If you’re ever lost, hurt, stuck in some impassable crevice, or have otherwise boarded the pain train while in the backcountry, there is nothing—short of your own mother hiking toward you on the trail with a plate of warm cookies and a blanket—more comforting than the sight of a broad-hatted park ranger coming along the trail to offer aid. They’re SAR pros, guides, docents, traffic cops, naturalists, and law enforcement officials, all rolled into one at various points in their careers—invaluable members of the NPS and often the only direct contact most park visitors have with the service.
But despite their importance, the ranks of NPS law enforcement rangers are beginning to dwindle, especially compared with the record-breaking amounts of visitors streaming into the parks.
Though a $12 billion maintenance backlog gets most of the attention, times are lean for many departments within the NPS, including staffing. Staff shortfalls include park rangers, as managers are forced to choose between spending money on things like crucial infrastructure projects and the interpretative installations that can attract paying visitors, or hiring more rangers to patrol the back- and front-country sections of parks. As you can imagine, that choice is increasingly favoring maintenance needs over rangers. Even still, employment numbers are down across most job titles within the NPS, from rangers to front desk workers, to mechanics, and trail crews. If a job through the NPS draws a check from the feds, basically, there are fewer people doing it now than a decade ago.
According to data procured by the USA Today from a Freedom of Information Act request, the available staff of NPS law enforcement rangers throughout the park system has dropped by 20 percent since 2005, from 1,922 to 1,766. That includes full-time and seasonal ranger positions. Those figures pretty much match staffing across NPS, which has seen a 20 percent reduction in staff for all positions.
Meanwhile, park attendance is absolutely soaring.
Though last year there was a small dip in park visitors compared to 2017, the trend is pointing toward scores more people in our parks, both in the front and backcountry, than ever before. Back in 2005, when there were 20 percent more park rangers than in 2019, the parks handled 273 million visitors. In 2018, 318 million people streamed into the parks, and that number is down from 331 million in both 2016 and 2017. Even with that slight downtick, it means an increase in visitors roughly equal to the population of California in that time. Or, to think of it another way, the combined populations of Michigan, Ohio, Georgia, and North Carolina. With a concurrent drop in rangers at the same time.
That’s 300-plus million visitors, over 84 million square acres of land, and only 1,766 rangers to patrol that wide open space.
If those numbers continue along their current trajectories, it’s not particularly difficult to imagine potential repercussions. Fewer rangers mean longer response times for problems in the backcountry. If there aren’t as many rangers on patrol, they’re less likely to be in a position to help people stay out of trouble in the first place. It also means fewer rangers to deal with vandalism or misuse of park resources. The partial government shutdown last year showed how a dearth of rangers sometimes meant people trashing parks, often literally with garbage, or by driving and hiking their way into fragile lands. It also means more traffic snarls in parks as increased vehicular traffic needs monitoring.
How will those gaps be filled? Well, by volunteers, increasingly. Or in some parks, retraining. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is actually training janitorial staff to aid in search and rescue operations in the backcountry because their ranger corps is stretched so thin.
As the above numbers show, it isn’t just law enforcement rangers that are seeing their numbers drop. Interpretive staff too are being dwarfed by increased crowds and decreased ranks. Something unlikely to be rectified anytime soon. The White House’s proposed budget for next year includes more cuts to NPS funding.
“Fewer rangers doesn’t only put people in jeopardy: the park resources suffer significantly,” former NPS backcountry ranger Rick Sanger told AJ. “Patrolling areas which take a day or more to traverse means often we are cleaning up resource damage way after it happened. A fully staffed backcountry means more visitors are seeing rangers, and more rangers are getting to educate visitors on how best to care for the wilderness we all love.”
“Who are the ones really protecting the resource? It’s not the people doing the bird surveys, it’s the law enforcement rangers,” former ranger at Cape Hatteras National Seashore said. “When bad things happen, we’re the first ones called.”