The battle for parity for park rangers and game wardens
The plight of two LE professionals who both died of duty-related melanomas highlights the inequities in workplace protections afforded to those who protect both humans and our natural resources
California State Park Ranger Blake Bonham and Game Warden Alan Weingarten had a lot in common: they were both dedicated law enforcement professionals, sworn to protect both the humans in their state and its resources, and they both died of duty-related melanomas, one in 2016 and the other in 2017. And together, their plight launched an ongoing legislative battle seeking parity for their fellow officers.
Cancer presumption coverage lacking
Cancer is a presumptive illness for law enforcement in California. That means that, for workers’ compensation claims, the burden of proof lies with the employer to prove that the condition is not work-related, rather than on the employee to prove that it is. The designation of presumption makes accessing benefits simpler for officers already struggling with life-changing illness and injury – unless, it turns out, that officer is a game warden or a park ranger.
Despite the fact that they spend the majority of their time outdoors exposed to the sun, and in regular, often unprotected contact with toxins at illicit marijuana grows, park rangers and game wardens aren’t covered by the general cancer presumption granted to nearly all other LEOs in California.
Weingarten and Bonham and their families were forced into protracted courtroom battles to prove their cancers were work-related. It didn’t end till one of the officers was on his deathbed, and the other had already died. They won their cases, but it was ugly, exhausting and unfair.
To correct this inequity, the California Fish and Game Wardens Supervisors and Managers Association (CFGWSMA) partnered with then-state Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, himself a skin cancer survivor, to sponsor a bill adding a skin cancer presumption for game wardens and park rangers. It was a modest ask: not a general cancer presumption, just skin cancer.
The state senate and assembly passed it unanimously. The governor vetoed it.
Governor Newsom stated in part, “A presumption is not required for an occupational disease to be compensable. Such presumptions should be provided sparingly and should be based on the unique hazards or proven difficulty of establishing a direct relationship between a disease or injury and the employee’s work.” Ironically, on the same day, Newsom signed into law bills that remove obstacles from other peace officers seeking benefits for presumptive cancers, and increased penalties for employers who “unreasonably” reject work comp claims covered by presumptions.
John Nores, a retired CDFW lieutenant who helped launch California’s marijuana enforcement teams, and author of the books “The War in the Woods” and “Hidden War,” spoke to me about the veto by phone.
“The governor’s veto is unfair. It’s not health-conscious, it’s oxymoronic. The melanoma diagnosis should be an obvious risk for (game wardens), let alone the other exposures to toxins: nerve agents, anticoagulants. His office is fully aware of what we do because we’ve had conversations in his office about it.”
The impact of marijuana legalization
Since the passage of Proposition 64 making the recreational use of marijuana legal, CDFW has been the agency responsible for monitoring and enforcing regulation of weed farming and environmental crimes. The links between the many toxins present in illicit grows and cancer have not all been conclusively proven but are reasonably suspected. Nores’s books detail the cancer deaths of young, healthy K-9s with no genetic risks, potential canaries-in-coal-mines for game wardens who spend days at a time in the sun and are exposed to banned chemicals.
Nores continued, “Newsom is a staunch supporter of (marijuana) regulation. It only makes sense to protect the officers enforcing unregulated grows. All grows are contaminated to a certain extent, and on indoor grows the exposures are worse, more concentrated. The growers we’d bust were using Tyvek suits and rebreathers.” The officers doing enforcement, on the other hand, carried out as many as 25 missions each season and for years they did so without any PPE at all.
CFGWSMA President Danny Stevenson issued a statement saying, “It is a sad day when the Governor doesn’t believe that Wildlife Officers and State Park Rangers have at least the same risk (of) deadly skin cancers (as) other general law enforcement officers do. This was a very easy initiative and would have sent a message to officers in both agencies that no other officer would have to end up in a legal battle with the state as they are fighting for their lives.”
The association plans to partner with California State Law Enforcement Association to find another sponsor for AB 334 and try again. I asked them, why not try for a general cancer presumption instead like other California LEOs have? The answer is that it’s just “too big a bite.” If the governor won’t sign a bill for a risk as obvious as skin cancer for officers who spend nearly all their careers outdoors, they believe he’d be even less likely to grant them an exemption for other cancers.
California’s game wardens and park rangers are justified in their skepticism. Besides the general presumption for cancer, they are excluded from several other workers' compensation presumptions, even some granted to university police, like presumptions for lower back injuries and PTSD. They are included in the presumption for biochemical exposures, which would seem helpful considering their work in illicit weed grows. However, the wording of the code section defines those exposures so narrowly that it’s likely any affected warden would need a pitbull attorney to make the case.
When accidental disability retirement is unavailable
California isn’t the only state to relegate game wardens to second-class status. New York, long acclaimed for workplace protections and strong unions, nevertheless leaves its conservation officers out in the cold.
In November 2016, New York Department of Environmental Conservation (NY DEC) Officer James Davey, 39 at the time, was shot by a poacher who “mistook him for a deer” a half-hour past sunset. While the poacher was sentenced to six months and a fine, Officer Davey found himself serving a life sentence of disability, financial struggle and pain.
The .30-30 round plowed through Davey’s hip and pelvis, breaking bone and severing his right femoral vein. The “blast effect” occluded the femoral artery as well, causing life-threatening bleeding and blocking blood flow to his leg. If Davey had not been accompanied by Lt. Liza Bobseine, who administered immediate first aid, he would have died in that dark field. As it was, even with top-notch care, he lost three times his blood volume, spent days in a medically induced coma and will never completely recover his former strength or a life free from pain.
He returned to work just under a year later because New York’s vaunted "three-quarters" law enforcement accidental disability retirement was not available to him. According to Matthew Krug, director of the Environmental and Conservation Officers Local for the PBA of NYS, conservation officers are among only 6% of officers in the state who can't access this higher level of retirement benefit. Davey’s options were to go back to patrol, or accept a 50% “regular” disability retirement – not likely to be enough for long, for an officer barely 40 years old. At the time of this writing, Davey is again unable to work because of his injuries, and is likely to have to acquiesce to the reduction in pay that comes with the lower retirement.
The PBA began to lobby vigorously for three-quarter disability benefits for all its members. The bill that would have cleared the way for Davey to retire with a viable pension was vetoed by Governor Kathy Hochul in 2019. In late 2022, the governor also vetoed a bill that would have given NY DEC officers retirement parity with other state law enforcement (after 20 years rather than 25). It was the second time she rejected this request, for a benefit the officers have been pursuing for ten years. At the same time, New York’s legislators were granted a 30% pay increase.
These hits come at a time when all law enforcement is having difficulty recruiting. In New York, where full staffing for the DEC is 642 officers, there are 66 vacancies and only 18 recruits in the last academy. Senator Robert Jackson, one of the sponsors for the 20 year retirement bill, noted that officers regularly leave for other agencies with better retirements, costing the state hundreds of thousands of dollars lost in recruiting and training each year.
Retirements aren’t the only disparities in benefits for New York DEC officers. In a specialty where nearly everyone they encounter is armed, DEC officers are not issued rifle plates. Like California’s game wardens, NY DEC officers have no general cancer presumption, despite their mandate to investigate all of the state’s environmental crimes, from burn pits to toxic spills. They’re the only LEOs in the state who carry not just handcuffs and weapons but also smoke meters. While their mission load increases constantly, their numbers continue to fall. New York City, which used to be assigned 32 officers to investigate environmental and wildlife crimes in its vast network of streets, businesses and shoreline, now has only 14.
Officer Davey and Lt. Bobseine were presented with medals for their bravery and service to the state. Honoring their courage is fitting. Honoring their service with benefits comparable to other LEOs in their state would be far more authentic, and longer-lasting.
These are only two states. If I looked carefully at the other 48, I suspect I would find many more disparities between “regular” law enforcement and wildlife officers (which is a misnomer in many cases as their missions have crept broadly over the last 50 years). Pay is an obvious stumbling block in Kentucky, Montana and other places. (In California, a CHP academy cadet can make more than a Range A game warden.)
Look to New Hampshire
While change is always difficult, it is never impossible. New Hampshire set an early example. When Lt. Wayne Saunders was shot by a mass killer in 1997, New Hampshire Fish and Game discovered a problem during his recovery: there was no provision in New Hampshire code for time off while Saunders recovered from his wounds. The young game warden burned through all of his sick time, and then his vacation time and then ran out of time altogether. If he had been a state trooper (for example) that would not have happened.
So New Hampshire changed their laws to make sure no other injured game warden would face the same problem. Then they went one better: they made the law retroactive, so Saunders was made whole for the time and income he had lost.
If they can do that, California and New York can fix the inequities facing their officers, too.
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