By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
It is 2,488 miles from Old Faithful in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park to Madison, Maine. One would think that would be a safe distance for a Michigan resident seeking to avoid a Wyoming court appearance.
And this might be true if any normal law enforcement agency were involved. But not for the intrepid agents of the National Park Service.
A Michigan man learned that lesson the hard way when he was arrested earlier this week in connection with a charge he ventured too close to Old Faithful last summer.
Like the man who selected Yellowstone as the perfect location for a golf shot, Aaron Merritt learned firsthand of the tenacity of the Park Service.
It’s a lesson the Park Service applies with vigor when it sees flagrant violations of the rules that make the country’s national parks special places, said Rob Wallace, who until January oversaw the National Park Service as the assistant secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks.
“When people show up and do these crazy stunts and then advertise them, they’re basically flaunting what national parks are about, and perhaps encouraging other followers on social media, to one up and do something even more, you know, crazy or stupid or dangerous,” Wallace told Cowboy State Daily. “So I think the Park Service is selective about what they decide to pursue. But in cases that are pretty egregious, they want to discourage that kind of use.”
Merritt was cited for thermal trespassing after allegedly walked too close to Old Faithful on July 7, 2020.
Merritt was wearing a raccoon fur cap and carrying an American flag when he allegedly stepped off the boardwalk at the park. He was 50 feet off the path and approaching the backside of the geyser when a park ranger called him back. Merritt was cited, and scheduled to appear in federal court two weeks later.
But he skipped out — so a warrant was issued for his arrest.
And on Monday of this week, the Michigan resident (who has since garnered a few facial tattoos) appeared remotely before a federal judge from the Somerset County Jail in East Madison, Maine.
Merritt is not the only person to face park justice. Jake Adams, a comedian who thought he could increase his social media following by hitting a golf ball in all 50 states, is now under investigation for hitting one near Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring.
Wallace said special laws are in place to protect the country’s national parks and the federal government takes violations of those laws seriously.
“There’s different rules in a national park from a state park or BLM land,” he said. “You can’t take driftwood out of the park, you can’t grab a handful of flowers and take, take them apart, you can’t throw coins in the Grand Prismatic pond, for obvious reasons of corrosion.”
Wallace said it has been relatively easy to find such offenders when they speak about their exploits on social media.
“When they post their exploits on social media, that right away suggests how to find these people,” he said. “They leave clues all over the internet about what they’re doing, and it doesn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to figure out how to track them down.”
He added that the public plays a part in apprehending offenders as well.
“When you see reports from people that are doing things that are clearly out of balance, the public is pretty good in terms of grabbing a license plate number, taking a video, reporting it to the nearest ranger,” Wallace said. “So there’s lots of ways that information comes in. And in certain cases, the Park Service or the U.S. Attorney’s office looks at something and says, ‘That is so problematic that we’ve got to pursue this further.’”
Wallace adds that the Park Service’s relationships with other government agencies helps the process.
“The Park Service works very closely with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, because they are a federal agency,” he said, “and the U.S. Attorney, whether it’s in Wyoming or Maine, represents the interests of the Park Service, and looks at these cases, and makes a decision whether to take them or not.”
And when someone flaunts the rules and then disregards the consequences, Wallace says they just might find a U.S. Marshal at their door.
“They show up at their door, or they contact people and say ‘You’re in violation,’ and quite often people will cooperate,” he says. “A lot of it is ignorance. People don’t know what they don’t know. But then when they decide to put that ignorance in full display on social media, it catches people’s attention.”
“If people are smart and they are caught, they would likely agree to come back and appear before a magistrate and take their medicine,” he added.