The Mojave Desert Preserve spans 1.6 million acres of sand dunes, volcanic cinder cones and mile-high mountains. No fewer than 600 people visit daily during peak season. Yet there are only two rangers to police the vast land.
Chief Ranger Sean McGuinness does the math. He knows that with that kind of staffing, crimes are going unnoticed, unchecked.
"There simply aren't enough rangers to do the work," said McGuinness, who added that he desperately needs at least four more officers. Colleagues at national parks across the country echo his worries.
They said that as a result of low staffing, national park resources are diminishing. Animals are poached, private neighbors extend their yards onto federal land, and these national treasures become trash bins for hazardous chemicals.
Rangers racing from one emergency to the next take longer to respond to minor crimes, if they can at all. They rarely have time to be educational guides for visitors, they said, so people leave the parks with less knowledge about its cultural and natural history.
"There's less face-to-face contact," said Jay Watson, a nature lover from Sonoma, Calif., who vacations at national parks several times a year.
The decade-long shortage of park rangers is particularly acute in California, which has 28 national parks, monuments, recreation areas, preserves and the like--more than any state--and where high electricity charges eat into staffing costs, said Jay Wells, chief ranger for the Pacific West region of the National Park Service, which manages the federal sites.
Nationwide, 615 additional rangers with law enforcement training are needed to protect the parks, according to a study last year by the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police. That would amount to a 28% staffing increase.
The shortage of rangers gets worse every year as the number of visitors increases and the number of rangers holds steady or declines. Also, in the last two years, five parks have been added in California alone.
Officials said there just isn't enough money to hire more rangers.
Crimes Are Increasing
Since 1996, money for rangers with police training has increased every year an average of about 7%. However, the rising cost of hiring rangers has exceeded the fund increases, said Dennis Burnett, U.S. chief ranger for law enforcement.
Resource crimes jumped 35% nationwide from 1994 to 1999. Animals are poached, and artifacts are stolen to be sold on the black market. Black bears and brown bears are killed for their gallbladders, which are sold in Asia for as much as $300 because some people use them in traditional medicine. Children pocket lizards or frogs, perhaps unaware that to do so is a crime.
"More and more people are realizing that there is money to be made in plants and animals in parks that are getting harder and harder to find anywhere else," said Bob Wilson, law enforcement branch chief at Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks.
Simply because the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is surrounded by cities, its worst enemies are its human neighbors. One audacious resident built a swimming pool and tennis court on federal land.
Then there are residents too lazy to drive to a dump site, who instead go to a remote area in the mountains at night to drop off buckets of motor oil or an old refrigerator or furniture.
These crimes, rangers said, kill plants and animals and upset soil structure around newly forming natural springs.
"We're literally finding a lot of our resources disappearing before our eyes," said Jim Richardson, Santa Monica district ranger. At the popular Yosemite National Park, which at any given moment only has nine rangers patrolling 750,000 acres, rangers usually have no time to handle less serious situations, such as reports of stolen bikes, keys locked inside cars or petty theft.
In the early 1990s, rangers responded to a missing person report within eight hours. Now, unless it's a child or an ill person, help comes as late as 24 hours later, said Yosemite Chief Ranger Robert Andrew.
Tours Are Cut Back
At Mojave, McGuinness would like to have enough rangers that one could respond to a call within 25 minutes. With its current staff of two, it takes an hour to 75 minutes.
Pressed to work overtime, exhausted rangers could put their own and park visitors' safety at risk, said George Durkee, president of the U.S. Park Rangers Lodge, an association of 700 park rangers.
"When we make a mistake, it can get someone hurt," he said. One of the tasks that rangers enjoy most is educating the public. But at Sequoia and Kings Canyon, guided walks dropped about 40% and campfire talks fell by a third last summer compared with the summer of 1987.
"The best way to protect park resources is through education," said Bill Tweed, chief park naturalist. "If they don't love it, why would they protect it?"