The U.S. Park Rangers are facing a staffing crisis like many law enforcement agencies across the country after years of National Parks Service (NPS) neglect for providing necessary resources, training and recruiting.
According to a report by the Government Executive, the U.S. Park Rangers numbers have decreased by 900 positions over the last two decades.
U.S. Park Rangers – sworn police officers under the purview of the NPS dedicated to protecting over 400 U.S. National Parks – currently maintain a staff of 1,584 officers, which is less than half the number recommended by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).
According to a study commissioned by the NPS following the murder of three rangers in 2001, the IACP recommended the department boost their staff to 3,300 with a minimum of 2,700 sworn personnel. The IACP took aim at the NPS in the study, concluding that the U.S. Park Rangers were “undervalued, under-resourced and under-managed by the NPS.”
Despite the NPS in 2001 announcing a “No Net Loss” policy to maintain staffing levels, the U.S. Park Rangers personnel have continued to decline over the last two decades, along with a significant decline in criminal investigators.
In addition, recruiting efforts have been slowed due to a backlog of basic training slots for the few recruits who have been hired but are not yet fully trained. This problem goes back several decades.
In 2004, president of the U.S. Park Rangers Lodge FOP Pete Tortorell released a newsletter citing NPS’ overall neglect of the agency, from cancelling or postponing ranger training programs to not collecting data on assaults on rangers or use-of-force incidents that could provide a basis for increasing officer safety measures.
He also accused the NPS of cutting positions and failing to recruit more officers.
“The staffing shortage of LE rangers in the NPS is critical; there is difficultly in attracting and recruiting suitable applicants, there have been many permanents leaving to go to other agencies, and seasonal LE positions are being cut. Meanwhile, there are increased demands on the workforce. The NPS has not stopped the bleeding and shows no urgency to do so,” Tortorell said of the staffing shortage.
U.S. Park Rangers experience the highest number of assaults compared to other federal law enforcement officers, often because they are outnumbered.
With dwindling numbers, rangers are also taking on an increased workload of new parks, recreation areas and monuments growing within the National Park System, which are known to be hotbeds of crime.
In a 2019 statement, National Park Service spokesman Jeremy Barnum said there’s an average of six deaths each week within the park system, amounting to 312 deaths per year, including murders and missing persons cases. This in addition to other crimes including drug-dealing, rape, suicide and drunk-driving. Rangers respond to tens of thousands of these incidents a year.
Paul D. Berkowitz, a retired National Park Service supervisory special agent, blasted the NPS’ weak leadership. “In the absence of strong leadership or advocacy either from within or outside of the NPS, matters will only get worse,” he wrote.
“Absent a major shift in priorities, it is only a matter of time before the situation for our U.S. Park Rangers is again elevated from behind the scenes to national prominence through preventable deaths and other disasters where they are outnumbered, under-trained and under-equipped, stressed, strained and overwhelmed by the crush of crowds, crime and related calls for emergency services.”