Ryan Zinke directs park police officers to begin patrol duty along U.S.-Mexico border

Reassignments will further deplete understaffed national parks.

The U.S. Park Police’s mounted unit offers assistance during a protest at the White House. CREDIT: U.S. Park Police
The U.S. Park Police’s mounted unit offers assistance during a protest at the White House. CREDIT: U.S. Park Police

U.S. park police and rangers have traditionally been tasked with protecting people and nature at national parks. But Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will be sending park police officers to the U.S.-Mexico border as part of a show of strength by the Trump administration.

Officers from the U.S. Park Police and the National Park Service will assist the U.S. Border Patrol, starting this Sunday, according to an internal email obtained by The Hill. The officers will be sent in rotating groups, spending about 21 days at a national park and a national monument: the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona and the Amistad National Recreation Area in Texas, The Hill reported.

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Under Zinke’s plan, the additional officers will support U.S. Customs and Border Patrol security objectives. Both areas, however, already have National Park Service law enforcement officers that work in conjunction with U.S. Border Patrol agents.

“This appears to be another example of Secretary Zinke’s ‘fire/ready/aim’ approach to policy-making. In an attempt to look strong on border security, he’s made yet another announcement without any pertinent details,” Aaron Weiss, media director for the Center for Western Priorities, told ThinkProgress.

Officers with the U.S. Park Police, a division of the National Park Service, are generally assigned to three metropolitan areas: Washington, D.C., New York City, and San Francisco. The number of Park Police officers shrunk from 652 in 2010 to 583 in 2016, the most recent year for which the Park Police had statistics.

The three-week deployments would take park police officers away from the three metropolitan areas during the beginning of this summer’s peak tourist season. It’s also unclear if the officers have training in border and immigration security.

“As summer quickly approaches and we near the busiest season for many of our national parks, the administration’s plan to take law enforcement rangers away from already understaffed and underfunded parks is irresponsible,” Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association, said Tuesday in a statement.

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Pierno also said it’s unclear how long the Interior Department will continue to relocate National Park Service personnel to the southern border and how the reassignments will impact visitors to national parks.

Since FY’11, the National Park Service has seen an 11 percent reduction in staff while experiencing a 19 percent increase in visitation over the same period.

“The administration should properly invest in the long-term staffing needs of the national parks on the border and nationwide, rather than shortchanging visitors through this disruptive plan,” Pierno said.

The Interior Department did not respond to a request for comment from ThinkProgress. A U.S. Park Police spokesperson referred all questions about the temporary reassignments to Interior Department headquarters.

An Interior spokesperson told The Hill that the department will be sending 22 officers to its law enforcement offices in Texas and Arizona to “stop illegal border crossings.”

The Interior Department recently cited budget concerns to stop 17 archaeologists from attending a four-day scientific conference. “But Zinke has the money to rotate 22 police officers in and out of the border all summer long? The costs of this publicity stunt will add up quickly,” Weiss said.

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“On top of that, it’s not clear whether these officers, who usually patrol national park units in large cities, have been trained on border security or immigration policy,” he said.

While the National Park Service has the authority to transfer staff to help deal with emergency situations, such as responding to hurricanes, the Interior Department has not typically used Zinke’s planned format of immediate, short-term reassignments for National Park Service personnel.

According to the Sierra Club, the Interior Department’s decision adds to the recent trend of border militarization at the expense of people, taxpayer money, and the environment.

“The decision to send park police to the border is yet another example of Ryan Zinke misusing taxpayer funds and failing to carry out his duties as Secretary of the Interior,” Dan Millis of the Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter Borderlands Program, said Tuesday in a statement. ““Our parks need maintenance funding, improved accessibility, and staff — not officers sent to harass and racially-profile people on our public lands.”