Cyclists fined for entering closed federal wildlife refuge

Elena Watts By Elena Watts

Oct. 12, 2013 at 5:12 a.m.
Updated Oct. 13, 2013 at 5:13 a.m.

The government shutdown is taking $225 from the pockets of Peter and Lyn Bennett, of Rockport, for riding their bicycles in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

"It was only $100 for that guy caught jogging in Yosemite," said 77-year-old Peter Bennett, a disabled veteran who served 20 years in the U.S. Air Force.

For several years, the Bennetts have enjoyed hauling their bicycles about 30 miles to the refuge in Austwell.

Traffic is limited to visitors hoping to catch a glimpse of Gulf Coast wildlife, so the 16-mile road feels safe, Bennett said.

"We were in T-shirts and bicycle shorts - an old man and old woman on bikes," Bennett said. "It's not like we were threatening."

As the Bennetts rolled through the gate at 2:30 p.m. Oct. 7, a plain-clothed couple in a white truck hauling their personal boat informed them that the park was closed.

Bennett decided to ignore the warning. He figured it didn't matter much because the gate was open.

"I admit I knew the government closed down, but it was so innocent," Bennett said. "I never dreamed there would be armed guards."

The gate was open because the refuge's electricity was turned off before park employees could close the automatic gate.

Bennett peddled ahead of his wife on the familiar path until a truck driven by a gesturing man headed toward them.

"I couldn't hear what he was saying because the windows were rolled up," Bennett said. "But I thought I better get out, so I turned back toward the gate."

The driver turned on his emergency lights and accelerated to block the Bennetts.

"He was agitated and had a pushy attitude," Bennett said. "It's been a long time since someone in a uniform acted that way around me."

Bennett thought he would get a warning or a slap on the wrist.

Instead, the uniformed, armed officer whipped out a form and began writing.

In disbelief, Bennett asked the officer whether he was issuing a citation.

He was.

"How much is that going to cost me?" he asked.

Bennett plans to pay the $225 fine, but he does not accept it.

The officer had a new attitude when he returned from his truck where he checked the couple's criminal history.

"I guess he learned that we weren't felons," Bennett said. "He came back apologizing."

The officer found that Bennett's wife had abandoned her calm snarl for more aggressive questioning about the overreaction.

"We need an arm, not a strong arm," Bennett said.

The officer was doing his job, but he was not doing it well, Bennett said.

"It's not the best job to carry out - government policy and how poorly it's all done," he added.

The Bennetts said they are upset about the situation created by the government shutdown.

"The refuge is public property, not government property," Bennett said. "We pay for it."

U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, who represents Victoria and surrounding counties, intends to bring the incident up at a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee meeting next week.

"The park service is out of control," Farenthold said. "If they enforce the heavy fines, they should make sure the gates are closed and notice is posted."

However, government employees are caught in tough spots during a government shutdown, Farenthold said.

"We need to ask where the policy comes from, why and whether it is fairly implemented," he said.

Bennett later learned that the couple at the gate were furloughed employees of the refuge attempting to close the gate manually.

"My wife volunteers for the chamber of commerce," Bennett said. "We're nice, innocent, well-meaning, well-intentioned citizens."

Farenthold described the incident as a "World War II Memorial problem in South Texas."



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