Reader Participation Day: Should Rangers Cite, or Merely Warn, Visitors For Their Wrongs?

Should the campers who left this buffet for bears in Yosemite National Park have been cited, or warned, for their misdeed? Photo by Jeffrey Brooker via NPS.

What should National Park Service rangers do when they come across a visitor who has gone astray of park regulations? For instance, should they have cited those women in Glacier National Park who squeezed off a round from a .357 to scare a deer, or was the "education" enough?

And what about visitors in Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Yosemite, Great Smoky Mountains, or any other park with bears who leave their food available for bears? After all, as they say, a fed bear is a dead bear.

What do you think? How strict should rangers be? Do some rules infractions merit stronger action than others? Should the Yellowstone visitors who ignore the "do not swim" signs be cited as quickly as those found guilty of leaving a messy camp that helps bears associate humans with food?


Cite those whose actions endanger others, park resources, or wildlife. That includes people whose actions have the potential to endanger SAR personnel, rangers, or others who would have to rescue them from their own negligence. There needs to be an incentive to stop such actions. Educate those who endanger only themselves. Deciding which to do should be in the discretion of the ranger.

The strict adherence to the law seldom works and those who enforce the laws sometimes lose their mental balance, all it takes is that magical ingredient not taught in any university, common sense. That said, I am fanatical about litter and would probably not make a very good ranger.

I have worked in campgrounds in Great Smoky Mountains National Park & Yellowstone. Signs are posted about food storage, the campers are told at check-in about food storage, the campers are given a copy of the rules about food storage. I think that is enough education. When campers leave food items out, the campers should be fined...big time! Only until you get deep in their pockets, will some folks learn. Thank goodness most folks do abide by the food storage rules.

This is a tough one because it is sometimes simple ignorance. When I was a child I went to Shenandoah to feed the deer. I didn't know any better because it was allowed every where else, including the Naitonal Zoo. It makes sense that the same mentality would be brought to the parks. I didn't learn that I was actually killing the deer until I was in college. The education just wasn't there. The parks are now getting better about the education, but there are still some that just don't know what they are doing to the animal. They think that it's just gov't rules ruining their fun. And when state parks allow you to feed the animals, even selling you the food to do so, it's hard to understand why the national Parks won't allow it. In that case, I usually educate the person. Sometimes it seems like people just leave common sense at home when tehy come into a park and need a reminder to think every now and then.

But there are times when people just don't care no matter what you do. They will do what they want, rules be damned. When I was at Shenandoah, my sister and her kids showed up during my "bear talk." I was just getting to the part about food storage and why we can't feed bears when my niece informed me and the entire audience that my sister had brought marshmallows for the bears. I used my sister as an example and explained to her and everyone why this will end up killing the bear. Darned if my sister didn't go out after that talk and feed the bears anyway. She got a citation from her own sister!

As a state park police officer for the state of answer is it depends. For most minor violations like speeding, littering, etc. its all on them. If I can make contact with them and get them to correct the action then they will get a warning (verbal or sometimes written). However, if their attitude is "How dare you question or stop me..." then they get a citation. Of course for more serious violations like fighting, public intoxication, drugs, they get a citation immediately and sometimes are taken to jail.

I fully agree with Anonymous. Until you hit these morons deep in their pocketbooks they will never get the message. I also opt for repeat offenders losing the privilege of using our beautiful National Parks. Like Volpe, I would never pass Ranger school as I am such a hard nose about the feeding of wildlife, illegal hunting or poaching, abandoned camp fires, and the dangerous habit of flicking lit cigarette butts into the dry forest or grassland. Seriously, if the federal government would visit some big-time serious fines on these violators of rules we could afford to hire more rangers to enforce the laws and rules. Thank you for the opportunity to express my views.

I think that rangers should take a firm stance on any and all violations they see - no matter how large or small the violation. While people talk about common sense, it's time to realize that common sense is not common at all. My husband and I just visited our first national park earlier this summer (Yosemite) and we were appalled by the sheer number of visitors we witnessed violating basic rules. We saw people walking through meadows being restored, feeding deer, not using their bear boxes, etc. It was really sad.

While education is important, some people are just too stupid to really get it. And while strict enforcement might be challenging, it's an important part of making the park experience enjoyable for everyone.

Was our experience completely ruined? No. Was it impacted by the rude/inappropriate actions of others? Yes.

Education should come first, but some people only seem to get it, and hopefully learn, when cited. As an Interpretive Ranger I can't give tickets so always try to explain to visitors why certain "rules" are in place and that usually works. But I'd have no problem getting on the radio for LE backup if someone wanted to obnoxiously challenge my authority.

I completely agree with those that say unless you hit the pocket book they aren't going to get it. As a Yellowstone CG worker, we educated folks with signs, bear talks, had them sign they understood about not leaving food out, and posted it on the picnic tables at the campsites, yet people still left food, coolers, dog food and all sorts of other things out. They would become quite indignant when their stuff was taken and they were fined but it would get their attention. Unfortunately, that has been too late for more than one bear, who then ends up a dead bear. On the picture above, I hope they had a huge fine and that they will then turn around and tell their friends who in turn will be more cautious when they are in bear country. I think hefty fines work, they get people talking and thinking more about what they are doing and in turn prevent unnecessary bear kills.

Law enforcement has become very sophisticated in the national parks in recent times. Law enforcement park rangers and the U.S. Park Police appreciate the value of education, but often know that a citation works best for clear violations. Consistency, fairness, and tactful delivery by these personnel have made courtesy tags and ignoring lawbreakers a thing of the past.

Ben Lord

We are a nation of laws. Let the Rangers enforce them with a citation and a fine !

Walk softly and carry a big stick!

Hitting peoples pocketbooks seems to be the only real way to get their attention. Talking to them, giving them literature to read. . .reminding several times, none of it seems to work.

Depends on the seriousness of the situation and how much of a problem there is with this infraction at a specific location.

For example, if there is not a bear problem at a specific campsite and a camper leaves out food, then there should be a warning, followed by a citation, followed by booting the offender out of the national park. However, if there is a bear problem, then the first of the three steps mentioned above should be skipped and the ranger should go straight to a citation, followed by booting the offending camper out of the park. Booting out of the park should include being prohibited from re-entering the park for 12 calendar months. In the early 1990's, my wife and I stayed at a Balsam Mountains Campground (Great Smoky Mountains NP) where evening bear visits were a nightly occurrence. A range told us that campers disregarded what rangers told them about storing food because these campers wanted to see bears. The offenders should have been cited the first time and booted out of the park, the next time, with 12-months visitation prohibition for that park.

Cite!!! Hefty fines may begin to make people think twice. So few people want to take responsibility for their actions. Perhaps if there were more citations given and more policing done, there would be less dead wildlife in our parks. Speeding kills bears just as lethally as feeding them--or making your food accessible to them.

Of course part of the difficulty is the differences in animal behaviors at different NPS units and what the regulations are that deal with them.

I'm most familiar with Yosemite NP rules - where every campsite has a bear box and it's been well established that there is a population of bears that have learned how to break into cars by peeling open door frames using their claws. I've been told directly by park rangers that it's OK to have cleaned dishes, utensils, cookware, water, etc. out. I've also been told that none of these items should be stored in a vehicle (except for hard-sided RVs with the exception of clear water) since Yosemite bears will go after scents in cars. Of course there probably isn't a single car in Yosemite without some sort of food smell, but I suppose it can be a matter of degree and the hope that even if bears break into cars, they don't get a reward that reinforces that there can be a payoff to breaking into cars.

In the Pacific NW, food storage doesn't seem to be as bear centered. I recall that Crater Lake's Mazama Campground recently got bear boxes, but at Olympic and Mt Rainier, the only bear boxes I saw were communal ones primarily for those arriving on public transportation, by foot, by bicycle, or by motorcycle. At the latter two, we were informed that bears weren't terribly active in campgrounds. At the coastal section of Olympic NP they were so close to areas where there was a legal bear hunt that bears pretty much avoided humans whenever possible. The basic rule seemed to be keep everything in the car (in plain sight OK) when not eating so that birds, rodents, and other small animals didn't get to the food. We might have had our stove out (I doubt we would have been cited for that even though signs said it wasn't OK) a few times, but other than that everything was in the car. One neighbor had the full set of gear out, and their picnic table became a magnet for ravens. They weren't able to get into anything, but I think the local NPS officials knew that it would be a bird/squirrel attractant.

What I remember about Yellowstone is that they reccommend storing food out of sight in vehicles.

From what I could gather, there were avenues for enforcement where park rangers could enforce the actual letter of the law or regulations. They weren't typically interested in meaningless enforcement like citing someone for storing bottled water in the trunk of a car or for keeping a stove outside that had no major food residue. They would have been concerned with coolers full of food or (in places like Yosemite) where anything looks like a food or food container is in plain sight. In Yosemite I did see a warning ticket that cleaning supplies (I kid you not) were visible in a car. I suppose odd smells can be a bear attractant, and the containers may look like food containers to a bear.

** ** **

By the way, anyone hear about the bear that was put down at Eldorado National Forest last weekend? It attacked a man who went out at 2 AM responding to a noise. The noise was a black bear that was going through a cooler placed on their picnic table (against posted regulations noting storage of food in vehicles). The bear cut his face. He then proceeded to discharge a firearm (in a crowded campground no less) at which point the bear took off.

When the National Parks rules are broken, the offenders should be fined !!! The fines should stay in that National Park and help pay for more rangers.
Most people in todays' world do not have common sense, hit them where it hurts and maybe they will learn. Or else, they can vacation in Disney World and leave our National Parks to be enjoyed by folks who respect them and want them protected.

By nature I am a rule follower and have a strong sense of justice when others deem themselves above the laws that apply to the rest of us!! I WOULD NOT make a good park Ranger because I would in all liklihood be sarcastic with law breakers! I have seen visitors walking across thermal areas at Yellowstone where it is clearly marked with the universal hiking bootprint with the slash through it. I have seen visitors climb over fences in Yosemite to stand next to the giant Sequoia trees, those clearlly marked as well, prohibiting such behavior. In these instances these were European visitors but the signs are very obvious and easily understandable regardless of what language they speak!! How would they like it if I went into one of their moldy castles, slipped under the velvet rope and jumped up and down on the furniture? There is NO difference!!

I will say this, after watching Ken Burns' magnificent special on our National Parks and the struggle our country went through to preserve these places, I will be even MORE outspoken in the future!!

Connie Hopkins:
By nature I am a rule follower and have a strong sense of justice when others deem themselves above the laws that apply to the rest of us!! I WOULD NOT make a good park Ranger because I would in all liklihood be sarcastic with law breakers! I have seen visitors walking across thermal areas at Yellowstone where it is clearly marked with the universal hiking bootprint with the slash through it. I have seen visitors climb over fences in Yosemite to stand next to the giant Sequoia trees, those clearlly marked as well, prohibiting such behavior. In these instances these were European visitors but the signs are very obvious and easily understandable regardless of what language they speak!! How would they like it if I went into one of their moldy castles, slipped under the velvet rope and jumped up and down on the furniture? There is NO difference!!
I remember meeting up with a family of three backpacking in the Yosemite high country. They noted that they were visiting their daughter, who was a seasonal ranger during her summer vacation from college. They also noted that she was a stickler for rules and was eager to give out citations.

As for Europeans, it's been my universal experience that almost all European visitors to the US speak very good (or at least passable) English. It's not much different than the huge universally understood no-smoking signs that get ignored in various countries I've visited.

As for climbing over fences to see giant sequoias - I know it happens. However - there are areas where it is legal to go off trail and stand next to giant sequoias. These are typically not close to roads or parking lots, where the NPS or Forest Service has determined that there won't be so much visitation that the impacts will be spread out. If there were no fences, the ground around such famous trees as the Grizzly Giant, General Sherman, or General Grant would probably be heavily packed by hundreds of visitors a day. However - a remote sequoia grove can take maybe an average of less than one visitor per day walking next to its trunk.

@ Connie,

I'm the same way. I've had a hard time trying to ease up on visitors and try educating them first. Today I had a woman out with her family picking flowers and I had to tell her that it isn't allowed and explained why. She was pretty agreeable, but I've had people argue with me and at that point my sarcasm comes out. I've already been told by my LE friends that I can't be law enforcement because I would just write up people for being stupid. I don't see the downside to that.

As a former protection ranger, often now called law enforcement rangers, I always opted for the lowest level of law enforcement activity that would produce the desired result, i.e. compliance with the regulation or rule. If my contact with the visitor convinced me that he/she was truly sorry for the infraction and that it was highly unlikely that he/she would repeat the infraction, I normally issued a verbal or written warning. If, however, my contact with the visitor did not so convince me, then I would issue a citation, or in some cases, make an arrest. What the NPS is interested in is that visitors have a safe, enjoyable visit in their parks while assuring that the natural and cultural resources are protected and that the activities of some do not interfere with others visitor's safety and enjoyment or damage resources.


The incident I referred to in my earlier response was actually with Grizzly Giant tree. My husband was up at the overlook preparing to take my picture while I was down by the tree. The Father had his family climb over the fence to stand against the tree. I politely told them that the signs showed that wasn't allowed and the father began arguing with me. I told him,
"The Park Ranger is right over there, why don't you ask him if it's allowed?"

With that, my husband who could tell that the guy was arguing with me yelled out,

The next thing you know he and his family scooted off, probably thinking that it was the Ranger yelling at them. All I know is from that time forward, my husband's new nickname has been "The Lorax".

There are also places in Yellowstone's back country where you can get close to the thermal features for lack of boardwalks. Hopefully common sense prevails and people are sensitive to their surroundings. Unfortunately some people really ARE stupid and some people really do believe that the rules apply to others and not themselves. If that weren't the case people wouldn't be gored by elk and bison or literally go out on a limb to take a photo and fall down into the Grand Canyon! All it takes is for one thoughtless person to ruin in a moment, something that has taken centuries or a millinia to create!

I think park regulations should be strictly and uniformly enforced by citation, with the amount depending on the severity of the infraction. When people are pretty certain that their ignoring of park rules will result in a fine, they will exhibit much better behavior. My wife and I have visited 10 national parks in less than a year, and we have seen many instances of stupid and inconsiderate behavior, some of which really diminished our enjoyment of the park experience, and unfortunately we did not see one instance of anyone being cited. It seems that some people's worst behavior is brought out by wildlife, and most of the instances I am speaking of involve people parking or stopping in the middle of the road to take pictures of wildlife near the road, but also involve people crowding much too near wildlife in spite of the distance rules. These situations all result in some danger to the people in the vicinity, and in some cases result in harassment of the animals as well. We also witnessed someone "bugling" a bull elk, and I'm sure this idiot wouldn't have hesitated to offer food as well if he thought he could entice the animal closer to get a better picture. Again, no one was around to enforce the rules. Worst behavior we saw was in Rocky Mountain NP and Yellowstone. I know manpower is a problem and enforcement is bound to be challenging in a place as large as Yellowstone, but these situations are just going to get worse as the number of visitors increase. I saw signs saying speed limits are strictly enforced, but nothing about enforcement of the common sense regulation not to park or stop in the middle of the road just to take a picture! We need consistent enforcement of ALL regulations!