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Federal Real ID May (Not) Be Required For Park Visit

Michael Chertoff, DHS portrait

I'm Michael Chertoff, head of Homeland Security, and I'm watching you through this computer screen right now.

It is hard to imagine at this point, but in just over a year, under a plan developed by Homeland Security, you may be asked to show a special federal identification to enter a national park. I can understand the security need behind having a passport to enter the country, and I can understand the need for important background checks before entering a nuclear facility, but needing the same federal security check to drive through a park is absurd.

On its surface, the Real ID program seems simple enough. Homeland Security wants to set some standards for the way states create their drivers licenses and i.d. cards. Beyond the fun of having a fancy new drivers license, you would be required to present it for any "federal purpose". You would have to show it to access planes, trains, court houses, and national parks. If that doesn't bother you, consider that all of the personal data which uniquely identifies you will be stored in a machine readable form (like a bar-code). Today this data is stuff like your social security number and address, but in the future could include biometric data like retinal scans or DNA; a treasure trove of detail for identity thieves. Plus, every time you choose to have a picnic at a park, your visit would be recorded in a massive government database. Bye bye privacy, hello big brother.

Today, this legislation is opposed by more than 600 organizations, including the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, the American Library Association the Association for Computing Machinery, the National Council of State Legislatures, the American Immigration Lawyers Association and the National Governors Association. Many states oppose this program as well, as they would be the ones responsible for the cost of the upgrading their licensing procedures and equipment. It's estimated the program would cost states $14 billion over the next decade.

Brodie Farquhar, a reporter living in Wyoming (and one who frequently follows issues in the parks), followed up with the NPS Washington Office about the Real ID requirement for parks in a recent article.

Gerry Gaumer, deputy director of communications for the National Park Service, said he’s not sure how Yellowstone, for example, or any other unit of the Park Service would handle the Real ID program.

"We’ve received no guidance from DHS, and this is the first I’ve heard of it," Gaumer said.

Rangers don’t currently check IDs at entrances to parks, he said. "And some of our areas are not fee-based," he added.

The Real ID is an issue that we'll track here at the National Parks Traveler. At this point, I'm of the opinion that this program may not have legs. It is opposed my so many organizations, states, and the current Congressional majority, that with a new President (Dem or Rep) we may see a shakeup in Homeland Security, and this thing will fall silently off the radar. At least that is what I'm hoping. Finding freedom in the parks would be a lot more difficult with the government tracking our every move.

We've received some additional detail from the National Park Service regarding this Real ID. This is quoted directly from the Federal Register notice of March 9, 2007 (pp. 10819-10858):

These regulations are not intended to change current admittance practices at Federal facilities. If a Federal facility does not currently require presentation of photo identification prior to entry, the Act and these proposed regulations would not require that process to change.

So, if you don't have to show a license now to get into parks, you won't have to under the Real ID program either. But, as has been pointed out in comments, if you hold a National Parks Pass or an America the Beautiful Pass, you are already required to show ID to verify you are the legitimate owner of the pass. I am sure that will continue to be the practice at entrance gates no matter what the fate of the Real ID program. However, I believe there would have been a big difference with the enforcement of Real ID program for a few reasons.

Potentially, every person entering a park would have to have a federally recognized Real ID and you would have had to show it to federal officers (park rangers) when asked. In most cases, this would have been your state issued drivers license which would include the Real ID updates. Park rangers would have then been able to scan your card, which would have recorded your visit into a federal database. You would not have had a choice about this. It sounds very '1984', huh?

Fortunately, this does not appear to be the direction this program is going in the national parks. (Sorry for the bold, but I felt it necessary to stress that point.) Today, when you are asked to show your license with a park pass, you have made an implicit agreement to do so when you bought the pass. If you chose to pay cash to enter a park, you would not be asked for your ID. The only other time I can think we are currently asked for our ID in parks, is when a law enforcement ranger asks us to do so for reasons associated with public safety or resource protection.


Yes, we waive our rights on a regular basis, but, it is a choice we make. We have the choice to accept the privacy policy or not. If I choose to, in this country, I have the choice to have on official address that includes a P.O. Box (a no-no under the Real ID), I have a choice to own a driver's license, I have a choice to move about the country and not have anyone know where I am. All of these things could potentially be *forced* on me under the Real ID. I can appreciate those of you who don't have a problem with this, as a few have said, we do this already in many instances. But as I see it, the potential of this program represents a big change in the definition of freedom in this country. In many cases, 'choice' gets thrown out the window and is replaced with 'must'.

The purpose of Real ID is to keep foreign terrorists who wouldn't be able to get a valid Real ID off airplanes and out of potential terrorist targets like federal buildings. Off hand, I don't think any of the National Parks would be prime targets for a terrorist attack, so I concur that the government is unlikely to have park visitor's show their Real ID. But if park rangers did check Real ID at entry stations it might help in stopping the entry of illegal aliens who are manning the marijuana growing operations inside the parks.

This is all kinda silly, because private companies have been collecting more information about us than the government has for years, yet we keep signing the sheet or clicking the OK button that says we understand their privacy policy without reading it, we waive our rights on a regular basis just to get the goods or service we're standing in line for. The fact that I'm posting on this website is somehow known by a lot more people than I'd care to know about.

At both Yellowstone and Badlands last week, the gate rangers wouldn't let me in using my National Parks Pass without showing some form of ID. One of them even made me re-sign the back of the pass using a permanent marker. I love it when other dishonest people try to scam their own government by sharing their parks pass and I have to suffer for it as a result -- absolutely love it.

I made reservations at White Wolf and Curry Village in Yosemite over the Labor Day weekend. In order to verify that I was the reservation holder, I had to show my driver's license. Delaware North, which runs the Yosemite accommodations has my name in its computers showing all my stays from previous years. Who cares? If the government as well as Delaware North know that I like to visit Yosemite, I really don't care. The government already knows my Social Security number, they issued it! The government post offices know my address! It's far more of an intrusion that I am required every April 15 to supply the government with all my personal financial information or else. What's really odd is that those who rant against Real ID, have no problem with proposals that the government run the entire health care system and then have access to everyone's personal medical history. Compared to that, knowing that I like visiting national parks is nothing.

Anonymous, before you call me out for having got my facts wrong, would you mind doing your own fact check? In March of this year, DHS announced a 20 month delay, pushing the time of enforcement from May 11, 2008 to the end of December 2009.

The Real ID Act takes effect May 11, 2008, not "in just over a year," as this article states. At least get the date right!

Also, any DHS directive about how to enforce this law can be changed at the pleasure of DHS. Just because they say right now that they won't enforce it to the hilt -- which of course they WOULD say in order to deflect criticism and opposition to the law -- nothing prevents them from changing their minds next year, tomorrow, or right now.

I agree with Jim. This about the larger context of who is in ultimate control and how they use their power in the context of park management.

This subject warrants further inquiry. Thanks for bringing the issue to light.

I don't support privatizing the parks, but I find this onerous. It raises other issues in respect to the way laws are enforced in the parks and the general way that parks are managed. A long time ago, Alston Chase argued about Yellowstone that the park was managed on the basis of law enforcement considerations - he went so far as to argue that the natural regulation policy that the park adopted was essentially a law enforcement concern. He said that in part because he could not explain the contradiction he saw between the hands off policy toward elk and the hands on policy in managing grizzly bears (except when they were starving). While Chase obviously had some axes to grind, I think the notion of control and public lands is an essential concept. It finds a more extreme expression in the Real ID program. If the parks aren't going to be checking for IDs, that doesn't change the basic ideas.

I don't see privatization as a check on this; in fact, it might prove to be more onerous, excluding people for any reason the owners deem acceptable. The only check I can think of as possible is popular grassroots resistance to these kinds of policies; if people aren't complying (already some states have refused to comply), then the program will be moot. However, if enough people do comply, then it won't be long before the parks will find a way to comply as well.

So, this is serious to me even if the info that Jeremy found out is true because of the issues it raises in general about identification requirements in any context (including the park context). It's also serious because of what it might suggest about management philosophy in parks at large.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

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