Perilous Parkland: Homeland Security and the National Parks

Last Updated: July 24, 2009

Protecting national parks such as the Grand Canyon, Gettysburg, and the Statue of Liberty for future generations has been the #1 priority of the National Park Service since its inception. This stewardship has gone hand-in-hand with interpretation, as the agency seeks to accommodate, inspire, and educate nearly 300 million visitors annually.

But 2001 forced the agency to consider the protection and interpretation of many of its sites differently. When the Department of Homeland Security tightened control over some areas of the border, less-protected landscapes such as the national parks suddenly became popular ports of entry for drug smugglers (Department of the Interior agencies manage 39 percent of the southern border; in particular, the Park Service manages seven border parks).

Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, in particular, has become a well-known hot spot for illegal border entries, and Sequoia National Park in California has been targeted by Mexican drug cartels, which have relocated significant pot-growing operations to the park’s wooded backcountry. Over the past year, rangers have seized illegal drugs at several parks, including Coronado National Monument in Arizona, and Padre Island National Seashore and Amistad National Recreation Area in Texas.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) identified other sites within the park system as potential terrorist targets for their symbolic value, forcing the Park Service to reallocate existing resources to beef up security at places like Mount Rushmore, the Washington Monument, and the St. Louis Arch. When rangers from parks such as Rocky Mountain and Shenandoah are sent to guard the Statue of Liberty during times of heightened security, dams, and porous international park borders, their positions remain unfilled.

These unfunded homeland security demands, which the Director has testified exceed $43 million annually, have strained the Park Service’s budget, put national park resources and staff at risk, and affected the experiences of visitors in many parks.

Risking National Park Resources & Staff

Increasing illegal activities in national parklands along the U.S. border put park resources, and park staff, at risk.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona is on the front line. Over the last 2 years, park rangers have arrested and indicted 385 felony smugglers, seized 40,000 lbs. of marijuana, and intercepted 3,800 illegal aliens. The Border Patrol estimated that 500 people per day (180,000 per year) and 700,000 pounds of drugs entered the U.S. illegally through the monument in the year 2000.

This workload takes a significant toll on the park and its staff. Ranger turnover is 25 percent, and the 330,000-acre park is functioning with only 11 rangers; their law enforcement needs assessment indicted the park should have 21 full-time rangers. Organ Pipe Cactus’s law enforcement rangers are under constant surveillance by the drug cartels, which even know when each ranger is home or not—putting the rangers and their families at risk.

While Border Control capacity has been increasing nearby, this DHS agency is still not always available to patrol the park. On such occasions, the park must decide whether to provide escorts to park researchers and other scientists, or pursue smugglers crossing the border. Consequently, park science and research is held up when there are not enough law enforcement rangers available to escort researchers.

NPCA’s analysis of the current law enforcement staffing levels in national park sites located on or near the southern U.S. border reveals a deficit of 31 law enforcement FTEs when compared to the law enforcement assessments that the agency itself completed. Parks affected include Amistad National Recreation Area, Big Bend National Park, Coronado National Memorial, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Padre Island National Seashore, and Palo Alto Battlefield National Historic Site.

In addition to juggling other needs, park staff also works to mitigate the damage caused by aggressive Border Control agents driving over the fragile desert parklands. At Organ Pipe Cactus, this is especially difficult, as most of the park is a designated wilderness area with limits on motorized access.

Degrading the Experiences of Visitors

As homeland security needs have increased, many park managers have had to reallocate existing resources to law enforcement to the detriment of other park programs such as interpretation and maintenance.

In 2000, Organ Pipe Cactus, for example, had 31 full-time equivalent employees (FTEs); it now has 39. But over the same six years, the Maintenance Division has lost 3 FTEs; Interpretation (public education) lost 3 seasonal interpreters; and the Natural Resources team lost one position. This has had a significant impact on the park’s ability to protect park resources and serve and inspire more than 280,000 visitors annually.

NPCA’s March 2006 assessment of Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland indicates that an increase in unfunded homeland security and law enforcement duties has strained the park’s ability to protect its cultural treasures and ensure that visitors have an opportunity to enjoy ranger-led educational programs.

Catoctin park staff often work double-duty, conducting interpretive or resource protection activities while also performing law enforcement duties. For example, the park’s museum curator also has law enforcement duties, which limits the amount of time that can be spent cataloging the park’s important museum collection. Historic letters exchanged during the New Deal period, photographs of presidential visits, and artifacts used for charcoaling during the period of rural industry and agriculture are not yet cataloged for park visitors to enjoy.

Homeland security requirements have also changed the way visitors experience some national parks. Visitors to the Statue of Liberty for instance, go through a screening process more elaborate than most airports. At the St. Louis Arch, the first ranger a visitor might encounter isn’t there to tell them the inspiring story of Louis and Clark, but is instead standing guard, solemnly carrying a large weapon. At Organ Pipe Cactus, visitors can’t even access some parts of the park and certain roads and trails because they are unsafe. Security concerns have also affected the way visitors experience the monuments on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Access is limited, parking is restricted, and scenic vistas are interrupted by security barriers and construction fences.

An Unfunded Mandate

National Park Service Director Fran Mainella testified before Congress in May 2005 that the parks’ unfunded homeland security costs total $43 million annually, but NPCA estimates that the overall cost is likely much higher. For instance, security upgrades at Independence Hall National Historical Park in Philadelphia alone are estimated to cost the park $5 million. A 30-mile-long vehicle barrier at Organ Pipe Cactus cost approximately $14 million to build, but the Park Service doesn’t have enough money to maintain it, which park staff fear may lead to breaches.

At Coronado National Monument, located on Arizona’s border with Mexico, increased costs have largely resulted from doubling the size of their ranger force from 2 to 5, and funding overtime pay for rangers, who must now work in teams of two for safety purposes. This has thrown off the budget balance in the park, as funding is pulled in part from other park programs.

The Public’s Position

According to a March 2006 poll of 1,007 likely voters by Zogby International, 75 percent of respondents say they support the Park Service being reimbursed for homeland and border security activities the agency has to conduct.

NPCA’s Position

The Park Service’s already-limited capacity is further eroded by the demands of homeland security. Funding for law enforcement personnel and equipment in most parks is included as part of the operating budget, which research has shown to be short by more than $600 million annually. Congress and the administration should increase funding to the parks’ operating budget, and make the parks eligible for reimbursement funding from the Department of Homeland Security.

For More Information

For more information about homeland security in the national parks, please contact NPCA Vice President for Government Affairs Craig Obey at 202-223-6722, ext. 234.

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