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Park service ranger ranks decline, even as crime rises

A U.S. Park Ranger law enforcement vehicle parked in front of the Joshua Tree National Park entrance sign.
NPS / Emily Hassell
Flickr via Public Domain
Demand for park rangers has swelled in the past decade.

National Park Service rangers are being stretched dangerously thin, according to a new report.

The advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Policy found that the number of permanent law enforcement officers has dropped 15 percent since 2005. Seasonal officers are down 30 percent in the same time period.

Colleen Teubner, staff attorney for the organization, said the long-term planning capacity of staff–a critical part of maintaining safety at federal facilities–has also dwindled. The group recently submitted testimony to the Law Enforcement Task Force at the Department of the Interior advocating for increased spending on employee hiring and retention.

"It's hard to enforce the laws within the national parks when there are fewer rangers on staff," Teubner said.

This decline in ranks comes as interest in National Park Service lands has skyrocketed, particularly in the Mountain West. Forty-four parks, including Yellowstone, Zion, and Grand Canyon, broke visitation records in 2021.

“When there's an increase in visitation, there can be expected to be an increase in crime,” Teubner said. “However, when the capacity of the rangers has decreased … when it really should be increasing, that's where we face a problem.”

Indeed, violent crimes more than quadrupled nationally since 2014, according to data obtained by her organization. Search and rescue incidents more than tripled in the past six years.

For its part, the park service’s budget for the 2023 fiscal year would boost staffing, including for law enforcement rangers. Tuebner is hopeful the added funding will make a difference in the shortage, though she called for more money in the future specifically for officer staffing.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Will Walkey is currently a reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.
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