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Interior looking to rely on staffers with less training for park law enforcement: report
The Interior Department is looking to increase its reliance on seasonal National Park Service (NPS) staffers who have received less training than their full-time counterparts in order to cut costs, according to a new report.
A report by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) to be released Monday, finds that the NPS is seeking to implement a new proposal that would shift the reliance from full-time law enforcement officers to seasonal staffers, who require less robust training and frequently pay for the costs out of their own pocket.
The plan will ultimately reduce mandatory training time from 16 weeks to 12 weeks, according to the report, by abandoning mandatory attendance of these seasonal staffers at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC), which is reserved for permanent law enforcement rangers in the academy.
The report was compiled by a number of retired agency specialists, including former administrators of the NPS law enforcement program and the NPS field training program.
The change in plan, as outlined in the report, raises concerns about the level of training officers will receive, with critics arguing that seasonal workers won't provide an equal alternative to full-time NPS law enforcement staff.
"U.S. Park Rangers have one of the most dangerous jobs in the federal service," PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch said in a statement. "Challenges facing today's National Park rangers are increasingly varied and complex, demanding more and better training, not less."
Congress's charter for the FLETC says its express purpose is to fill "an urgent need for high-quality, cost-effective training by a cadre of professional instructors using modern training facilities and standardized course content."
PEER argues that the move toward a reliance on seasonal workers would undermine that.
Seasonal law enforcement staffers, who apply for positions typically during peak park visitation periods in the summer, are not trained in-house by the agency, but instead get accredited at private academies with shorter training periods.
Agencies such as the NPS, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service typically jockey annually to hire enough seasonal officers to fill open posts.
Those officers are therefore frequently unfamiliar with federal law or specific NPS policies, according to PEER.
'We believe this proposal, if implemented, will needlessly expose the NPS and the FLETC to liability, and will expose both employees and the public to increased risk by utilizing rangers in their law enforcement capacity who have received sub-standard training," the former NPS employees wrote in their report.
"We believe the 'authorization' of this proposed policy is based upon inadequate review and assessment by both the NPS and the FLETC," they added.
The shift away from training full-time officers could mean less overall costs for the NPS, according to PEER.
Because seasonal works are accredited through private schools, they also pay for the cost of training themselves, a cost that can soar into the thousands of dollars.
The PEER report highly criticized the behind-the-scenes nature of the anticipated training change, and will ask Congress Monday to investigate.
"This sea-change is taking place behind closed doors without consulting affected staff. Nor do we believe that the NPS has informed Congress about this move - hence this letter," read the draft of PEER's letter to lawmakers.
The NPS said that no formal plan had been made as of now.
"The National Park Service is examining ways in which we can achieve the highest level of training for our law enforcement officers in the timeliest manner possible. No formal proposal has been made at this time. Any change in current policies will be considered, vetted and approved by National Park Service and Department of the Interior leadership," the NPS told The Hill.
The Interior Department is currently facing a $12 billion maintenance backlog in funding for key initiatives such as paving roads and fixing visitor centers.
The Trump administration has sought to slash the agency's overall budget. Last year, it suggested cuts as deep as 15 percent.
Those cuts would be paired with dramatic decreases in jobs. Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told Congress in June 2017 that he intended to shrink the Interior Department's workforce by 4,000 employees.
But cuts at the NPS have been steadily occurring for more than a decade.
According to data the NPS provided to PEER in 2017, the number of permanent law enforcement rangers dropped by nearly 14 percent between 2005 and 2016. Seasonal ranger numbers used in the peak month of August also dropped by 18 percent over the same time period.
The Hill reported last year that Interior also made a dramatic decision to end a key law enforcement program at wildlife refuges.
The Trump administration ended a decades-long program that trained national wildlife refuge managers with law enforcement capabilities to police often remote spots of public land.
Fish and Wildlife Service officials said they planned to replace the vacant dual-officer positions with 15 full-time officers in 2019 as a way to modernize the enforcement ranks and save costs.