© Clifford Crouch, 2005.
Any lover of Western lore can recite the names of some of the great stomping grounds in Texas history: the old JA, run by legendary rancher Charles Goodnight; the 6666 (“Four Sixes”), supposedly named after a cattle baron’s winning poker hand; and of course, the famous XIT, up in the Panhandle. One big spread you won’t hear about, though, is the IAH. Despite its 11,000-acre expanse, the initials of this operation aren’t found on any cowboy’s branding iron – because IAH is short for Intercontinental Airport Houston, or Bush airport. But the IAH nonetheless has its own set of hands who saddle up and ride the spread in good weather and bad, checking for fence damage and scouting for potential predators and outlaws. They are the Airport Rangers, a volunteer force that serves as a mounted patrol monitoring the airport’s boundaries.
Despite the hectic pace of Intercontinental’s terminals and runways, much of the airport’s land is what real estate agents like to call “undeveloped” – beautiful, wild piney woods filled with soaring trees and brush undergrowth. The southeastern portion tends to be swampy. Airport Ranger coordinator David Poynor says that he’s either spotted or seen evidence of deer, coyotes and wild hogs on the land, along with smaller animals.
The airport’s outer perimeter (roughly 34 miles) is fenced in mostly by hog wire and barbed wire. Facilities, such as runways and buildings, inside the perimeter may be contained by chain-link fence. The coyotes dig constantly at the chain-link fences, and fence breaks need to be reported and repaired.
The Airport Rangers program was begun in December 2003 by Airport System Director Rick Vacar, himself a horseman. Volunteer applicants undergo a background check for criminal records and must sign a liability waiver. In return for serving as the airport security’s eyes and ears, Rangers enjoy the pleasures of rustic riding, an experience increasingly hard to come by in Houston’s urban environment.
To date, more than 600 people have joined. The volunteers come from all walks of life – from bus drivers to attorneys, from stay-at-home moms to retirees – and more than 70 percent are women. A small portion are regulars, riding the trails two to three times a week on a steady basis. The Rangers wear airport-issued ID badges, but have no uniforms. Each Ranger must carry a cell phone to report any suspicious activity. A security officer or an armed Houston police officer may then be dispatched (in a Jeep or four-wheeler) as deemed necessary. Rangers are also given numbered decals for their vehicles so they can park their horse trailers on airport property. The only Airport Rangers authorized to pack weapons, however, are off-duty law-enforcement officers.
He emphasizes: “Everything we do is security-related. We want people to have fun and enjoy their rides, but this is not a place for staging races. Rangers are expected to be observant and aware of the grounds, and they need to spot suspicious activity and any changes to the environment.”
To date, the Rangers’ anti-crime activities have been limited to scaring off trespassers and interrupting thefts at construction sites. They’ve also found and removed deer blinds from the woods. (Apparently, some interlopers have enjoyed bow hunting for game.)
The Airport Rangers are not merely a quaint nod to Texas’ Western heritage, but a genuine and appropriate security response, given the rustic environment of IAH. As members of the Houston Police Department might well agree, a mounted patrol constitutes a visible deterrent to crime along the roads skirting the airport’s fence line, while much of the interior is negotiable literally only on horseback or by foot.
It is even possible that HPD’s own mounted patrol may join the Airport Rangers at Bush Intercontinental in the not-too-distant future. Houston’s police horses have been stabled for decades near Loop 610 at Memorial Park. However, times and circumstances have changed, and the city is now expected to find a new home for the outfit by the end of 2005. The Houston Police Academy is already housed near IAH, at the intersection of Aldine Westfield and Rankin roads.
“I feel sure the [HPD] mounted patrol would be welcomed here, for the heightened security,” Poynor says. He pauses for a moment, then adds, thoughtfully: “And the horses would have bigger pastures for grazing.” H