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Critics Decry 'Publicity Stunt With Genuine Consequences' as Trump Deploys 'Surge' of Park Rangers to Patrol Southern Border

"Building a despicable wall through our spectacular borderlands isn't enough for Trump."

Border Patrol agents detain a 14-year-old boy

Border Patrol agents detain a 14-year-old boy from Guatemala who was arrested after illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border alone in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument National Monument and UNESCO biosphere reserve onJan. 18, 2019 in Ajo, Arizona. (Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Critics of the Trump administration's immigration policies raised alarm Tuesday over a so-called "surge" of park rangers that the Interior Department is deploying to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border as House Democrats refuse to fund President Donald Trump's long-promised border wall.

Valerie Naylor, a former National Park Service (NPS) superintendent who worked for the agency for over three decades, expressed worries about rangers arresting migrants crossing the border rather than protecting public lands.

"My concern is sending rangers from parks that are already understaffed specifically to work with border patrol in areas that are outside the mission of the National Park Service," Naylor told The Guardian. "This potentially puts visitors at risk, certainly resources at risk, in the parks they are leaving."

NPS has sent rangers from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska, the National Mall in Washington, and Zion National Park in Utah—and other sites—to work with border agents in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona as well as Big Bend National Park in Texas, USA Today reported last month. The deployments are expected to continue through at least September 2020.

Laiken Jordahl, a campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and former NPS contractor, pointed out to The Guardian that "this is coming at a time when national parks are experiencing the most significant staff and funding shortages in American history." He warned, "It's a publicity stunt with genuine consequences."

Environmental justice reporter Yessenia Funes offered similar criticism of the administration sending park rangers to the borderlands in a piece for EARTHER.

"This type of action not only threatens the public lands these park rangers were hired to protect; it also threatens the Department of Interior's efforts to help diversify visitors to national parks and other lands," she wrote. "Making park rangers, in essence, border patrol officers erodes the trust the agency has attempted to build with immigrant communities—especially Latinx families."

Funes added that the operation "isn't surprising" considering that "this is the same administration that is using public lands within the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument to construct an ugly ass wall along the border in Arizona. In doing so, contractors have bulldozed saguaro cacti, destroyed a precious desert ecosystem, and put archeological sites at-risk."

Although arguably an unsurprising move by the administration, advocates for immigrants and the environment remain upset by the decision to effectively turn some park rangers into border patrol agents. As Aaron Weiss, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities, told Funes: "That's not what park rangers signed up for. That's not why we trust park rangers. So it does send a dangerous and confusing message even for the rangers who aren't being sent to the border."

As High Country News reported in May, the administration's effort started as

a pilot program launched in May of 2018 under then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, described as a "surge operation" meant to help with border security. "President Trump and I are 100% committed to keeping our border communities and the American people safe and secure," Zinke said at the time. Twenty-two law enforcement officers were sent to federally managed public lands along the border, including Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona and Amistad National Recreation Area in Texas.

Zinke left his position early this year, under a cloud of ethics violation investigations. High Country News noted in May that "so far, the department has been tight-lipped about the program's details, including the cost of deployments, the work being done and any future plans." That remains true.

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NPS declined to provide details about the surge to multiple media outlets that published reports Tuesday, and repeatedly shared the following statement:

The National Park Service continues to support our federal partners by deploying law enforcement personnel to Department of the Interior managed lands along the southern border. Due to operational security, we will not be disclosing any additional information about our officers assisting in the operations.

However, Bob Bushell, assistant chief patrol agent for the U.S. Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, did confirm to USA Today that the operation, which he called an "awesome partnership," is "indeed underway."

Addressing concerns about training, he said that "outside of orientation briefing, we find that they're very capable of adapting. But as far as law enforcement-type training, we don't provide that. They're already trained, maybe not in the aspect of immigration but in the process of conducting their regular duties is a big help to us."

Bushell explained that the rangers are "able to notice things that we might not, as far as damage to a particular plant, or different disturbances to trails once they get down here and get oriented."

However, in an interview with USA Today, CBD's Jordahl—whose work for NPS involved conducting wildlife studies at Organ Pipe, where much of the surge is focused—expressed doubt about the usefulness of reassigning rangers.

"You're plopping down rangers who are effectively city cops, traffic cops, into a hostile desert environment where they have no training," Jordahl said. "If the goal is to secure the border, these rangers aren't going to be it."

"One hundred percent, it's a publicity stunt that has very real consequences for the national parks across the country. It's totally clear it's putting a strain on already limited resources," he said. "That doesn't serve any of us."

Parker Deighan works for the Arizona-based humanitarian group No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes, which provides aid to migrants in the Sonoran Desert—including by leaving water jugs and other supplies for those traveling through a region that sees temperatures soar beyond 100°F in the summer.

Deighan told USA Today that Organ Pipe rangers have threatened the group's volunteers, ticketed them for littering, and destroyed water containers. She also highlighted differences in behavior she's perceived between rangers at that park versus others around the country.

"The culture of the rangers is very militarized and very focused on border enforcement, as opposed to conservation purposes," she said of those working at Organ Pipe. "They are wearing fatigues and give off a more militarized vibe than rangers at parks in the interior."

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