The commitment to protecting America’s patriotic treasures in the face of possible terrorist attacks could involve several Grand Canyon National Park law-enforcement rangers.
Law-enforcement rangers like Lofton Wiley could find themselves working in a new location guarding national monuments if the need arises.
The Department of Interior, which includes the National Park Service, features the third-largest law-enforcement contingent in the country. As a result, those officers play an important role when it comes to homeland security.
Chris Pergiel, chief ranger at Grand Canyon, said local officers have been involved in a variety of security assignments since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. For several months, Grand Canyon rangers routinely served on guard duty at Glen Canyon Dam.
In the last year-and-a-half, however, fewer rangers have been serving in that capacity because of a transition that includes private security personnel.
"That eased our demands quite a lot," Pergiel said. "Since then, we’ve been in a transitional mode to more homeland security needs."
As many Americans are aware, the Department of Homeland Security was formed in response to Sept. 11. A multi-colored terrorism threat code was established with red being the highest and green the lowest. In the past few weeks, the threat had been at yellow, but was elevated to orange on Monday after President Bush issued a notice of war to Iraq.
"At those levels, there are commitments from Grand Canyon rangers to assist ... not just at other NPS lands, but all other DOI lands," Pergiel said. "In the last year, the department has made clear that they’ll be focusing their resources on the icon parks ... places with patriotic significance to the country, and also places with infrastructure concerns."
Patriotic icons include spots such as the Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument, the White House, Mount Rushmore, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the USS Arizona in Hawaii and Independence Hall in Philadelphia, a complex that includes the Liberty Bell pavilion.
Then there are various other spots that could be terrorist targets, such as Hoover, Grand Coulee, Glen Canyon and Shasta dams, along with various power plants. Those sites are operated by the Bureau of Reclamation, another agency of the DOI.
Some sites may even be closed, as was the case after Sept. 11. An Associated Press report from a few weeks ago cited an NPS source as indicating that could occur if war breaks out with Iraq.
"The National Park Service is prepared to take the appropriate action, as we have in the past, to protect public safety and preserve these monuments and memorials," Dave Barna of the NPS was quoted as saying.
Barna added that closing patriotic places will be an important decision because of their significance to Americans.
"The parks are a place for a renewal of the spirit and that’s why it’s especially important for them to be open during times of national crisis," Barna said in the AP story. "We’ll fight hard to see that they remain open."
The United States border with Mexico is also part of homeland security. In fact, DOI lands make up 37 percent of the country’s border with the neighbors to the south.
"Those DOI lands are part of homeland security assignments and parks like Grand Canyon have been sending rangers regularly," Pergiel said.
If rangers are reassigned, just what would the impact be to Grand Canyon’s law-enforcement staff? Pergiel said it could range from four to 15 officers.
"They have a pretty strict process in place," Pergiel said. "Currently, we’re at level yellow (now orange). When at orange, we put four people up on rotation for a three-week period. At red, we commit up to 15 rangers."
Those rangers who are placed on rotation must be prepared to be reassigned at a moment’s notice.
When fully staffed, Grand Canyon’s law-enforcement staff is 70 rangers. However, the park has been understaffed and as of a few weeks ago, 56 positions were filled.
"On any given day, between details and training, vacancies and light duty, we’ll have around 45 to work in a pay period," Pergiel said.
As long as the park is above a designated minimum number, various training commitments continue. But as reassignments occur or if the park reaches that minimum, Pergiel said "we’ll look at cutting back."
Besides the law-enforcement rangers that could see duty for homeland security, there are also those who are part of regional and national event and incident teams. For example, Dan Oltrogge serves as incident commander of a regional team currently on assignment in Texas to search for shuttle debris. The park’s fire information officer, Donna Nemeth, is also on that team.
Pergiel estimated there were five in the ranger division committed to regional event teams and another six to 12 from emergency services.
Other rangers are reassigned for single resources, such as those who have helped at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument near the border after a ranger there was killed. Still others serve as specialists in specific situations.
To be prepared for any situation, Pergiel and his staff have been working on worst-case scenarios. If numbers become an issue, Pergiel said there could be cutbacks on things like resource patrols, or rangers may see fewer hours on patrol.
"Through all this planning, we’ll sit down and evaluate staff, needs and the future," Pergiel said. "What can we do? We’ll be looking at that regularly as the threat level changes daily or weekly."