Are We Loving Our National Parks to Death? A Call for Research on Crime and Law Enforcement in the U.S. National Park System

Published date01 March 2023
Date01 March 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Are We Loving Our National
Parks to Death? A Call
for Research on Crime
and Law Enforcement in
the U.S. National Park System
William Andrew Stadler
, Cheryl Lero Jonson
and Brooke Miller Gialopsos
Despite a recent surge of visitation and frequent media accounts of lawlessness in America’s national
parks, little empirical research has been dedicated to crime and law enforcement in the U.S. national
park system. The absence of systematic crime and justice research within these protected spaces
should raise concern, as recent park service data and intra-agency reports suggest visitor growth,
funding and personnel declines, operational shortcomings, and technology constraints may endanger
the capacity of the National Park Service (NPS) to adequately address anticipated crime threats
in the 21st century. This call for research aims to raise awareness of the contemporary law
enforcement challenges facing this federal agency and encourage the study of crime and justice issues
within the U.S. national park system. We briefly examine the evolution and current state of NPS law
enforcement and its associated challenges and conclude with a conceptual road map for future
research occurring in these protected spaces.
U.S. national park system, National Park Service, law enforcement, visitor and resource protection
More than a century ago, the National Park Service (NPS) was created to protect, preserve, and
promote America’s public lands. However, as the popularity of U.S. national parks has grown, so too
have threats to the artifacts, plant, and animal life that inhabit these spaces, as well as the humans
who visit them. Increased public attention toward environmental and conservation issues has
Department of Society and Social Justice, Saint Martin’s University, Lacey, WA, USA
Department of Criminal Justice, Xavier University, Cincinnati, OH, USA
Department of Criminal Justice, Seattle University, WA, USA
Corresponding Author:
William Andrew Stadler, Department of Society and Social Justice, Saint Martin’s University, 5000 Abbey Way SE, Lacey, WA
98503, USA.
Criminal Justice Review
ª2021 Georgia State University
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/07340168211015726
2023, Vol. 48(1) 85–105
spawned new research and aptly revealed macrosystemic threats such as climate change and
wildland fires to be clear-and-present dangers to the parks’ safety and survival (Fisichelli et al.,
2015; Gonzalez et al., 2018; Monahan & Fisichelli, 2014; Parks et al., 2016). Yet, we know
comparatively little about how prevalent and damaging illegal human behaviors are to the safety
and security of parks and the people, wildlife, and natural resources within them. Despite the NPS
(2020b) reporting recent growth in tourism, rising property crimes (U.S. Department of Justice,
2020), declines in personnel (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, 2017), and
ongoing challenges with operations, data collection, and reporting (International Association of
Chiefs of Police [IACP], 2000; Repanshek, 2010; U.S. Department of the Interior [DOI], 2002),
researchers have largely neglected the contemporary study of crime and law enforcementas social
phenomena in national parks. According to former Yellowstone National Park Superintendent,
Dan Wenk, humans remain the least studied but most abundant and impactful animal in U.S.
national parks (Simmonds et al., 2018).
This scarcity of research is somewhat unexpected, given the extant literature on conservation-
oriented crime and policing in other protected spaces in the United States and around the world. For
example, researchers have examined crime and law enforcement in African and Asian rural and
national park spaces (Cowan et al., 2019; Freund et al., 2016; George, 2010; Warchol & Kapla,
2012); fish, wildlife, and natural resource areas in several state jurisdictions (Carter, 2004; Eliason,
2003, 2006a, 2006b, 2008, 2011a, 2011b, 2011c, 2014, 2016; Forsyth, 1993a, 1993b; Shelley &
Crow, 2009; Sherblom et al., 2002; Walsh & Donovan, 1984); U.S. national forests (Baur &
Cerveny, 2019; Chavez & Tynon, 2000); general leisure, park, and recreation settings (Pendleton,
2000; Snyder & Evans, 2017); and rural areas (Falcone et al., 2002; Payne et al., 2005). And while
these protected public places might share ecological similarities with the U.S. national park system,
the latter is unique, with its own mission, system, and challenges. Crime incidents and their formal
responses in national parks also represent real-world challenges with significant implications to
public and wildlife safety, administrative functioning, and the ecological preservation of public
lands. Thus, the study of crime and law enforcement within U.S. national parks is important to
theory and policy across many disciplines such as criminal justice, conservation science, and travel
and tourism.
Our goals with this research note are to confront the notable gap in literature, raise awareness of
the threats looming over the NPS, and encourage new research to contribute knowledge on crime
and law enforcement in U.S. national parks. We begin with a brief historical background of national
park stewardship and examine four specific challenges facing the NPS with potentially hazardous
implications to law enforcement and visitor and resource protection. Using data and findings from
within the NPS, we argue growth in visitation, workforce pressures, operations and management
constraints, and data collection and reporting challenges hold the potential to inhibit the future
capacity of the NPS to preserve and protect public lands, visitors, and wildlife from the conse-
quences of criminal behavior. Finally, informed by other conservation-oriented crime and justice
research, we conclude with a call for new research in U.S. national parks across five domains which
hold clear policy or practice implications for the NPS.
U.S. National Park Stewardship
The country’s national parks are collectively known as “America’s best idea” because they were
intentionally created to preserve and protect some of America’s most sacred places (Burns, 2009).
However, fulfillment of this promise has been challenging throughout history, beginning in 1872
when Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, was created by an Act of Congress (The Yellow-
stone National Park Protection Act of 1872). Shortly after its creati on, initial management and
protection was bestowed to civilian appointees by the DOI, which held responsibility for the
86 Criminal Justice Review 48(1)

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT