STATEMENT OF FRANK DECKERT, SUPERINTENDENT, BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK, NATIONAL PARK SERVICE, DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR, BEFORE THE HOUSE GOVERNMENT REFORM SUBCOMMITTEE ON CRIMINAL JUSTICE, DRUG POLICY, AND HUMAN RESOURCES, REGARDING THE IMPACT OF THE DRUG TRADE ON BORDER SECURITY AND NATIONAL PARKS

 

April 15, 2003

 

 


Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to present the efforts being made by the National

Park Service (NPS) to protect visitors and resources in national parks and mitigate the impact of illegal drug trafficking on park borders.  At the outset, I want to point out that while my testimony today will focus on the NPS, there are several other components of the Department of the Interior and other departments such as the new Department of Homeland Security, that face the same border problems and challenges – including the National Wildlife Refuge System, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  Taken together, approximately 39 percent of the Southwest border consists of land managed by the Department of the Interior (Department).  The Department is also responsible for approximately 31 percent of the Southeast Border and approximately 14 percent of the Canadian border.

 

The NPS practices and policies are dedicated to preserving its natural resources and providing a safe, clean, and secure environment for its visitors and workforce. We have initiated programs and studies and undertaken actions to address many of the concerns and needs in these areas.  The NPS is also creating lasting partnerships with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Justice (DOJ), and others to establish plans of action and responsibility for ensuring an appropriate role in border security in national parks. While the NPS has the responsibility to enforce Federal laws within the borders of its parks, the NPS's mission is not international border security or drug trade eradication.  We are currently working with the new Department of Homeland Security, the primary Federal agency responsible for international border security, and others in the Administration, to establish plans of action and clarify responsibilities for ensuring appropriate border security in parks along the border.

 

Protecting national parks along the Mexico border is no longer about simply protecting landscapes, plants and animals.  At stake is the safety of our citizens and the agency's own employees as well as the health of some of our Nation's unique natural treasures.

 

The NPS manages seven National Parks along the United States-Mexico international border, including Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Coronado National Memorial in Arizona; Amistad National Recreation Area (NRA), Big Bend National Park (NP), Chamizal National Memorial, Palo Alto Battlefield National Historic Site and Padre Island National Seashore (NS) in Texas. The Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River is also managed by the National Park Service in Texas.  These seven units combined hosted more than 3,800,000 visitors in 2002.  They share approximately 365 miles of the border with Mexico and 72 miles of seashore and are directly impacted by increased illegal border activity. Big Bend NP alone shares 245 miles of border with Mexico, nearly 13 percent of the entire U.S.-Mexico border. 

 

The problems in Arizona at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument are emblematic of how increased enforcement on the part of U.S. Customs and U.S. Border Patrol, now part of the Department of Homeland Security, at traditional, urban border crossings has pushed more crime onto adjacent public land. In light of this situation, efforts on the ground to contend with the rising tide of undocumented aliens and drug smugglers require ongoing coordination between the NPS and other Federal agencies, especially the Department of Homeland Security’s Bureau of Customs and Border Protection and Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Without communication and without advance intelligence and information, these Federal partners would be unable to protect the lands and people with which it is entrusted.

 

Because most of these parks were originally established to preserve some of this country's unique natural and cultural resources, they are filled with irreplaceable treasures contained in fragile environments.  Illegal border activity threatens park visitor and employee safety and damages natural and cultural resources. In addition, the job of controlling illegal activities is often compounded by logistical difficulties. For example, Coronado National Memorial is bound on three sides by ridges rising over 2,000 feet above the valley floor. The terrain itself hinders radio communication inside and outside the park and slows law enforcement backup.

 

In 2001, the U.S. Border Patrol estimated that 250,000 undocumented aliens entered the country through parklands with over 200,000 through Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument alone.  The explosion of impacts from these human and vehicular intrusions is already causing serious damage to park resources.


Here in Texas, similar border security problems are just beginning and multiplying exponentially.  At Amistad NRA, 1,300 pounds of marijuana were seized in all of 2000. By contrast, in 2002, more than 10,000 pounds of marijuana were seized with an estimated value of over $9 million.  In 2003, 3,700 pounds of marijuana have already been seized.  In Big Bend NP more than 6,000 pounds of marijuana were seized within the park in January 2003 – more than all the total seizures in 2002.  At Padre Island NS smuggling in the park has increased since September 11 due to increased security at border crossings and checkpoints on primary highway routes.  Aware of the huge impact on parklands in Arizona, we are taking the opportunity to be proactive here in Texas.  We need to act quickly and decisively to prevent similar impacts.

 

Individual NPS units in this part of Texas have existing reciprocal law enforcement agreements with the agencies that now comprise the new Department of Homeland Security.  Land management agencies continue to share intelligence and to work together on special operations.  The Department of the Interior is working to develop new agreements with the Department of Homeland Security to implement a cohesive partnership for operations, training and intelligence dissemination for law enforcement and natural and cultural resource management.

 

The NPS in Texas actively participates in three High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) partnerships.  HIDTA facilitates coordination of equipment and information between Federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to address illegal drug activity.  As a funded participant in the Southwest Border HIDTA West Texas Partnership, Big Bend NP implemented a narcotic detection K-9 program, placing a trained ranger/handler and a drug interdiction dog directly on the border.  Both Amistad NRA and Padre Island NS are unfunded participants in other HIDTA partnerships providing cooperative support to interdiction efforts in those parks.  The NPS has one special agent assigned to the El Paso Intelligence Center and Operation Alliance, as well as the Department of Defense, the Southwest Border HIDTA Office and its West Texas Partnership providing a critical liaison between the NPS and all other state and Federal agencies involved in narcotics interdiction in the southwestern United States.

 

The NPS has responded to the threats along the Mexico border in Texas by significantly increasing the number of law enforcement rangers at border parks and reorganizing ranger activities and by alerting other Federal agencies whose primary mission is border security. The FY04 Intermountain Region border park law enforcement priorities reflect an additional 14 ranger positions. Amistad NRA has 10 protection rangers on board, including four new positions added this year by internal reprogramming of FY03 regional funds.  A fifth new position, funded in the FY03 increase, will be filled early in FY04. This park unit is also slated to receive $270,000 in equipment replacement funding in FY03 to purchase three new patrol boats. Padre Island NS has six permanent protection rangers, and four additional seasonal protection rangers will be hired using $53,000 in reprogrammed regional FY03 funds.   Big Bend NP has 11 protection rangers and will add three more using the $300,000 base funding increase in FY03.  Recruitment is ongoing with the new hires expected by June. 

 

The NPS and agencies in the Department of Homeland Security work together on a daily basis at Big Bend NP to share intelligence, to provide mutual support, and to investigate reports of undocumented aliens and smuggling activity. Two Border Protection agents are currently stationed at and residing within the park. In May 2002, Bureau of Customs and Border Protection closed the “unofficial” border crossings historically used at Boquillas, Santa Elena and San Vicente in the park.  Park managers are working with the Bureau of Customs Inspections branch to explore the possibility of establishing some type of official crossing at one or two of these points at some time in the future.  Restoration of these primitive crossings would allow our  neighbors in the Mexican villages to once again enjoy the benefits of tourist income.  A friendly local population whose quality of life depend more on tourism than illegal activities can help protect against terrorists entering the United States at these points.  At this time, however, borders will remain closed at all crossings.

 

At Amistad NRA, park rangers also work closely with the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, as well as local agencies, to address a rapidly escalating problem with drug and illegal alien smuggling.  The park has two rangers assigned part-time to the local HIDTA Task Force.  Drug seizures and other related activities are up significantly over the past year, as are the risks to the agencies operating on the border.  Over the last few months there has been an increase in the number of weapons involved in the drug seizures.  Border Protection had a significant shootout about a month ago with drug smugglers just outside the park.  The risks to the safety of all law enforcement officers, including the NPS rangers, are real and the parks are taking them very seriously.  The upper 40 miles of the Rio Grande in the far western part of the park are considered dangerous for park employees due to smuggling related threats, poor radio reception, no dispatch, and inadequate backup.  The park now requires at least two law enforcement rangers to provide boat patrols in this area.  This area also requires specialized watercraft due to the extremely low water levels that the area has experienced over the past few years.  The park has purchased a hovercraft to allow patrols in this section of the river.

 

Park rangers at Padre Island NS work with the U.S. Coast Guard and the Border Protection and Bureau of Customs service personnel to conduct periodic patrols around the island.  These patrols are aimed at interdicting the high level of drug smuggling and undocumented aliens by boat that has been occurring since the September 11 terrorist attacks.  The park is also working with the state of Texas on the planning and development of a program called “Ocean Survey”.  If this becomes operational, a vessel, purchased and operated by the state of Texas would detect, monitor, and coordinate the interdiction of illegal boat traffic entering the United States from Mexico on a 24 hours-a-day basis. 

 

The region committed $35,000 for training for special event and incident management teams in FY03. These teams comprise the region's first response capability for tactical operations/staffing support and incident management. NPS and partner agencies provide advanced law enforcement training in tactical tracking, use of electronic surveillance equipment, and other topics relevant to the work of border park rangers who face high risks from illegal smuggling activities.  Due to the escalating threats facing park rangers, the NPS intends to make a two-week course in special operations tactics a standard for all rangers assigned to border parks in Arizona and Texas.  The NPS is implementing a Field Training Evaluation Program that will provide each new ranger recruit with 12 weeks of field training, with emphasis on improving officer safety.  Local field training is also provided in each park unit.

 

The NPS has proposed a new Law Enforcement Reform Implementation Strategy as a way to improve law enforcement effectiveness and safety. This strategy, as well as the plans and activities taking place on the border here in Texas is just one part of a broader initiative to improve law enforcement and security throughout the Department of the Interior. 

 

 

The NPS has both the statutory and the moral responsibility to ensure that its 388 units are well managed for this and future generations.   National park rangers have always been a critical element to that mission.  Like many other agencies, the NPS will have to use available resources more efficiently to improve our law enforcement program.  Even though the Service is proactive in identifying and solving problems, park staff should be able to expect that if help is needed, it will be available.  Reviewing and managing our priorities—both human resources and natural and cultural resources—identifying problems and seeking out creative solutions that involve neighbors and partners on both sides of the border will go a long way toward protecting our parks.

 

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my statement.   I would be happy to answer any questions you or other members of the committee may have.