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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.


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.

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.

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'.

You don't have a 'choice' as to whether or not to disclose your bank accounts, pay statements, dependents, etc. etc. to the IRS. And unless you want to travel to the National Parks by hitchhiking with cash only as your payment method, your movements are being tracked by somebody. Homeland Security has so much too do right now tracking potential terrorists, criminal illegal aliens and other lawbreakers (and doing a poor job of that) that I really don't think they'll be checking on whether little old me visited a national park or not. And if they did, I really don't care. It's not an activity that I'm ashamed of or trying to hide.

"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"

Merryland you are so right on. I too have often wondered why people get so upset over showing their driver's license to a government official when they on a weekly basis allow a greedy corporation to know how many condoms, beers, and tamons they buy.

Jeremy is right too. We can choose to get "off the grid" in many cases if we are willing to lie about our personal information and do without certain conveinences. Still, if you use a credit card to pay for purchases and give grocery stores your real name on their "savings" cards, then the government already has many ways to track where you are and what you are doing. The Real ID is superfluous. Another 14 billion down the drain.

I do find this upsetting. So, the assumption that those upset with the government aren't also upset with private industry is not much of an argument. Do you think I like getting tons of junk mail, like having my name and information sold so that others can try to sell me stuff? It's all ridiculous. How is it an argument in favor of federal ID requirements that private corporations do the same thing? It's unbelievable that the world divides so neatly for all of you. Also, that governments do this already ... so what? That we all in some way comply in order to survive, so what? Is it right? If not, is it worth resisting? And, to me, this is a no brainer. Anything that gives the government more of an excuse to force people to defend their identity is more onerous than not doing so. I think that's true everywhere, whether we are talking about anonymous postings on a private blog or proving your identity to make a purchase with your credit card at a store. And, yes, there are some drastically radical consequences of being so laissez-faire about identity that I doubt too many people have the guts to embrace. The world we live in now is worse.

Where are people willing to draw the line on these sorts of intrusions? I think people would draw a line for instance if we thought of forcing all the Jews in the country to wear Stars of David. But, what principle guides this? If it's always going to be the case that we'll justify another intrusion because it exists in some form somewhere else, we are fast on that road. And, if you ask a lot of immigrants in this country, especially people of color, then we are already pretty far along that road. Already, there is a trend against racial diversity in the national parks; do you suppose this helps matters? Instead, it makes us all assumed enemies of the state until our ID proves otherwise. That's really very, very sad.

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

Jim, I'm not in favor of any of it. It's just that each little piece of our identity that gets collected by this company and that government entity is faced with a pathetic wimper from the masses against it, and the march toward everyone knowing everything about everyone continues. We can scream about it as individuals all we want, but until someone steps in as President of this country who's not a Democrat and not a Republican, nothing will change, and it will get worse. Money drives the two parties against each other, money from big business who wants all that information, and the government has access to most if not all that information when they want or need it. The fact that the government may collect it a little more directly doesn't really change much at all, except perhaps allow them to nab terrorists a little quicker than they might otherwise. The damage has already been done and it's doubtful there's any going back at this point.

Jon, I definitely agree with you. And, I share your pessimism; I'm just not willing to give up. So, again, I'll ask what people are willing to do to organize. I put that out there not simply as a challenge I expect to fall on deaf ears, but one that's real. When I land in the Greater Yellowstone region, this is the kind of organizing I expect I'll be doing. So, it's a feeler out there to see who might be willing to bite. We can't simply be cheerleaders, and though I definitely agree that a third party President is not going to happen, all that leads me to think of is what other means would be effective. I'm interested in meeting and organizing with people interested in making that happen.

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

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