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The Law Enforcement Staffing Crisis at the National Park Service

Absent a major shift in priorities, it is only a matter of time before we see preventable deaths and other disasters, a former official says.

Recent events have drawn national attention to the critical need for staffing increases and reforms at federal law enforcement organizations. Most notably, the Jan. 6 breach of the U.S. Capitol by violent protesters attempting to prevent congressional certification of the 2020 election and the excessive use of force against peaceful protesters in Washington’s Lafayette Square the previous summer underscore the pressing need for more and better trained officers and a cultural shift in how, when, and where those officers perform their duties.  

But beyond the Beltway and far less visible to the American public, another crisis exists. That crisis is defined by decades of neglect to the staffing and training needs of the U.S. Park Rangers of the National Park Service. Though not widely understood, it is these officials who are the actual front line law enforcement officers in our national parks; the long-standing guardians of the resources, people, and property within the more than 400 parks, monuments, recreation areas and other units of the National Park System. 

Yellowstone National Park was established by Congress in 1872. Thereafter and throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, other federal preserves were established as national parks, most under the protection of the U.S. military. Gradually, these protection duties fell to a growing number of civilian “scouts” or “rangers.” Finally, in 1916, with the creation of the National Park Service, the last military troops were withdrawn and that law enforcement role was assumed by a unified but geographically dispersed Ranger Force. Acknowledging the role of these officials, Yellowstone’s first superintendent, Horace Albright, declared

“The Ranger is primarily a policeman,” and “The ranger force is the park police force, and is on-duty night and day in the protection of the park.”

In 1976, Congress strengthened law enforcement authorities borne by our U.S. Park Rangers through passage of what is known as the NPS General Authorities Act. In the Committee Report for P.L. 94-458, Congress observed: 

The enactment of this section would replace existing National Park Service law enforcement authorities … with a single clear mandate authorizing designated employees performing law enforcement functions within the National Park System to bear firearms; enforce all Federal laws including serious criminal violations as well as misdemeanors applying specifically to parks; execute process, and investigate offenses. 

Emphasizing that it is the Ranger Force and no other Interior agency that is charged with responsibility for providing law enforcement and related protection and emergency services throughout the National Park System, Congress clarified:

This bill would not affect the functions or authorities of the United States Park Police, whose law enforcement mission has been defined by the Act of March 17, 1948 …. Presently the Park Police are authorized to arrest for Federal offenses committed in the district of Columbia and on Federal reservations in its metropolitan area. This authority of the Park Police is adequate for them to perform their responsibilities, and we do not believe there is a need to alter that authority in this bill.

Well documented but little known to the public is a long history of crime that occurs in our parks and violence experienced by those Rangers whose duty it is to combat that crime. U.S. Park Rangers suffer among the highest incidence of assaults of any category of federal law enforcement officers. This is largely attributable to the historically low and ever dwindling number of U.S. Park Rangers assigned to our national parks. In spite of this, and equally well documented, is an admirable (though certainly not perfect) record of restraint in their use of force. This record has been obscured in the media and even in Congress through widespread misinformation and confusion over the distinction between U.S. Park Rangers and U.S. Park Police officers. Adding to this is the confusion over who and what is a duly “commissioned” (i.e., law enforcement) U.S. Park Ranger, as opposed to all the other types of employees – also referred to as “rangers” – who wear virtually the same uniform regardless of their duties and position classification.

According to the Park Service’s own figures, in 1986 the NPS had 2,471 commissioned rangers (i.e., U.S. Park Rangers and investigators). By 2001, that number had dropped to just 2,086. Around that same time (2000), following the murder of three U.S. Park Rangers in the previous decade, the NPS commissioned a study by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). The study was initiated by then-director Robert Stanton, who expressed

“… concern for the safety of our park rangers and indications that our ranger law enforcement program was not supported at a level that would fully protect our rangers, visiting public and park resources.”

Included in their executive summary, the IACP observed that the NPS law enforcement function was:

“undervalued, under-resourced, and under managed by the NPS.”

Out of that study came a recommendation for a minimum staffing level of 2,700 U.S. Park Rangers. In that same report, the IACP noted that according to the Park Service’s own analysis, staffing should have been increased by 1,200, which would have brought the proposed number of U.S. Park Rangers to 3,300. 

In 2001, the NPS claimed to have adopted a “No Net Loss” policy for law enforcement staffing. But now, some 20 years later, the number of U.S. Park Rangers responsible for patrolling and protecting our national parks has dwindled to just 1,584—a decline of 900 positions over the past 35 years, and less than half the number proposed in 2001. Meanwhile, within the Ranger Force the number of dedicated criminal investigators ( i.e., special agents) has declined over that same time period from a barely adequate peak of around 60-65 in the early 2000s to a figure now less than half that. Aggravating the situation is a chronic backlog of basic training slots at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center for those few Ranger recruits who have been hired but cannot assume their full duties. 

These figures do not even take into account the increasing workload created by growing numbers of parks established by Congress or through executive action, and the growing number of people who come to these sites. In the absence of strong leadership or advocacy either from within or outside of the NPS, matters will only get worse. Absent a major shift in priorities, it is only a matter of time before the situation for our U.S. Park Rangers is again elevated from behind the scenes to national prominence through preventable deaths and other disasters where they are outnumbered, under-trained and under-equipped, stressed, strained and overwhelmed by the crush of crowds, crime and related calls for emergency services.

Paul D. Berkowitz retired National Park Service supervisory special agent.

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