You are here

Federal Real ID May (Not) Be Required For Park Visit

Michael Chertoff, DHS portrait

I'm Michael Chertoff, head of Homeland Security, and I'm watching you through this computer screen right now.

It is hard to imagine at this point, but in just over a year, under a plan developed by Homeland Security, you may be asked to show a special federal identification to enter a national park. I can understand the security need behind having a passport to enter the country, and I can understand the need for important background checks before entering a nuclear facility, but needing the same federal security check to drive through a park is absurd.

On its surface, the Real ID program seems simple enough. Homeland Security wants to set some standards for the way states create their drivers licenses and i.d. cards. Beyond the fun of having a fancy new drivers license, you would be required to present it for any "federal purpose". You would have to show it to access planes, trains, court houses, and national parks. If that doesn't bother you, consider that all of the personal data which uniquely identifies you will be stored in a machine readable form (like a bar-code). Today this data is stuff like your social security number and address, but in the future could include biometric data like retinal scans or DNA; a treasure trove of detail for identity thieves. Plus, every time you choose to have a picnic at a park, your visit would be recorded in a massive government database. Bye bye privacy, hello big brother.

Today, this legislation is opposed by more than 600 organizations, including the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, the American Library Association the Association for Computing Machinery, the National Council of State Legislatures, the American Immigration Lawyers Association and the National Governors Association. Many states oppose this program as well, as they would be the ones responsible for the cost of the upgrading their licensing procedures and equipment. It's estimated the program would cost states $14 billion over the next decade.

Brodie Farquhar, a reporter living in Wyoming (and one who frequently follows issues in the parks), followed up with the NPS Washington Office about the Real ID requirement for parks in a recent article.

Gerry Gaumer, deputy director of communications for the National Park Service, said he’s not sure how Yellowstone, for example, or any other unit of the Park Service would handle the Real ID program.

"We’ve received no guidance from DHS, and this is the first I’ve heard of it," Gaumer said.

Rangers don’t currently check IDs at entrances to parks, he said. "And some of our areas are not fee-based," he added.

The Real ID is an issue that we'll track here at the National Parks Traveler. At this point, I'm of the opinion that this program may not have legs. It is opposed my so many organizations, states, and the current Congressional majority, that with a new President (Dem or Rep) we may see a shakeup in Homeland Security, and this thing will fall silently off the radar. At least that is what I'm hoping. Finding freedom in the parks would be a lot more difficult with the government tracking our every move.

We've received some additional detail from the National Park Service regarding this Real ID. This is quoted directly from the Federal Register notice of March 9, 2007 (pp. 10819-10858):

These regulations are not intended to change current admittance practices at Federal facilities. If a Federal facility does not currently require presentation of photo identification prior to entry, the Act and these proposed regulations would not require that process to change.

So, if you don't have to show a license now to get into parks, you won't have to under the Real ID program either. But, as has been pointed out in comments, if you hold a National Parks Pass or an America the Beautiful Pass, you are already required to show ID to verify you are the legitimate owner of the pass. I am sure that will continue to be the practice at entrance gates no matter what the fate of the Real ID program. However, I believe there would have been a big difference with the enforcement of Real ID program for a few reasons.

Potentially, every person entering a park would have to have a federally recognized Real ID and you would have had to show it to federal officers (park rangers) when asked. In most cases, this would have been your state issued drivers license which would include the Real ID updates. Park rangers would have then been able to scan your card, which would have recorded your visit into a federal database. You would not have had a choice about this. It sounds very '1984', huh?

Fortunately, this does not appear to be the direction this program is going in the national parks. (Sorry for the bold, but I felt it necessary to stress that point.) Today, when you are asked to show your license with a park pass, you have made an implicit agreement to do so when you bought the pass. If you chose to pay cash to enter a park, you would not be asked for your ID. The only other time I can think we are currently asked for our ID in parks, is when a law enforcement ranger asks us to do so for reasons associated with public safety or resource protection.


Even at Yosemite National Park, the entry gates on the roads are only staffed during normal office hours. There isn't the budget for staff to manage visitor entrances and exits at other times.

I was once told by someone at another park that hikers entering and exiting the parks on foot from adjacent forst or BLM wilderness areas were still liable for park entry fees. But of course, there is no way they could justify the manpower to enforce that either.

It may be some security bureaucrat's dream to identify every park visitor, but there just aren't the resources to ever make it happen.
The WildeBeat "The audio journal about getting into the wilderness"
Download the MP3 programs or subscribe to the podcast at...

Yosemite is not an unusual circumstance, in the staffing of "gated" entry points only during normal business hours, whatever that translates into. It seems as though the definition of normal varies widely across the system in actual practice, irrespective of the printed literature. During the course of my wanderings I always time my entry to ensure that I'm not wasting precious time waiting in line for the privilege of entry. But seeing as I purchase annual park passes, I can't honestly feign any sense of guilt in my practice either. But I'm curious as to why this identity card is required at park service centers and not, apparently at border crossings.....maybe somebody can explain that one to me with a straight face. It's also true that there simply isn't enough manpower to effectively police the parks, but is that really an issue? Anybody care to venture a guess, in terms of overall percentage, how many non-paying customers we're dealing with and the total dollar revenue being circumvented? Granted every dollar is more precious than gold to the operating budgets of the parks, but I doubt whether the extra few thousand (I'm being generous) dollars that average out across all parks is enough to warrant this extreme response from Homeland Security. When they start effectively responding to the situation with our borders, I'll purchase their stupid card. Until such time, if this inane policy is indeed implemented prior to the border mess being cleaned up, it should prove to be quite a boom-time for the state parks systems. And a corresponding decrease for backcountry permit applications.

Federal law enforcement already has the legal right to inspect your ID at any time while you are out on federal property -- regardless of what you are doing. If you do not have a passport or other federally-compliant ID, then when the so-called "Real ID Act" kicks in, they will also have the legal right to detain you until your identity can be verified.

This is a legal right. It has nothing to do with technology, databases, resources, citizen complaints, or desire to enforce the law. Law enforcement is separate from a law's existence, and this law is already two years old. Maybe when the law kicks in there won't be much enforcement -- then again, maybe there will -- but what about in five or ten years?

Bottom line: starting May 11, 2008, every person out on federal land runs the risk of being detained if their ID does not comply with the so-called "Real ID Act."

I sincerely doubt that anyone actually intends to require ID at all National Parks. All the other examples, federal buildings, courthouses, planes and trains, are secure environments, so we can expect that the ID might be required at similar sites. The Washington Monument, for example, has metal detectors and x-ray machines. The Liberty Bell requires some level of security check. I don't know whether ID is particularly useful in those places, but I think we can agree that it makes more sense to require ID at that sort of monument than at Wilson's Creek or Hovenweep.

However, for the sake of historical context, I'll note that back in the sepia-toned early days of the national parks, visitors had to give their names and home addresses at the entrance stations as a matter of course. That's what entrance stations were for.

It is whacko; are people serious about organizing a movement not to comply? Why do I get the sense that if this happens and a boycott is organized that people will still find themselves putting themselves through this absurdity?

Just brand us now; that would save the government a lot of time and money.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

Wanted to let folks know, I've made an important update to the original story. We've heard from the National Park Service today. Upon further study, it appears as if revealing a Real ID to park rangers would not be a requirement of admittance into our national parks. More details are at the end of the original article above.

This is still a point that needs clarity. In some states and the District of Columbia, you are not required to show an ID to anyone for any reason when stopped by a law enforcement official (you do need IDs for verification for employment). In some places, even if you are arrested, you are still not required to show an ID. You will be processed in the system as a John Doe. In other states, this is not true. What are the rules on federal public lands? How is it different in the parks? Are there parks where state law is used as the enforcement mechanism?

I think people could use a legal primer on what the law currently is so that they can make informed choices on how to avoid showing identity. When and where people are and are not required to show ID is important. It's not terribly important to me as an individual, but there are a lot of populations where the ID requirements are used to intimidate and harrass. During Bush's second inaugural, we had numerous reports from homeless people that the Metropolitan police here in DC were requiring them to have IDs or be escorted from the streets. This was a harrassment technique, not a legally sound maneuver, but what are you going to do? The same certainly applies for people visiting national parks for whom English is not a first language and a host of other groups.

There's a lot more that can be said about this. In some parks, even the animals it seems need to wear identification.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

"A reliable source" in Lassen Volcanic National Park told me recently that it costs them close to 150% as much to staff the entry and exit gates as they take in admissions revenue. And they only staff those gates in the summer during office hours.

For those of you who have an agenda to privatize the parks, this isn't going to be your tea party. For those of you worried that big brother at the DOI is going to track your camping partners, or your work-day fishing get-aways. I have it on good authority that the NPS has much larger fish to fry.
The WildeBeat "The audio journal about getting into the wilderness"
Download the MP3 programs or subscribe to the podcast at...

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide