Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Origins of Law Enforcement in National Parks

One of the debates that continued during my entire career in the National Park Service was over the role of law enforcement and how it fit into the management of national parks. Many managers and employees were openly anti-law enforcement and tried to downplay its role in protecting the resources and people visiting our parks.

In 1872 the first national park in the world was established at Yellowstone. The land was set aside to be protected, but there were no laws or regulations that could be enforced to provide for this protection. In the recent Ken Burns documentary The National Parks: America's Best Idea he touches on this condition and the results. I am also reading the recently published book Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America by Douglas Brinkley which outlines T.R. and his contemporaries conservation work that ultimately contributed to the establishment of the National Park Service.

Even though areas such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Sequoia were designated to be saved, there existed no legal way to stop the deforestation, grazing, and extermination of wildlife that continued in the parks. One of the most dramatic examples was the buffalo herds at Yellowstone that poachers continued to decimate at will. The Army stepped in to patrol the parks, but the most they could do was to escort violators out of the park. There were no criminal or civil consequences for violators' greed.

One of the most vocal groups to step forward and lobby for legislation to protect park wildlife was the Boone and Crockett Club founded by Theodore Roosevelt and other members of his class of hunters and early conservationists. They proposed repeatedly that laws be passed and persons hired to protect these vanishing resources.

On page 331 of Wilderness Warrior Brinkley quotes T.R. following his return from the Spanish American War in 1898. He was describing the men that he had served with in war when he told a group , "Wouldn't Rough Riders make terrific forest rangers and wildlife wardens? Didn't the wildlife protection movement need no-nonsense men in uniform to stop poaching in federal parks?"
This concern for providing a law enforcement organization to protect park resources was the initial idea coming from the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, George Bird Grinnell, John F. Lacey, and John Muir that fueled the fire to establish the National Park Service. Although the Yellowstone Game Protection Act was passed in 1894 it was not until August 25, 1916 when President Woodrow Wilson signed the act creating the National Park Service. It took that long because many special interest groups did not want an agency established that would be able to enforce laws and regulations within the parks.

The responsibility for providing law enforcement protection of persons and resources in our parks is the foundation for the original establishment of the National Park Service. Today Park Rangers rededicate themselves to that core mission of providing for enjoyment of the visiting public while protecting the parks for future generations. Once the National Park Service was established is when the agency began to take on many additional roles such as education, promotion, maintenance, etc.

To learn more about the early rangers in our parks I highly recommend the book National Park Ranger An American Icon by Charles R. "Butch" Farabee, Jr.

To learn more about some situations I faced during my career due to the conflicting philosophies within the National Park Service over law enforcement, read my book that will be available by early November, A Park Rangers Life: True Stories from Thirty Two Years Protecting Our National Parks.

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