The green ones are among us — directing traffic at summer parades, helping with security at large festivals and events, dealing with crowd control and offering assistance to county search and rescue efforts.
Some carry a weapon at their hip, and all wear their badges proudly. The green ones perform these community assistance tasks free of charge. They are neighbors and co-workers, ranchers and retirees, otherwise known as the Colorado Mounted Rangers, Troop F.
There is a rustic wooden building located downtown on San Juan Street, one that was built in the 1970s to house a small but important community organization with a long Colorado history. Once a month, members of the Colorado Mounted Rangers, Troop F meet at the building to discuss previous issues, new requests for their service, and upcoming training opportunities and requirements. The 23 members of Troop F take turns volunteering for local for-profit and nonprofit events, performing duties that would otherwise have to be hired out at a huge expense.
When the prestigious Music in the Mountains event occurs each summer, the Rangers are the ones directing motorists to the parking area and organizing the parking. During the annual Four Corners Folk Festival, the Rangers are the security presence at the main gate to Reservoir Hill. At the Fourth of July celebrations, they provide traffic control for the Town of Pagosa Springs during the parade and spend long nights performing security tasks at the many booths set up for the Park to Park art festival.
Two Pagosa Springs residents, Larry Jelinek and Robert Penton, have each spent over a quarter of a century performing tasks for this organization that contributes hundreds of volunteer hours each year, all while wearing their Ranger green.
“You have earned the respect of your fellow Rangers and the community which you have served so well, for so long,” reads the plaque that was given to Jelinek to honor 32 years of service with Troop F.
Penton was also recognized with a plaque to honor his 28 years with Troop F, beginning when he was just 18 years old. Penton began volunteering with the Mounted Rangers in 1981 as a cadet, since the age requirement to be a full Ranger is 21. As a cadet, he performed the same services as his colleagues, but always in the company of a Ranger. He was also not allowed to carry a sidearm as a cadet.
In addition to standard First Aid and CPR, the Rangers can voluntarily complete training that includes Alternatives to the Use of Deadly Force, Handgun Training and Qualification, Shotgun Training and Familiarization, Pressure Point Control Techniques, Searching and Handcuffing Techniques, Traffic Control, and Radio Communication Procedures.
“We are not cops,” Jelinek stresses. “We are not law enforcement officers unless we are deputized and called on to be.” But, it wasn’t always that way.
The history of the Colorado Mounted Rangers dates back to 1859, when the Jefferson Rangers formed to keep peace in the Colorado Territory. The group reorganized in 1861 to become the Colorado Mounted Rangers, serving as the state’s only law enforcement agency until 1923. The Rangers were called upon by Colorado governors to protect the state during mining strikes and during the Prohibition period. After evolving into a state police organization, an executive order in 1923 by Gov. William Sweet disbanded the Rangers, leaving Colorado without statewide police protection until 1935. (The Colorado Highway Courtesy Patrol was formed in 1935, and it later became the Colorado State Patrol.)
In 1941, Gov. Teller Amons reorganized the Colorado Mounted Rangers as a volunteer group with a Certificate of Incorporation for a single troop in Bailey, and in 1955, the Rangers changed their constitution to form a squadron of Troop Fs throughout the state.
The Pagosa Springs Troop F, one of six troops in the state, was formed in 1963 and functioned as an ambulance service and a search and rescue group. As the county services grew to provide EMT services and an official Search and Rescue team through the sheriff’s department, the Rangers were still called on to provide trained manpower to assist many of the local law enforcement agencies.
Today, the mission of the Colorado Mounted Rangers is to “provide assistance to the people of Colorado by working in cooperation with local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies to assist with security, traffic and crowd control, search and rescue, and other similar functions as may meet with the approval of local, state and federal authorities.”
In 1977, Jelinek knew a few guys who were Rangers — Bill Montgomery and fellow rancher Bill Jackson. Jelinek attended a meeting, filled out an application, and became one of the two dozen or so members at that time.
“Being a Ranger is a way to give back something to the community where I live,” he said. In his years as a member of Troop F, Jelinek has volunteered as an ambulance driver, performed security at school basketball and football games, and has served in numerous search and rescue operations. Jelinek recalls years when the sheriff at the time, Neil Smith, was a pilot and would be in the air during a rescue operation while the Rangers were on the ground, many times on horses.
Penton was also brought into the organization through friends who were already members.
“They were doing a lot of interesting things,” Penton says of Troop F, and even at age 18, Penton had a desire to get involved with the community. “I enjoy meeting people and helping out with events,” he said. “Being a Ranger involves a lot of people interaction.” And in regard to the ‘mounted’ part of being a Ranger, Penton admits he has been on a horse only twice in all his years, and once was in a parade.
“Eighty percent of the Rangers don’t ride horses,” said Wayne Strauss, a 12-year Ranger and current Captain of Troop F. While Strauss said that about five of the current Troop F Rangers have the ability to grab their horses and go out for service, having a horse or even an ability to ride one is not a requirement for the Mounted Rangers, but willingness to volunteer long hours is certainly a desired trait.
While the winter months do not bring too many opportunities for service, it is not uncommon for Penton, Jelinek or any of the other Rangers to put in 26 to 45 hours in a single weekend during the summer months. The volunteer time is in addition to the hours working their primary jobs. Jelinek is a rancher and retired CDOT employee who still works winters on Wolf Creek pass driving snow plows. Penton holds down two jobs and works over 60 hours a week in addition to being a single dad.
“I’ll do any of the jobs,” Penton said of his volunteer efforts, although he says he doesn’t really care for the long overnight volunteer hours and certain types of security jobs. Jelinek added that sometimes the hardest part of being a Ranger is being away from family when there are large events going on, such as the Fourth of July parade.
His advice to interested recruits is to “be ready to spend long evenings away from whatever else you’re doing,” although he acknowledged that some Rangers just can’t do it all the time and members are able to pick and choose the events they volunteer for. Jelinek is anxiously awaiting the arrival of his first grandbaby, a boy, due any day in mid-February, and reminisces about the early days of being a Ranger when he took courses to learn how to drive the ambulance to Durango, which sometimes involved bringing expecting mothers to the hospital.
Although the Rangers at Troop F are available to perform all of their services at no charge, some for-profit organizations donate to the group to help with building taxes and utility payments, equipment costs such as two-way radios and training costs. In addition, the Troop gives out two scholarships each year to local Pagosa Springs High School graduates.
Jelinek said the modern role for Mounted Rangers is to mobilize a trained force when the need arises. Having the presence of men in green uniforms wearing badges is usually a good deterrent for any mischief that may arise at local events, and carrying a sidearm is an optional part of the job.
According to Strauss, the Rangers only carry their weapons when they feel they need to, perhaps on overnight security jobs or when high-dollar merchandise is at risk. Rangers who wish to carry a gun while on duty are required to go through training and qualification twice a year, the same training that members of the police and sheriff’s department undergo.
“If they don’t qualify, they don’t carry,” said Strauss. However, the captain also reserves the right to make the call on whether or not the Rangers can carry a weapon at each function, and each Troop F member can decide whether he or she wants to volunteer for a particular assignment.
For Jelinek and Penton, being a Colorado Mounted Ranger has become part of who they are, and they wouldn’t have it any other way.
As Strauss said, “We’re kind of like family — we don’t always agree, but we’re all Rangers and we’re all volunteers.”
With 60 years of experience between the two of them, Jelinek and Penton encourage others to look into becoming a Colorado Mounted Ranger. Both men and women are welcome to volunteer, and there is no residency requirement. Interested parties can contact Captain Strauss at 731-9315 or attend a Troop F meeting held the first Thursday of each month at 7 p.m. at their building at 302 San Juan St.