U.S. Rangers, Park Police Sustain Record Levels of Violence
WASHINGTON, DC, September 1, 2004 (ENS) - Attacks, threats, harassment against National Park Service rangers and U.S. Park Police officers reached a all-time high in 2003, according to agency records released Tuesday by an association of federal employees, keeper of the country's only database documenting violence against federal resource protection employees. At the same time, "scores" of park law enforcement personnel have been reassigned to desks, rangers say.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) reports that National Park Service commissioned law enforcement officers were victims of assaults 106 times in 2003. More than one-quarter of these encounters resulted in injury to the officers.
This figure tops the 2002 total of 98 assaults but parallels the 2001 previous high of 104 violent incidents.
"Law enforcement officers in the National Park Service are 12 times more likely to be killed or injured as a result of an assault than FBI agents – a rate triple that of the next worst federal agency," said Randall Kendrick, executive director for the U.S. Park Rangers Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police.
A midnight shift with only one ranger, a nuclear power plant threatened by terrorists, rangers sent out on patrol without dispatch, without backup, without even pepper spray - these are real situations that place the defenders of America's public lands in grave danger, the officers' association warns.
On their 2003 "Most Dangerous National Parks" list, released in June, the Fraternal Order of Police handed the Number One spot to Arizona's Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument for the third year in a row.
After the murder of 28 year old NPS Ranger Kris Eggle on August 9, 2002, the park service bolstered its force at the monument with tactical teams, since removed, and has failed to restore staff levels to previous levels, the officers' association reports.
"Despite Congressional hearings where tapes of hundreds of aliens marching through campgrounds at night were shown, and significant media attention garnered, the park is still swarming with potentially violent smugglers of drugs and illegal aliens, and possible threats to homeland security, said the Park Rangers Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police in its description for the list.
Rangers estimate that at least 250 illegal aliens cross through the park each night.
At Devil's Postpile National Monument in California all the patrol rangers have been removed from the park. "There is no law enforcement presence in the park, and no agreements in place with neighboring law enforcement agencies. This is a complete violation of NPS policy and public trust, yet it has gone unchecked," according to the U.S. Park Rangers Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police.
Florida's Biscayne National Park is especially dangerous, marked at Number Six on the list. The Fraternal Order of Police says, "Lots of drug smuggling, illegal fishing, and a nuclear power plant threatened by terrorists, mean danger for a ranger force that is small and getting smaller. While the Coast Guard never sends a boat out at Biscayne with fewer than four officers, the NPS sends its rangers out on the open ocean alone."
At the same time, PEER and the rangers say, the park service has taken officers off law enforcement and patrols, and moved them to desk jobs.
"Scores of Park Service law enforcement personnel," the officers' association says, have been "reassigned to operate a 24-hour "Watch Office" for the Department of Interior that has no dispatch responsibility and whose sole function is to keep Interior brass informed."
"The Park Service has failed to provide law enforcement personnel to prevent further violence," said Kendrick, "despite its own projections that an additional 700 rangers are required, the number of rangers is down nine percent."
Two parks, Yellowstone and Grand Teton, experienced a disproportionate number of incidents - 35 - the PEER database shows.
The District of Columbia was next most violent with 15 incidents, with three additional assaults in neighboring Maryland and Virginia.
Rangers in California had a small increase in violence, with 12 incidents. Other states, including Arizona, Nevada and Pennsylvania, also registered multiple attacks.
These figures are not available through the National Park Service, which PEER charges "is the only land management agency that refuses to track violence directed against its biologists, naturalists and non-commissioned rangers."
At the same time, an already chronically understaffed National Park Service law enforcement is increasingly unable to protect visitors, national icons and wildlife, according to representatives of both rangers and U.S. Park Police officers.
"Park police and rangers are being asked to do more for less by political appointees who appear tone deaf to the reality of the challenges," observed PEER executive director, attorney Jeff Ruch.
Ruch and PEER are representing U.S. Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers who is fighting her termination for giving an interview to a "Washington Post" reporter warning of the dangers posed by understaffing of the Capital District's parks to the visiting public and to the national icons, such as the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.
New Homeland Security duties and what Ruch says are "significant diversions of resources ordered by its parent Interior Department," had added millions of dollars to the training cycle for new rangers while eliminating specialized ranger courses."
The Bush administration "has asked for only minor budgetary increases that are well short of its own internal estimates of need," say Kendrick and PEER.
Seven rangers attempt to hold the line on 85 miles of an international border between Texas and Mexico.
These rangers who patrol the Amistad National Recreation Area in Texas are at great risk, the Fraternal Order warned. Calling the area "another smugglers paradise," for drugs and aliens, the the officers association said that "with days off, it means that only one or two are on at any given hour of the day, and at night, the park is turned over to the smugglers."
"The few rangers are supported by an inoperable radio system that is so old that replacement parts are no longer manufactured," the officers said, but are encouraged by talk of more boats and a staff increase.
Number Three on the list is also in Texas - Big Bend National Park.
The Fraternal Order of Police Describes the Parks on its 2003 Most Dangerous National Parks List
3. Big Bend National Park (Texas): Imagine a place on the border where law enforcement is ordered by management to allow illegal aliens into the country, and to avoid the border area entirely if crime is suspected. Such is the story at Big Bend, where the park superintendent has chosen to confront crime by surrendering to it. The park has blatantly violated NPS orders to hire law enforcement staff before hiring other personnel, leaving the few remaining rangers understaffed, unsupported, and overwhelmed. Big Bend is a classic example of a preventable ranger death waiting to happen in the park with the largest boundary with Mexico.
4. Lake Mead National Recreation Area (Nevada/Arizona): Despite multiple congressional appropriations for 24-hour patrol coverage over the years, law enforcement goes home at night due to continued staff shortages, leaving the park for drunk drivers, drunk boaters, and Las Vegas-based gang members. The only National Park with its own armored car, Lake Mead has at least 17 fewer rangers than last year.
5. Coronado National Memorial (Arizona): A small park with a very big problem of drugs, smugglers, and a staff too small to make a difference. Each evening brings a parade of crime marching through the park. Drug networks collect intelligence on park operations to better gauge how to successfully infiltrate the country.
6. Biscayne National Park (Florida):
7. Shenandoah National Park (Virginia): With a radio system out of the 1950s, known as the worst radio system in the National Park Service, the understaffed ranger workforce is coping with a large number of armed poachers and encroaching suburban crime. The ranger staff has been cut in violation of NPS policy, without public outcry or repercussions from Washington.
8. Delaware Water Gap (New Jersey/Pennsylvania): Once one of the best law enforcement programs in the NPS, Delaware Water Gap now has half the rangers in the field it did in the mid-1990s. At night, only one or two rangers are on patrol. They've been instructed to avoid patrolling high crime areas. The park, within an easy drive of both the New York and Philadelphia metro areas, has a major highway through it, bringing in crime that is often ignored. Although visitation is heavy and crime flourishing, the rangers are on the defensive and losing ground.
9. Edison National Historic Site (West Orange, New Jersey): Troubles of the big city, from a soaring murder rate to gang activity, has this small park surrounded, and rangers outmanned and outgunned. Rangers are denied pepper spray, shotguns and rifles, and access to a dispatch, despite being assigned to work without backup in an area of growing urban crime.
10. Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming): At the beginning of the 2003 season Yellowstone eliminated its entire seasonal law enforcement staff. This forced rangers into solo patrols on the roads, few patrols in the backcountry, and a dangerous lack of backup in a park with a growing incident load. Although the staff has been growing through the summer, it is still well below last years level, and still in violation of NPS policy on staffing levels.
The 2003 list of Dangerous National Parks reflects the greater dangers facing NPS rangers in smaller, less-visited National Park areas such as Amistad National Recreation Area near Del Rio, Texas, and Coronado National Monument in Arizona . small parks in isolated areas with minimal staff combating an invasion of drugs, smugglers, and violent criminals.
Crime on the southern border is not the only threat park rangers face.
Dishonorable Mentions - A First-Time Category
Mojave National Preserve (California): Three rangers attempt to protect 1.7 million acres of desert land against methamphetamine labs, a huge network of illegal off-road-vehicle trails, and commercial thieves looking for native American artifacts.
Padre Island National Seashore (Texas): Largely bypassed by the increased funding other border parks received, and handicapped by not having Customs or Border Patrol agents stationed in the park, Padre Island rangers fight a short-handed battle against drug smuggling and illegal aliens. More resources have been promised for the future, and are eagerly awaited by the overworked field staff.
Devil's Postpile National Monument (California): The park has been made totally safe for rangers and criminals alike, because all the patrol rangers have been removed from the park.
Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona): After an internal audit showed a program in great disarray, and few changes have been made. The park still violates basic principles of safe operations by running a midnight shift with only one ranger.
Jean Lafitte (Louisiana): Money designated for law enforcement is being directed to other projects, and the law enforcement staff has declined from eight rangers to two within 5 years.
These are classic examples of how, in the words of the Inspector General of the Interior Department, law enforcement in National Parks is in a "disquieting state of disorder."