National Park Ranger Ranks Spread Dangerously Thin
Rescues Soar, Crime Rises in National Parks Lacking Enforcement Plans
Washington, DC —America’s national parks are more loved but less safe than ever as the ranks of park law enforcement rangers continue to shrink, according to figures posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). At the same time, the law enforcement planning and assessment capacity of the National Park Service (NPS) has evaporated.
Despite record levels of visitation, skyrocketing search and rescue operations, and rising crime, the number of law enforcement rangers in our national parks has steadily shrunk. While overall NPS staffing is down, the drop in law enforcement ranks is even more acute. Since 2005, the ranks of permanent law enforcement rangers fell by more than one-seventh (15%) while seasonal law enforcement rangers deployed during peak seasons has dropped by almost one-third (30%).
In recent years, the demand for park law enforcement service has swelled. Surging National Park visitation rebounded in 2021, following a short pandemic dip, with the 45 most popular parks setting attendance records (even without significant foreign tourism). At the same time –
- There has been explosive growth in park search and rescue operations. NPS recorded 3371 such incidents in 2021, more than triple the 1103 incidents recorded in 2015;
- NPS submissions to the Justice Department’s Uniform Crime Reports reflect a four-fold rise in serious crime and a one-third rise in robberies since 2014; and
- In one recent survey, rangers identify “multiple vacancies” as their largest concern and a consensus view among surveyed rangers that “exposure to operational risk is likely.”
“The thin green line of park law enforcement rangers is being stretched to the breaking point,” stated PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse, a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency enforcement attorney, noting that in additional to usual demands, rangers, like flight attendants, are dealing with people who refuse to mask up. “Although the Park Service has plans to invest in its deteriorating physical infrastructure, it has no comparable plan to reinforce its overstressed ranks of law enforcement rangers.”
Meanwhile, the NPS has all but abandoned efforts to assess its law enforcement needs. For example, NPS policy requires each park to perform a Law Enforcement Needs Assessment (LENA) every three years but could not produce a single LENA in response to Freedom of Information Act requests. In 2019, the Government Accountability Office published a 2019 report concluding that security threats within national parks and other federal lands were rising without commensurate investment or appropriate planning.
“The Park Service’s national law enforcement program lacks the level of planning one would find in most mid-size city police departments,” added PEER Staff Attorney Colleen Teubner, a former Assistant District Attorney. “The Park Service has no reliable system for reporting and compiling crimes or other serious incidents, but it does not appear to use what data it does collect.”
The Biden proposed budget for FY 2023 provides for a slight increase in NPS hiring but with almost nothing targeted for its depleted ranger force. PEER is asking both Congressional appropriators and Interior’s Law Enforcement Task Force to prioritize visitor and resource protection among NPS operational budget increases and to require NPS to implement its own policy requiring the application of consistent standards for determining appropriate force levels.