Park Ranger Numbers Shrink as Visitation Swells

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Park Ranger Numbers Shrink as Visitation Swells

Fewer Permanent and Seasonal Law Enforcement Rangers Than a Decade Ago

Washington, DC — The thin green line patrolling our national parks is getting steadily thinner even as the number of park visitors is setting new records, according to figures posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Increased attendance in the parks also means many more lost hikers, medical emergencies, fights and other calls for law enforcement help but fewer rangers to answer.

Figures released by the National Park Service (NPS) to PEER indicate that in the decade spanning 2005 through 2014, the number of permanent law enforcement rangers in our national parks dropped by nearly 14% (from 1548 to 1322) despite both an increase in the number of park units and a substantial hike in annual visitors, campers and hikers. The drop in seasonal rangers was even steeper. From 2006 (the first year full statistics were available) to 2014 there were nearly 27% (671 to 492) fewer seasonal rangers while “Peak seasonals” covering the peak month of August fell 7% (385 to 356) over that period.

More people in more parks also bring with them greater demands for law enforcement services, ranging from poachers to drunk drivers to drug labs. For example, publicly reported statistics indicate that–

  • In 2014, national parks conducted 2,658 search-and-rescue operations, up from 2,348 the year before. Many of these incidents were life-and-death situations, involving serious injury or the prospect of fatalities absent ranger intervention;
  • 2014 also saw 164 park visitor deaths, up from 148 and 143 the prior two years, respectively. Causes ranged from heart attacks and dehydration to drownings and fatal falls. The 2014 total includes 19 suicide deaths out of 44 attempts; and
  • Last year, there were reports of 15 murders, 162 rapes, attempted rapes or other sex offenses, five kidnappings and 358 assaults, as well as more than 3,000 thefts.

Even as it trumpets record-breaking park crowds in 2014, NPS is gearing up a major outreach effort to drive visitation even higher next year as the agency celebrates its 2016 centennial. Of the more than $300 million in increased spending it is requesting for the upcoming fiscal year, only $2 million of that amount would go to law enforcement to increase numbers of seasonal law enforcement rangers.

“The Park Service not only has a huge maintenance deficit but it is building a sizeable public safety deficit as well,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing to ranger warnings that they lack the force levels, training and equipment needed to adequately protect visitors and park assets. “This myopic drive for more and more visitation threatens to outstrip the capacity of both the parks and their shrinking ranger corps.”

In response to a PEER request for information about how the staffing levels for park law enforcement are determined, the agency supplied this statement:

“The National Park Service utilizes the Law Enforcement Needs Assessment commonly referred to as a LENA as the risk based approach to identify and rank threats and assess agency vulnerabilities…The LENA incorporates multiple considerations including the types of activities that comprise the law enforcement workload such as protection of people, protection of resources, protection of property, type of jurisdiction, cooperative assistance, visitation patterns and trends, public use, criminal activity, access and circulation patterns, community expectations, communications, technology and special needs.”

Yet, NPS was unable to provide records backing up this description, identify documents about how it works in practice or even supply a copy of a single LENA assessment.

“Park superintendents set the law enforcement level in their parks with no real oversight from above or check from folks in the field below,” added Ruch, noting that in 2014 NPS inexplicably reported the lowest number (12) of threats and assaults involving its law enforcement rangers since 2000, a total at odds with anecdotal accounts. “Before it pops the cork on its centennial, Park Service leadership should double check that it has sufficient rangers to handle the celebration’s fallout.”


See year-by-year drop in law enforcement rangers

Contrast steady rise in park visitation

Note NPS news release on record crowds in 2014

See rangers’ call for safety improvements

Read full NPS response to PEER Freedom of Information Act request

Look at curious drop in reported assaults and threats against rangers

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