The Middle of Nowhere Syndrome

January 1993

I am continually amazed at the number of people who express surprise or skepticism when informed that criminal activities occur on a regular basis in our nation’s parks, forests, recreation areas, and other public lands. Anyone who has spent any time at all working as a professional in the conservation or land management law enforcement field has undoubtedly witnessed  this  same phenomenon. It reveals itself in the form of questions about why we need law enforcement authority, guns, or body armor. It also manifests itself in the form of naive behavior exhibited by visitors, as they leave valuables unattended and unsecured, and place trust in everyone they see. Regrettably, included among those who often express surprise—and even disbelief—about the frequency with which crimes occur in these areas, are many of our own conservation and land management agency employees; particularly those with only limited exposure to law enforcement. Even worse are those whose entire careers are spent solely in administrative offices, distantly insulated from field involvement or observation.

Ironically, other people view these same parks, forests, recreation areas, and public lands as places where they may completely abandon regard for laws that serve to regulate personal conduct. A related phenomenon is the surprise recurringly experienced and expressed by criminals who find themselves confronted and (hopefully) apprehended by the law enforcement officers who work in these jurisdictions. On more occasions than I care to recall, I have seen or heard about “crooks” who were amazed and chagrined to find there was any type of real law enforcement presence way out in “the middle of nowhere.”

Because these phenomenon are repeated so frequently and are, in my experience, so predictable, I believe it is proper that they be given a title by which they can be referenced and recognized. I respectfully offer, for your consideration, “The Middle Of Nowhere Syndrome.”

“The Middle Of Nowhere Syndrome” is characterized by any one or more of the following three thought processes and related character types:

  • THE GOOD (AKA, The Victims): Affected individuals are deluded into believing that no threat to their welfare and well-being exists in “the middle of nowhere.” They conclude that all people who come to these areas are good, and are free of anti-social traits. They either believe that all people are transformed into “good citizens” when they come to parks, forests, or other public lands, or that only “good” people come to these areas in the first place. The net result of this thought process is that affected individuals abandon a normal sense of self-preservation and caution, and assume a dangerously naive and vulnerable attitude as they go about their business. More than just believing, as they may back home, that crimes are only committed against others, these people believe that crimes don’t occur at all, “way out here.” Consequently, they don’t understand or comprehend why there would even be law enforcement officers in “the middle of nowhere.”
  • THE BAD (AKA, The Inconsiderate & Irresponsible): Affected individuals believe that normal rules of conduct and self-restraint do not apply in “the middle of nowhere.” Obedience to traffic laws and regulations is no longer required. The most innocent of these people may just stop their cars in the middle of the road to sight-see. Others believe they are free to ignore speed limits and other rules governing motor vehicle operation. Some  people believe that since they are in “the middle of nowhere” things they do and actions they take will not adversely impact others. The alternative thought process here is that they are on vacation, by golly, and nothing and no one (including law enforcement) is going to stop them from having a good time. Alcohol and/or drug abuse accompany virtually all of their “recreational” activities. Their sense of freedom and abandon is amplified, and they behave in ways they might never even consider “back home” knowing full well that in their normal environments such behavior would quickly result in a citizen’s complaint and police response. But “way out here” it is OK, and besides, there are no police in “the middle of nowhere.”
  • THE UGLY (AKA, The Ruthless) Affected individuals already know about “The Good,” and see them as easy prey. They also know about the “The Bad,” and pay them no mind, other than, perhaps, to take advantage of their carelessness. However, like their counterparts, this group of people are also functioning under the illusion (or regrettably, in some instances, the real knowledge) that there is little or no law enforcement presence in “the middle of nowhere.” Consequently, these people also take greater risks, and engage in far more daring, dangerous, and threatening behavior than they might normally, in their home environments. They, too, believe that “way out here” they can get away with anything. They may use remote regions to establish clandestine drug labs, dump toxic waste, smuggle contraband, or engage in para-military exercises. They may, literally, attempt to seize control of vast regions of public lands in furtherance of their criminal objectives. A significant number of these same people engage in commercial poaching of the very resources which have been set aside for public enjoyment. Like “The Bad,” they are prepared to commit more outrageous acts and exhibit more resistance to law enforcement than they would normally (this accounts for the fact that officers who work in these areas are assaulted at a rate nine times higher than officers in other jurisdictions). For similar reasons, many of our most dangerous criminals and fugitives are drawn to these areas, seeking a safe haven from law enforcement. Characters as notorious as Charles Manson and his “family” have fallen into this pattern. Disproportionately large numbers of people with checkered pasts migrate to major tourists centers on public lands, and especially parks. There, they try to assume new identities as temporary concession employees or long-term “campers.” They seek to avoid detection and apprehension among the large numbers of seasonal employees, vacationing college students, and tourists. After all, this is “the middle of nowhere.” The pickin’s are easy, the rangers are a joke, and the “real” cops are few and far between.

Significantly, all three aspects of the “Middle Of Nowhere Syndrome” can be observed and experienced in every type of area, without regard to geographic location, proximity to population centers, or internal levels of congestion. Never mind that many of these areas are densely populated by literally tens of thousands of other people, all competing at the same time for the same few square feet of “wilderness.” Likewise, it doesn’t matter that the area may be smack-dab in the center of a major metropolis. Remote or near the city, congested or empty, the effects of “The Middle Of Nowhere Syndrome” can be observed in every park, forest, recreation area, or other protected open space in the country.

With this phenomenon now titled and its characteristics defined, there remains the critical question of how those of us responsible for providing law enforcement services in these areas should respond and prepare for “The Middle Of Nowhere Syndrome.”

First of all, clearly, we must pursue efforts designed to educate the public, as well as others in our agencies, that crime does occur on our public lands with regrettable regularity. Always has and always will. More to the point, we need to overcome the desire to hide the harsh realities from the public. It’s well and good to try to project the image of a safe, friendly and hospitable environment in which visitors can enjoy protected and treasured resources. But where our peace-keeping efforts are less than completely successful we need to be truthful in explaining to the public the hazards that exist for them. People need to be educated to the reality that criminals do, indeed, come to public lands, and that crimes do occur in our parks and forests with the same regularity that they occur in any other place. This effort will not only enable the public to modify their own behavior to better protect themselves, it will also serve to educate them about the critical and dangerous role that we, as law enforcement officers, play in serving them in these areas. With success in this educational effort, our jobs can only become easier. Visitors will become victims less often, resulting in reduced case loads for us. At the same time, we may be able to overcome some of the attitudinal biases we suffer that force us to struggle for professional recognition and needed resources.

Next, we need to be swift in our response to criminal acts, as well as acts of carelessness and negligence, and not compromise our standards of enforcement. Few things can ruin a vacation as fast as an encounter with reckless or inconsiderate individuals, involvement in a preventable “accident” or falling victim to criminal acts. Therefore, more than anywhere else, our nation’s parks, forests, recreation areas, and wild public lands should be free of criminal or negligent behavior that can threaten or ruin a visitor’s experience. While it may be desirable to pursue a low profile in our law enforcement efforts we should not allow this to impede us in enforcing the laws which are, after all, enacted to protect the public, resources, and society at large. Nor should we allow the “low profile” argument to be used as an excuse to deprive us of access to the full spectrum of contemporary defensive and tactical equipment, as well as other available law enforcement tools and training. It is vitally important that people who come to our public lands clearly know and understand that laws do exist in these areas, and that we do, indeed, have a strong law enforcement capability. While educational efforts will work to gain compliance from most people, many others will be deterred by nothing less than the knowledge, through a conspicuous presence and response, that we take the enforcement of applicable laws and regulations seriously.

Finally, we need to be vigilant in recognizing how “The Middle Of Nowhere Syndrome” manifests itself among The Ugly. Once again, this translates into constantly pursuing the best available training, equipment, tactics, and other resources, and never letting down our guard. Just knowing and recognizing how “The Middle Of Nowhere Syndrome” affects this ruthless group is a big step in the right direction. Selecting strategies and tactics accordingly is the other essential half of the equation.

So long as people who come to parks, forests, recreation areas, and other public lands behave as though they are out in “the middle of nowhere,” we in conservation and land management law enforcement will be faced with challenges that are unique to our jurisdictions. As I have said before, these challenges may make our work more difficult— and in many cases, more dangerous— than that of officers assigned to more traditional environments and working for more traditionally recognized law enforcement agencies.*

The “Middle Of Nowhere Syndrome” is real and its influence is widespread. And we now know its symptoms.  Let us begin the effort to educate others about it and combat its dangerous effects.