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Park rangers' jobs increasingly more dangerous

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FLAGSTAFF, AZ (CBS5) -

You wouldn't think you'd need to be an expert driver to be a park ranger, or a negotiator, or a crime fighter. But the job of protecting our national treasures is becoming more threatening, and the proof is in the training.

"I've been in armed confrontations, burglaries," said Mark Maciha, the director of the Park Ranger Training Program at Northern Arizona University

From searching a person, to making arrests, to conducting a traffic stop, these students are learning it all.

"Hand-to-hand combat, pepper spray, batons, lethal force with firearms," Maciha said, listing off some of their lessons. "Since we don't practice it every day we really have to be on top of our game through training."

In January of last year, Margaret Anderson, a NAU Park Ranger Training graduate, was killed in the line of duty at Mount Rainier when a gunman opened fire. In June, ranger Nick Hall fell about 3,700 feet from a glacier at Mount Rainier while rescuing four stranded climbers. And Maciha lost his partner years ago, when his friend had a heart attack while investigating a death at Yosemite National Park.

"That really hits close to home, too," Maciha said. "Although it's not an armed encounter, it's one of the prices that are paid to protect our parks."

"Of course there's things that you're going to be a little nervous about, there's a lot of responsibility," said student Cara DeHart.

While the students told us they know what they're getting into, park advocates say expected budget cuts will only make their jobs harder.

"The duties included increasingly have been related to public safety and law enforcement," said David Nimkin, the southwest regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association. He said national parks are facing an 8 to 10 percent cut, on top of cuts already made. One item on chopping block - the number of park rangers.

"You begin to reduce their presence and their viability; it has an impact," Nimkin said.

So even with these devastating cuts on the forefront, Maciha said he can only teach his new recruits to be prepared and love their jobs.

"It's the best thing anyone can do," he said.

According to the Park Service's website, 11,700,000,000 people visit national parks each year, and just less than 4,500 police and rangers are patrolling them.

Copyright 2013 CBS 5 (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

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