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Report Questions Security at National Parks

By Ed O'Keefe

A new government report is critical of National Park Service security efforts at national parks and historic sites including Independence Hall in Philadelphia, above.

Updated and Corrected Sept. 30 1:17 p.m. ET

Security at the nation's national parks and historic icons varies at each site with no national coordination in place to ensure visitor safety, according to a new report critical of the National Park Service. Though officials are unaware of any specific threats, there are concerns that some sites could be targeted by terrorists due to their symbolic nature. Threats could also change in February when visitors are first allowed to carry firearms into national parks, according to a Congressional summary of the report. (An earlier version of this sentence credited reference of the new firearms law to the GAO report, but it makes no explicit reference to the law.)

Despite improvements to its security plans since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the National Park Service still does not provide proper guidance on security planning or training at the 391 sites it operates, according to a Government Accountability Office report prepared at the request of the House Homeland Security Committee.

The report finds that the Park Service has also failed to assign trained security personnel at most parks and historic sites and has not developed a coordinated way for the sites to share information or best security practices.

As part of their investigation, government investigators sampled the security situation at New York's Statue of Liberty National Monument and African Burial Ground National Monument, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania and Arizona's Grand Canyon National Park. Each site assessed potential security risks and acquired security equipment in different ways, usually in consultation with other government agencies or private organizations.

"Without guidance from the Park Service, officials at the nation’s 400 parks and icons often rely upon trial and error to decide how to secure their facilities," the report concludes. "This disjointed approach increases potential for wasteful spending, duplication of effort, and security gaps."

The Park Service is in the process of developing a system-wide physical security handbook to standardize its assessments, according to the report. Agency officials expect to provide more information to Congress in the coming weeks, according to spokesman Jeffrey Olson.

The National Park Service employs a mix of park rangers at most sites, Olson said, some who have law enforcement powers and others who provide information to visitors. The law enforcement rangers are sworn federal officers with traditional police powers and are found at a majority of the agency's parks and historic sites. Separately, U.S. Park Police officers are assigned to protect parks and historic sites in New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

The Interior Department is also carefully reviewing the report and its recommendations, said spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff. The Bush administration reorganized park security efforts following the 9/11 attacks, establishing the Office of Law Enforcement, Security and Emergency Management and an Interior deputy assistant secretary for law enforcement and security. It is a career position held by Larry R. Parkinson, who is responsible for coordinating the department's security efforts and working with the Department of Homeland Security to identify specific concerns and threats.

Lawmakers will discuss the report's findings at a mid-November hearing on the Federal Protective Service, according to Dena Graziano, spokeswoman for the House Homeland Security Committee.

“Our 400 national parks and icons cannot rely on trial and error to remain safe. So far, luck has been on our side," the panel's chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said in a statement. "The Park Service is not in the security business. The Department of Homeland Security’s mission is to protect this nation. Each must be able to do what it does best. DHS and the Park Service must collaborate to protect the symbols of our national heritage."

Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

By Ed O'Keefe  | September 29, 2009; 12:27 PM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments  
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Two thoughts:

o This is particularly interesting if you are watching the Ken Burns series on PBS this week about our national parks.

o Who's bright idea was it to let people pack heat in our parks/monuments (think Statue of Liberty)? Let me guess...

Posted by: cbivitz | September 29, 2009 1:02 PM | Report abuse

Former U.S. Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers expressed the same concerns in 2003 and was was fired for it by the National Park service / Dept. of the Interior. Visit for more.

Posted by: Watchman4 | September 29, 2009 2:36 PM | Report abuse

You won't be able to "pack heat" at the Statue of Liberty. The new law says that carrying guns in national parks is regulated by the laws of the containing State, and New York state pretty much forbids carry guns unless you are rich and well connected.

On the other hand, when I go hiking in North Cascades National Park out here in the other Washington, I often don't see a single authority figure the whole time, and only a few other people. There are dangerous animals up there, and sometimes even dangerous people, and there is no security up there except what I provide for myself. Carrying guns is generally legal in Washington State if you have a clean record (and BTW our crime rate is 1/20'th that of Washington DC), so I will be able to bring a gun along the next time I go up there. I expect to feel safer for doing so.

Posted by: mpmooreblvu | September 29, 2009 3:34 PM | Report abuse

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