National Parks Losing Rangers Just When They’re Needed the Most

America’s national parks have never been so popular: Last year saw the highest-ever level of daily visits and campers to Yellowstone, Joshua Tree, and the 57 other nature reserves. Yet the number of park rangers available to help travelers find the perfect trail, answer questions about area flora and fauna, and enforce rules to protect the environment (and other laws) is falling fast.

The amount of full-time and seasonal law enforcement rangers employed at the parks has gone down in recent years. The number of full-time rangers dropped 14 percent from 2005 to 2014, according to figures released this week from watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. Seasonal rangers saw an even steeper decline of 27 percent between 2006 and 2014.

More visitors means more injuries and crime, and the rangers simply can’t keep up. Last year saw an uptick in search-and-rescue missions at 2,658—300 more than in 2013. Many of these are a matter of life or death. In 2012 and 2013, 148 and 143 visitors died, respectively, while 2014 had 164 deaths. Last year also saw more than its fair share of instances of assault, rape, theft, and even murder.

“The Park Service…is building a sizable public safety deficit,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER, in a statement. “This myopic drive for more and more visitation threatens to outstrip the capacity of both the parks and their shrinking ranger corps.”

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