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A Former National Park Superintendent Replies: Prioritizing Park Budgets
I read with interest the various comments after the first question was posed on this forum. Being that this is a new feature on the National Parks Traveler, it is to be expected that there will be some working out of the format. It is gratifying to see such avid interest in how the parks are managed.
Rather than address the variety of comments, I am going to go back to the original question as posed and address that directly.
Why is it impossible for NPS managers to come to grips with chronic budget shortfalls without reducing services to the public or increasing their direct cost the public. Any manager knows that everything the NPS does is not the same priority, but to me campgrounds and other services provided to the public (at no or minimal charge) are at the top of the heap and should be preserved no matter what. Why not start realistically looking at the entire infrastructure of a park and determine what functions/positions are absolutely necessary and which ones are in the nice to have category.
Here's a story for you that gives you the context of my question. I worked at a large park in Utah for 10 years as a senior staffer to the superintendent and it appeared obvious to me and others that an entire law enforcement division (with several permanent rangers devoted to nothing but writing tickets) was totally unnecessary. There were virtually no law enforcement issues to contend with at this park and those that did occur could have easily been handled by the local sheriff. Back in the day (Gramm/Rudman), this potential cost savings was brought up to the superintendent as a way of great savings for that park and he stared back at me with a deer in the head lights look.
There is a lot to this question that is beyond a simple answer. It goes to the very nature of park management and the variety of factors and influences on management decisions. I will try to address some of the major points.
Setting park priorities is not a simple task. It may appear that providing campgrounds and other services are "the top of the heap," but this may not be the case. Each park should have a core mission that is derived from the park's legislation and other laws governing the NPS. Providing campgrounds or visitor centers are rarely in the core mission. Rather, the legislation is usually more vague like "for the enjoyment of the public," or "provide for the education of visitors," etc. That means managers have wide discretion in determining what meets those criteria. Managers also have to look at what services can be obtained nearby. For example, if there are private campgrounds or other government agency campgrounds nearby, then maybe the national park campground would not be in as high a priority for operation when budgets are reduced. The manager would, instead, choose to maintain services that cannot be obtained elsewhere. The decisions are rarely simple.
The issue of law enforcement is very complicated and related to many forces outside the agency. Having been a chief of interpretation, a chief ranger, and a superintendent, I had a pretty comprehensive look at these issues.
At one time, all rangers were empowered to enforce park regulations. As law enforcement changed in the late 20th century, the NPS changed as well. The General Authorities Act of 1976 instituted a more professional and regulated law enforcement program (see http://www.nps.gov/policy/dorders/dorder9.html for a synopsis).
Standards were set for law enforcement training and certification, similar to those of other law enforcement agencies or police departments. Clearly, this professionalism was good for public safety as well as employee safety. Since every ranger would not, or could not, be trained and certified to do law enforcement, a separation of duties and divisions began to widen. Other traditional ranger duties, including interpretation and resources management, also became more professional in education and certification and thus the ranger occupation began to shift more and more to separate divisions.
In the 1990s, the law enforcement realm was further separated when rangers were covered under the standards from OPM for federal law enforcement officers (usually called 6C certification). This allowed NPS law enforcement rangers to retire after 20 years of service like other federal officers, set a mandatory retirement , and made other changes to keep NPS law enforcement in line with other federal agencies. This is also when rangers with law enforcement duties began wearing the new badges (shields).
In order to be certified to do law enforcement, it had to be shown that law enforcement was a primary part of the job and the majority of the job. With this requirement, the separation between ranger activities became more rigid. A person with a law enforcement commission cannot spend the majority of their time in resource management, interpretation, emergency medical services, or any other function that is not law enforcement. If they did so, they would lose the law enforcement classification and the law enforcement authority.
I will not argue that some law enforcement operations in parks are not run better than others. In the General Authorities Act, Congress identified that the NPS was not a federal law enforcement agency. Rather, it was an agency that had a variety of duties in managing and protecting parks, including law enforcement. "The Committee intends that the clear and specific enforcement authority contained in this subsection, while necessary for the protection of the Federal employees so involved, will be implemented by the Secretary to ensure that law enforcement activities in our National Park System will continue to be viewed as one function of a broad program of visitor and resource protection. (House Report No. 94-1569, September 16, 1976)"
I prefer the term "protection ranger" over "law enforcement" ranger for that reason. It is a reminder that Congress specified that law enforcement was a task, not a vocation. In my opinion, the best park law enforcement operations are the ones that instill in the rangers that they are expected the answer visitor questions, understand the park's interpretive story, help resource management activities when they can, etc. To me, the best function of law enforcement is prevention. After all, writing a ticket for cutting down a rare tree won't put the tree back. The best law enforcement (protection) operation prevents the tree from being cut in the first place.
As for working with local law enforcement, all parks do that. Many parks have no law enforcement rangers due to the budget cuts and the expense of maintaining training and certification. But, county sheriffs and police cannot enforce park regulations. They cannot enforce closures (like trails closed for nesting birds). They cannot enforce the conditions of park-issued special use permits. State game wardens are usually spread too thin themselves to provide much help in national parks against poachers. Protecting archeological sites is not something most local law enforcement is trained to do. Only rangers can write tickets for illegal parking or off-road driving on sensitive park resources. In sum, having rangers with law enforcement authority gives the park more tools to protect the resources and the visitors.
As for eliminating the jobs - that's not easy to do. Federal employee laws do not allow a superintendent to simply eliminate permanent jobs. Where parks do not have law enforcement certified rangers, it is usually because they never did, or positions were not re-filled when they became vacant.
I hope this helps explain a few things.
Traveler postscript: If you have a question for Costa Dillon, please add it to this column in the form of a comment. He will select one question and answer it in a December 5 column.