For the past eight months, Luke Brackett has been part administrator, part lone ranger.
Hired by Baltimore City in November to spearhead the creation of a new police force to protect the three city-owned reservoirs in Baltimore and Carroll counties, Brackett spends part of his days patrolling the watersheds and part interviewing applicants interested in joining his force.
"I'm tasked with bringing the department to life," Brackett said. "We're still getting our feet wet, no pun intended."
Brackett's team of watershed rangers, funded by the city's Department of Public Works, will have full police powers and will monitor and enforce conservation laws around the Loch Raven, Liberty and Prettyboy reservoirs - the source of billions of gallons of drinking water for the metropolitan area's approximately 1.8 million consumers.
Brackett is the only member of the force so far, but eventually each reservoir will have a district ranger supervising three other rangers, putting the total force at 13, he said. While still interviewing candidates, Brackett said the district ranger positions could be filled within weeks.
"We're building this from the top down," he said.
The force will "prevent and educate first, apprehend and prosecute second," said Brackett, who mentioned swimmers, fires, loose dogs, gas-powered boats, dumping and boundary encroachments as things the rangers will watch for.
Their mission will be not only to protect the city's drinking water and water infrastructure but also to make sure people using the areas for recreation do so responsibly, he said.
"Being that referee between what's appropriate and what's not appropriate is a big part of being a watershed ranger," Brackett said.
According to Baltimore Public Works Director David E. Scott, the unit is a replacement for a similar force the department operated until about 2000, when its numbers "dwindled down" and the officers left for other jobs.
"They kind of dropped off," Scott said. "We didn't think they were as helpful as they could be."
Gould Charshee, the Baltimore Metropolitan Council's reservoir watershed coordinator, said, "They had a lot of turnover. The pay scales and the job descriptions weren't attractive enough for [officers] to stay there."
A long-standing local law grants the city public works agency the authority from the state to maintain a watershed force.
Police from Baltimore County and the state Department of Natural Resources were responsible for patrolling the watersheds after the first unit was disbanded.
But since 2000, a lot has changed in the world of watershed management.
The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, raised the profile of water-supply safety nationally. A drought that hit Maryland in 2002 significantly lowered reservoir levels and put the state's water supply on the minds of politicians.
In 2003 and again in 2005, eight local government and conservation bodies, including Baltimore City, Baltimore and Carroll counties and the Maryland departments of Agriculture and the Environment, signed revamped versions of the long-standing "Reservoir Watershed Management Agreement," outlining their willingness and desire to protect the three reservoirs and their watersheds.
The changes brought a new motivation within the Public Works Department to make its watershed police force more sustainable, Scott said.
Brackett, 34, who comes off more as an environmentalist than a police officer, meets the department's new standards with a geography degree from Salem State College in Massachusetts and experience working for both the national and Virginia state park services. To Scott, he seemed like the right man.
Baltimore County police said they are happy to see the ranger team forming.
"They are going to be right there on the scene, and that's going to be very helpful," said county police spokesman Bill Toohey. He said the county will maintain full jurisdiction in the reservoir areas but welcomes the rangers' help.
"It's going to free the [county] Police Department because we've had to have police officers go in there to deal with complaints, ... and sometimes whatever it is we're called for is gone by the time we get there," Toohey said.
Sgt. Ken Turner, a Maryland Natural Resources Police spokesman, emphasized that the ranger team will serve a wide swath of forest and water - about 17,000 acres - that is difficult for other forces to protect.
"Just by the nature of our job, we're out there a whole lot more than other police agencies," Turner said. "But we're a state jurisdiction, so it's not like we're up there all the time."
There are also those with concerns about the rangers, including mountain biking groups, which fear a heavy hand in shutting down favorite, unsanctioned biking trails.
"Any other trail [than sanctioned fire roads] for years has been off-limits, though not enforced," said Eric Crawford, executive director of the Maryland Association of Mountain Bike Operators. "So there's certainly concern that, with hiring this new staff, those rules will be enforced."
According to Brackett, off-trail activity has the potential to damage forest soil structure and vegetation and to lead to increased sediment levels in the water, so rangers will be assessing the impact of unofficial biking trails. But, he said, he has already been in touch with Crawford and others interested in preserving biking trails and expects to "find something that will work for everybody."
Brackett said a situation last week involving an injured woman who was lost in the Prettyboy area shows how useful the full ranger force, with its presence in the parks and its knowledge of the trails, will be. Injured visitors to the reservoir areas are "the precise type of thing that we will be looking for," he said. Brackett said he doesn't know when the ranger force will be fully operational, because that depends on how much additional law enforcement and conservation training the recruits will need, but he is enthusiastic about forming the team.
"The quicker I can get through ranger recruitments and backgrounds, the quicker we'll have a program," he said.