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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 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.


slc72 asks "where in the regulations is it written that an NPS superintendent cannot contract with the local sheriff, another agency to obtain any necessary LE needs for a park unit?"

Law enforcement for both resource and visitor protection is the core mandate for the establishment of Yellowstone in 1876, Yosemite and in 1916 the NPS itself. US Congress spelled out this mandate in the 1916 Organic Act and clarified it in the 1976 General Authorities Act. It cannot be (and shouldn't be) "farmed out".

Please also understand the distinction between exclusive, partial, concurrent and proprietary jurisdiction. Many major parks are under exclusive Federal jurisdiction, where "The Federal government possesses all the authority of the State, subject only to the right of the State to serve criminal and civil process for actions occurring outside the unit. Law enforcement must be provided by the United States since State law may not be enforced by a State officer." (NPS RM-9 Law Enforcement Reference Manual, chapter 1, section 3.2.1). This exclusive jurisdiction was mandated by US Congress when the major parks were established, and was granted by acts of the various state legislatures. This applies to the District of Columbia, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Sequoia, Hot Springs, Rocky Mountain, Lassen, Mount Rainier, Hawaii, Mesa Verde, Mammoth, Olympic, Glacier, Crater Lake, Great Smoky, Big Bend, Isle Royale, Denali (and probably some others I missed).

Alsakaflyer, very informative post, thanks. My own 6C retirement was based both on LE and Fire.

Mr. Dillon -

I'd be interested in hearing your experiences in supervising and working with the various disciplines within the NPS. Many of them are little known or understood by outsiders, and many are behind the scenes and virtually invisible to the casual visitor.

to mitigate the alarming motor vehicle accident rate in that park.

What is the vehicle accident rate in that park? How does that compare to the national average? How many vehicle deaths accured in 2012 and how many of those were due to speeding? I can't be alarmed without context.

...and wouldn't "contracting" out law enforcement to the very entities who are "lurking in the take over management of the parks (as well as forests and other public lands)" enable that behavior?

The US Forest Service continues to "contract" out much of the public safety function on local forests to local police and sheriff departments, paying federal taxpayer dollars to these agencies to do in many cases what they would have done anyway without the money, with very, very questionable results in my and others' opinions.

That aside, some nitpicking with the article for the purpose of clarification:

1. As I recall protection rangers with law enforcement duties weren't authorized to wear commission shields on their uniform until 2003 or later, I can't recall the exact date but I know it wasn't earlier than that? Why? Institutional truculence.

2. We have a chicken or the egg argument here. Are law enforcement staff required to perform those duties greater than 50% of their time to "maintain" their special retirement system coverage, or do they maintain their special retirement system coverage because they perform law enforcement duties greater than 50% of the time? One could argue that either is reality, but in the end it has been NPS policy for a while now (thanks mostly to the Dept. of Interior) that all non-supervisory law enforcement rangers operate under standard position descriptions that reflect that majority of time requirement. It would take much more space than is available here to explain the background about this subject, and most of that history is already out there to be found by a Google search.

3. The reason that Superintendents and other managers can retain their commission and their special retirement coverage without being primarily engaged in law enforcement is that once they move into supervisory, managerial or technical positions after at least three years prior service in a primary position, there are different criteria applied. If you want to read more you can go here: and scroll near the bottom.

4. A simple description of the special retirement coverage for firefighters and law enforcement officers is that you may retire with an unreduced benefit at age 50 or greater if and when you have at least twenty years service in a covered position, or after twenty-five years at any age. The calculation of your retirement benefit uses a more generous multiplier (1.7% of your high three base salary for each covered year worked before retirement) to make up for what is assumed to be less total years worked than most FERS or CSRS employees. As noted above, employees in a position which is assumed to be covered (you don't know absolutely for sure until you actually retire, and there are many horror stories out there of people being denied their special retirement benefit after their retirement package review) pay more out of pocket into their retirement system than other employees.

5. Park managers have several planning tools at their disposal to determine their law enforcement needs (LENA, VRAP, even park ops and management reviews) but often they are underutilized - other times they simply spit out an obvious result duplicating what any one with the sense God gave them would notice after spending two minutes in the park watching what was going on - which makes the process a waste of precious time.

Now some pure opinion: That twisted, unrecognizable dastardization of the plain meaning of the two words that the NPS called the "Core Operations" initiative nonetheless brought out that at most parks many if not most employee positions really weren't "core" if you look at each unit's legislative history and Congressional intent. It may be shocking to some I know, but camping and wilderness or outdoor recreation aren't always a fundamental purpose for many if not most NPS units, even at those which otherwise support those activities very well. However, the protection of park "resources" - applying the various meanings of that word to the variety of types of places entrusted to us - is always fundamental, at every unit. That doesn't always equate to having NPS law enforcement staff to satisfy that function, but often - most often maybe - it does. Here the off-the-rails USFS program is illustrative - what does Big County Sheriff's Department care about degredation of resources and low level disorderly and/or unsafe behavior that mean so much to us and more importantly to our visitors? They don't, and paying them federal taxpayer dollars isn't going to change either their department mission nor their attitude and culture. I'm having difficuly imagining a more foolish direction we could take to save funds than this, with the possible exception of entirely outsourcing our scientific inventory and monitoring function as someone suggested.

Most of my fellow employees have no idea what we do in the law enforcement realm. Some of that is by design, and some of that is the result of a poor job of communicating what we do, but regardless it often results in the grousing exemplified in this thread and as another example the recent discussion about Great Smoky Mountains rangers and using speeding enforcement to mitigate the alarming motor vehicle accident rate in that park. I don't know what the answer is, except to do a better job of pointing out what and why we do what we do, when we can, but also some critics need to realize that managers manage to most often do what does need to be done, and the critics who think otherwise - internal and external to the organization - are most often operating from a weak base planted on factual ignorance. My two cents.

Yes, the job of managing a park is complicated but isn't that what superintendents get paid to do. When the NPS budget gets reduced by congress, it would seem that the message to NPS is that the American people think the agency is spending too much managing the park system the way they now do and and it is up to management to determine how best to reduce those costs. Telling the American people arrogantly that for the $3B they do spend they can't enter, backpack, camp, run rivers etc. without spending even more makes it even worse. To me in this new age of specialization within the NPS and even without a budget shortfall to kickstart the discussion, the NPS should be self evaluating itself to determine if there are less exensive ways to conduct business (and more in more in keeping with the NPS mission) and presenting itself to the American public. Given this, I would like to ask Ms. Dillon a followup question if I may: You say that regulations/law are what prohibits an NPS manager from reducing/eliminating unnecessary functions, where in the regulations is it written that an NPS superintendent cannot contract with the local sheriff, another agency to obtain any necessary LE needs for a park unit?

Through contract, a superintendent, can more easily control the amount of strict LE within a park (which I've heard from several old NPS mangers they wish they could actually do). And, if we're strictly talking about law enforcement (as it seems we are these days of specialization and intense FLETC training) it would seem that getting a ticket from a surley sheriff deputy or NPS ranger would basically be sixes to most visitors (and probably more expected). Not having highly trained LE officers hanging around a sleepy backwater park would reduce the potential for those highly trained offiers looking for things to do. (From what I've heard, FLETC training doesn't include much resource interpretation and empathy for violators.) By its race to specialize every function in the NPS, the agency, in essence, has eliminated the argument that the NPS protection function is enherently an NPS function.

Further, and to not pick on LE only, where is it written in the regs that NPS should/must get science information/data in house and can't get all it needs (when it needs it) from outside entities, such as universities or other agencies specifically chartered and specialized to do science work (like the USGS)? As we've seen in several recent issues, NPS doesn't do such a bang up job managing science function nor does it end up using the science it produces (if it is found to differ from a superintendent's management desires). Keeping and managing a full time science funciton in a park is extremely expensive and can be counter productive to the overall management needs of park and the integrity of science in general.

NPS has from the beginning contracted out much of its "provide for the enjoyment" function to concessionairs. Since NPS is now so specialized and the American people are not satisfied with the cost of taking care of the rest of the functions, it is time to take a hard look at all these specialized functions and make a realistic determination about which are enherently federal and must be kept wthin the NPS. Telling the public that only NPS employees can hand out speeding tickets in parks seems like a loosing argument If NPS continues to put its head in the sand (by reducing services such as closing parks and campgrounds, implementing new fees and increasing others) and not take a hard internal look, it will dig its own grave. Lurking in the shadows are the states and tribal interests who would just love to take over management of the parks (as well as forests and other public lands).

Perp seasonal--I gave up my law enforcement commission when I transfered to the Washington, DC office. I suspect that if a superintendent somewhere in some small park retains his/her commission it is because there are so few protection rangers available that the park cannot maintain a 7-day commissioned staff. Most of them have far more important tasks to accomplish than providing visitor and park protection. I am sure it is not about the enhanced annuity that they might receive. Remember, there are certain disadvantages to 6c coverage. The first is that the individidual contribute more per month to his/her retirement that other employees do. The second is that he/she must retire at age 571/2, no matter where he/she wants to continue to work or not. The only way the person can continue is to accept a job that is not a 6c position. Many rangers who have only done law enforcement for 20 years find it difficult to compete for these jobs with other employees who have had broader experience.


Shouldn't be a hard concept.

And nothing anyone has said here suggests it is.

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