we can, perhaps, look forward to an absence of intimidation by the rangers and the presence of greater sensitivity in exchanges between rangers and civilians there.