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By Karen Chávez and Trevor Hughes
Posted Nov 23, 2019 at 2:29 PM

The Trump administration has ordered rangers from national parks around the country to travel to the U.S.-Mexico border to fight illegal immigration and drug traffickers.

It’s an effort that comes as the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives has refused to fund President Donald Trump’s border security plan, which calls for more barriers and beefed-up law enforcement along the border.

The directive has seen park rangers from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska, the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and Zion National Park in Utah, among others, temporarily relocate to Arizona and Texas to work with Border Patrol agents. And park officials say they’ve already been told they should continue sending park rangers to the border through September 2020.

Trump signed a stopgap spending bill Nov. 21 after Senate approval, to fund the government through Dec. 20 and stave off a government shutdown that would otherwise have started at midnight Nov. 21.

The president continued to ask for $5 billion to fund a U.S.-Mexico border wall, but House Democrats did not include such funding in their spending bills. The fight over border wall funding is the same issue that led to a five-week government shutdown at the start of the year, which sent most government workers, including park rangers, home without pay.

The president and his staff say the rangers and other officers have given valuable assistance to border guards facing a steady stream of migrants trying to enter the United States. They say the Trump administration is using existing resources while Congress refuses to fund the president’s border wall plan.

But critics say the president is improperly using park officials to staff up his border plan at a time when the nation’s national parks are desperately understaffed and overcrowded. They also note that the park rangers, who are accustomed to ticketing speeding drivers or extracting injured hikers from remote canyons, have little to no training in border security tactics.

The law enforcement surge along the border “is a sham that diverts law enforcement resources away from already underfunded parks,” U.S. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Arizona, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources whose district borders Mexico, told USA TODAY. “This puts park resources, visitors, and staff at risk, all so President Trump can continue to perpetuate his fabricated emergency at the border. Park police and border communities should not be pawns in this administration’s political games.”

Record numbers of migrants crossing the border

Customs and Border Protection Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan defended the law enforcement surge during a press briefing on Nov. 14, saying that his agency “has taken action” absent “a single piece of meaningful legislation” from Congress on border security.

Trump has requested $18.2 billion for U.S. Customs and Border Protection for the upcoming budget year, up from $15 billion in last year’s budget, which includes $5 billion for new border wall construction.

Morgan noted that the number of illegal border crossing apprehensions reached a peak in May of more than 140,000 in a single month. By October, border apprehensions were just over 42,000, a nearly 70 percent decrease since May. By mid-year, CBP was detaining almost 20,000 detainees in custody, Morgan said. The government employs nearly 20,000 Border Patrol agents.

The law enforcement operation, known as the Department of Interior-Border Support Surge, began as a pilot program in May 2018. A second surge began in October, amid record numbers of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

Former Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke announced 22 park rangers and other staffers would be sent to the border in a May 2018 press release. He said in the first two days of the program, rangers “had made 13 arrests and confiscated an illegal handgun that had the serial number filed off. Officers also found extensive evidence of recent activity along smuggling routes.”

Federal officials refused to discuss the operational details behind the latest surge, including the exact number of rangers, U.S. Park Police and other Department of Interior law enforcement officers being used to bolster border security. But the operation is “indeed underway,” said Robert “Bob” Bushell, assistant chief patrol agent for the U.S. Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, which covers a vast landmass along the U.S.-Mexico border.

During last year’s surge, 1,195 people were arrested with the help of park rangers for a variety of crimes, including illegal border crossings, Bushell said. Rangers also seized 720 pounds of marijuana and 120 pounds of methamphetamine, Bushell said.

“It is an awesome partnership and these guys are really sharp. That’s a big reason why we continue to ask for their support,” Bushell said.

National Park law enforcement rangers operate as police officers who can write speeding tickets and make arrests for any crimes, including drunken driving, drug possession or domestic battery. They are also wildland firefighters and emergency medical technicians who respond to heart attacks and other health issues.

One thing they didn’t have much experience in until recently? Border security.

“You’re plopping down rangers who are effectively city cops, traffic cops, into a hostile desert environment where they have no training,” said Laiken Jordahl, 28, a former National Park Service contractor hired to conduct wildlife studies in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, where the bulk of the surge is taking place. “I mean, they haven’t even been trained on how to move through a desert environment.”

Bushell agreed that the park rangers received little training before being deployed to monitor the border.

“Outside of orientation briefing, we find that they’re very capable of adapting. But as far as law enforcement-type training, we don’t provide that. They’re already trained, maybe not in the aspect of immigration, but in the process of conducting their regular duties is a big help to us,” Bushell said.

He said sometimes park rangers will patrol alone, and sometimes ride with Border Patrol agents.

“They’re able to notice things that we might not, as far as damage to a particular plant, or different disturbances to trails once they get down here and get oriented,” he said.

Park rangers from across U.S. being sent to border

To find out where rangers where being sent and from which parks, USA TODAY polled about 30 of the country’s largest parks. While some didn’t comment and others said they were not sending help to the border, some confirmed they were participating in the surge.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the busiest national park in the country with 11.4 million visitors in 2018, was asked to send two park rangers to the border for two-week details. It sent one. For 2020, park officials were once again asked to send two rangers to the border, park spokeswoman Dana Soehn said.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park covers about half a million remote, mountainous acres patrolled by 35 law enforcement rangers. In 2017, it had 30,000 calls for law enforcement assistance.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is the second busiest national park site, with 14.7 million visitors. The park is budgeted for 34 rangers but currently has two vacancies.

The park is expected to send up to three rangers to help with the border over the next six months, said spokeswoman Leesa Brandon. The staffing shortages come after the park recorded 20 deaths last year, including those from traffic accidents, suicides and two homicides. The park’s law enforcement rangers also deal with plant and animal poaching, search and rescues and sexual assaults.

Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado – the third busiest national park with 4.6 million visitors in 2018, and only 14 law enforcement rangers, with two current vacancies – will send two rangers to assist in the border surge this year and two are slated for 2020.

In Utah, Zion National Park is the fourth busiest park in the U.S., with 4.3 million visitors in 2018. The park made national news in May after visitors complained of hours-long wait times to hop on hiking trails.

“Zion, like most non-Southern border parks, is assisting our Southern border parks and monuments by augmenting their staff with our own law enforcement rangers,” Chief Ranger Daniel Fagergren told USA TODAY. He said the park is budgeted for 12 full-time law enforcement rangers.

Shenandoah National Park in Virginia sent one park ranger to the border in 2018 and another to the U.S. Virgin Islands, to help backfill for one of that park’s rangers who was sent to the border. The park plans to send another ranger to the border in December and one in 2020.

Bushell, the assistant chief patrol agent for the U.S. Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, said rangers from parks throughout the country participating in the surge are largely being deployed to Organ Pipe, a sprawling 330,000-acre wilderness park that receives about 1.5 million visitors a year, and to Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, which spans 860,000 acres. Both parks are located in southern Arizona on the U.S.-Mexico border. Some rangers have also been sent to Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas.

Organ Pipe has 45 full-time employees, including 15 law enforcement rangers at full staff, said park spokesman Frank Torres. Up to 20 percent of those positions are currently vacant.

The park is considered one of the most dangerous national parks, precisely because so many migrants and drug smugglers use it to illegally cross the border. Carrying characteristic black water jugs designed to block reflections that could draw a ranger’s attention, migrants and smugglers alike sneak into the United States along a network of dusty trails and cactus-studded hillsides where temperatures can soar to about 110 degrees in the summer.

Park rangers warn visitors that “illegal border crossings and activities, including drug smuggling, occur daily,” according to Organ Pipe’s website.

Parker Deighan, who works for the Tucson, Arizona-based nonprofit No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes, said rangers in Organ Pipe have threatened the group’s volunteers and destroyed their water caches. The group leaves out water and other supplies for migrants, but rangers say drug smugglers also benefit. Rangers have sometimes ticketed No More Deaths volunteers for littering, and work closely with nearby Border Patrol agents to question the volunteers and search their vehicles, said Deighan, 29.

“The culture of the rangers is very militarized and very focused on border enforcement, as opposed to conservation purposes,” she said. “They are wearing fatigues and give off a more militarized vibe than rangers at parks in the interior.”

National Parks staffing is at record lows

The reorganization of federal law enforcement officials comes as the nation’s parks are woefully understaffed.

USA TODAY reported exclusively earlier this year using data obtained via the federal Freedom of Information Act that the nation’s ranger corps and parking staffing has dropped by 20 percent over the past decade. The staffing reductions come as national parks are seeing historically high visitation numbers, leading in some cases to hours-long delays by rangers to respond to calls for help because there’s so few working at any given time, according to watchdog groups.

There are now fewer than 1,800 law enforcement rangers watching out for nearly 320 million visitors at the nation’s 419 national park sites. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a government watchdog group, released figures Nov. 5 showing that the number of full-time National Park Service staff had decreased by more than 3,500, or 16%, since 2011.

“These growing shortfalls compromise the ability of the parks to protect both their resources and the visiting public,” the report states.

Those park employees are responsible for more than 85 million acres of land, including parks, battlefields, historic sites, monuments, seashores and scenic trails. In 2018, nearly 320 million people visited national parks, a number roughly equivalent to the total U.S. population.

The staffing shortage reflects “a serious erosion in our ability to safeguard some of the most iconic areas in the United States for current and future generations,” said PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse.

He said he frequently fields complaints from rangers about the dangerous shortage of policing staff in parks.

“Sometimes the closest law enforcement to a large number of visitors might be a few hours away. In some places, there are thousands or tens of thousands of visitors and no law enforcement presence,” Whitehouse said.

And the staffing problem could soon get worse. The Trump administration budget calls for cutting funding to the National Parks Service by 14% from $3.2 billion in 2019 to $2.7 billion for 2020, along with continued use of out-of-state rangers to patrol the border.

Phil Francis, a former park service employee who retired in 2013 after a 41-year career, which included superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which stretches across 469 miles through Virginia and North Carolina, said temporarily reassigning rangers to border patrols risks causing problems in their home parks.

“There have been steep reductions in national park law enforcement ranks and given that, it seems illogical to me that we would be reassigning more people and creating more of a vacancy in national parks,” said Francis, who is now chairman of the nonprofit Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks.

A deadly partnership on the border?

To be sure, the Trump White House isn’t the first presidential administration to deploy park rangers to the border. During Washington’s decades-long War on Drugs, rangers were sometimes sent to the border for up to three weeks at a time to chase down drug smugglers.

Kent Delbon, a retired park ranger, remembers being sent to the border in 2001 from his home park, Grand Canyon National Park, where he worked from 1996 through 2001. Delbon, now 51, said rangers back then were told to ignore migrants crossing the border.

The drug smugglers “would take bales of marijuana and tie them up with strings and wrap it in black plastic and strap it to their backs. There would be five or six walking across the border into the park smuggling marijuana,” he said. “When we were doing static nighttime surveillance work, we’d be hiding in the bushes. Our direction was to try to stop them. It was well known that once you confronted them, they’d drop the marijuana bushels and run in six different directions.”

A year after Delbon’s detail with the Border Patrol, his detail coordinator, Kris Eggle, a ranger at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, was killed by drug cartel members fleeing illegally into the United States after committing a series of murders in Mexico. After Eggle’s death in 2002, the National Park Service closed most of Organ Pipe and shut down the NPS-Border Patrol collaboration, deeming it too dangerous.

Fifteen years later, the Trump administration is once again encouraging park rangers to head to the border.

Jordahl, the former park service contractor, said the federal government knows there aren’t enough park rangers to help the Trump administration police the border. Jordahl now works for the Center for Biological Diversity, which is suing the Trump administration over the president’s plans to build a border wall through the national park because the barrier could irrevocably alter migration patterns of threatened or endangered species.

“If the goal is to secure the border, these rangers aren’t going to be it,” Jordahl said. “One hundred percent, it’s a publicity stunt that has very real consequences for the national parks across the country. It’s totally clear it’s putting a strain on already limited resources… That doesn’t serve any of us.”