Park ranger force continues shriveling as visitation swells

park ranger truck

WASHINGTON, DC — The number of rangers protecting our national parks and their visitors is steadily shrinking even as new parks are added and the number of park visitors balloons to new records, according to figures posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Aggravating its diminishing resources, National Park Service’s (NPS) law enforcement program is adrift because it does not possess any real planning capacity, budgetary stability or overall leadership.

Figures released by NPS to PEER indicate that the number of permanent law enforcement rangers dropped by nearly 14% (from 1548 to 1331) in the decade spanning 2005 to 2016. The ranks of seasonal rangers covering the peak month of August fell 18% (502 to 407) from 2010 to 2016. This cut violates a 2001 NPS policy of “no net loss” in law enforcement ranger staffing levels and comes despite –

– Record high park visitation for the past three years, with more than 300 million visitors in 2016;

– The significant expansion in the number of parks, with 34 new park units added since 2009, bringing the park system total to 417 units today; and

– The resulting increase in calls for law enforcement assistance, ranging from medical emergencies to visitors posing for selfies with wildlife.

“The Park Service’s law enforcement ranger force has shrunk almost in the same proportion that park visitation has grown,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing to Trump plans to cut its parent agency’s funding even further. “The thin green line patrolling our national parks is in danger of snapping.”

Compounding the effects of smaller ranger ranks is what the Interior Inspector General called a “disquieting state of disorder in the structure and operations of law enforcement” in a 2002 assessment citing conditions that have only gotten worse. Among the festering disabilities are that NPS still lacks –

– Adequate screening and training for new officers and equipment once they are in the field, according to rangers who say these shortcomings put both visitors and park assets at risk;

– Any standard for determining appropriate force levels. NPS policy requires each park to perform a Law Enforcement Needs Assessment every three years but NPS could not produce a single LENA;

– A dedicated law enforcement budget. Park superintendents set the law enforcement level in their parks with no real oversight from above or input from the field; and

– A reliable system for reporting and compiling crimes or other incidents.

“The Park Service’s law enforcement program is not only flying blind but also steadily losing altitude,” added Ruch, noting Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s call to change the character of the agency’s law enforcement to produce a more visitor-friendly “happy ranger.” “Realizing Secretary Zinke’s aim of fielding happy rangers requires his commitment to professionalize and adequately support his increasingly strained ranger force.”