Assault rifles, knives, tactical vests, night vision goggles, infrared-monitoring devices. It sounds like the gear for a company deployed to a Middle Eastern war zone, right? Wrong. This bevy of aggressive military equipment belongs to the National Park Service, according to new information released in November. It’s enough to make one think some villainous entity plans a full-scale invasion of our park system.
The NPS quietly started acquiring high-end, military-grade weaponry from the U.S. Department of Defense 25 years ago. The initiative was part of the Pentagon’s 1033 program, which has distributed approximately $5 billion in military equipment to law enforcement agencies across the country since 1990. The initial goal was to bolster the police’s fight against drugs, but it was expanded in 1997 to let all agencies acquire military-grade equipment for “bona fide law enforcement purposes.”
The program's come under fire recently as police violence has spurred protests across the nation. The images from Ferguson showed a law enforcement force that looked more like a military unit in hostile foreign territory than local police. In response, President Barack Obama released a report in December proposing to limit a law enforcement agency’s ability to get military equipment, but he stopped short of advocating to end the 1033 program.
While the general outline of the weapons giveaway initiative has been widely reported, it wasn’t until late November that the Pentagon released details on the 1033 program following intense pressure from the media and civil liberties organizations. According to data from The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news outlet, the National Park Service has acquired roughly 4,100 pieces of equipment worth about $6 million since the program’s inception.
Some of these acquisitions make sense. Take Mammoth Caves National Park, which used the program to procure 15 incandescent lamps. But what about Grand Canyon National Park, which obtained 20 military-style M-16 assault rifles and 70 rifle sights?
Then there's Yosemite. The park procured nearly $435,000 worth of military equipment, most of which is related to assembly parts for standard-issue rifles, including 103 gun barrels, 163 breech bolts, and 500 magazines. It also received 50 handguns and eight laser-infrared observation sets worth a total of $176,000. The net worth of the park's acquisitions exceeded that of nearby city departments such as Merced, Modesto, Riverside, and Stockton (named by Forbes as one of America’s most dangerous cities).
The list goes on. The Pentagon gifted the park service’s Southeast Arizona Group, which includes Coronado National Monument, Fort Bowie National Historic Site and Chiricahua National Monument, two assault rifles and 15 bayonet knives. Glen Canyon in Arizona received six assault rifles. Natchez Parkway in Mississippi got nine.
Some people, including Jeff Olson, spokesman for the National Park Service in Washington D.C., say law enforcement rangers absolutely need the weapons. The cutting-edge gear is crucial as the units patrol a system of parks that gets about 400 million visitors per year, he says. Others, citing government and watchdog reports argue that the weapons lead to an unnecessarily militarized park service.
Granted, these bastions of wild serenity aren’t crime-free. In 2012, a gunman murdered a ranger at Mount Rainer National Park before fleeing into the backcountry. The next year, there were 3,779 violent crimes within the national parks, according to data from the National Park Service. Eighty-two percent of those incidents were theft-related, but there were also 14 homicides, 36 rapes, seven kidnappings, 141 aggravated assaults, and 53 arson incidents. Attacks and threats against federal employees in parks, wildlife refuges, and marine sanctuaries increased 40 percent from 2011 to 2012, according to a Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility report released in June. Four NPS rangers have been murdered over the past 16 years. Rifles, shotguns, pistols are standard-issue for all commissioned law enforcement officers, says Olson. Why should rangers be held to a different standard?
In parks such as in Yosemite, rangers are the only law enforcement in the area. “Yosemite is clearly not the same type of law enforcement situation you find in large urban areas, but our rangers do encounter some situations that impact our need for equipment,” says Yosemite National Park Spokesman Scott Gediman. “We need to have resources for a lot of different scenarios. Assault rifles are not one of the resources we use on a daily basis, but we do need to be prepared.”
But it’s unclear whether the National Park Service’s growing cache of military-grade weaponry is an effective measure against the threats employees face. Civil liberties organizations critical of police militarization argue that the increasing stockpile of weaponry endangers citizenry and also reduces officer safety as it leads to a confrontational style of policing.
“While we support smart policing strategies designed to keep our streets safe, the militarized response that we saw in Ferguson undermines police-community relations and puts everyone at risk,” the American Civil Liberties Union and 35 other organizations wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. The group urged an immediate moratorium on the 1033 program.
The National Park Service’s growing arsenal is framed by a 2013 report by the U.S. Office of Inspector General that found the United States Park Police maintained “a disconcerting attitude toward firearms accountability.” The report found that law enforcement staff within the USPP had no clear idea of how many weapons they maintained because of poorly managed inventory.
“We discovered hundreds of handguns, rifles, and shotguns not accounted for on official USPP inventory records,” the report reads. It states that in many cases, USPP employees accepted large numbers of weapons from other federal agencies without proper documentation.
The report also revealed that the NPS' own handbook explicitly limits the agency’s ability to acquire firearms “to the minimum needed for an effective law enforcement program.” The issue is that there is no objective third-party standard. Defining the minimum needed for an “effective law enforcement program” is left to the discretion of the law enforcement personnel and park superintendents.
As the details of the Pentagon’s 1033 program continue to emerge, the “Just Trust Us” mentality of law enforcement agencies in relation to the weaponry necessary for effective law enforcement is insufficient—even for the park rangers we’ve grown up trusting.