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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.


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.
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This is not about a particular agenda to privatize the NPS but IS about an out of control totalitarian federal Leviathan that calls the shots for all of the agencies under it's militaristic wings including the one that runs our parks.

I have no doubt that the NPS will never be able to follow such an onerous dictate from the heavy-handed Homeland Security thugs, they can barely keep up with all of the pot growers and bone thieves. The dialogue, to me, is all about deciding what is the best way to care and protect these precious places and how to provide moral and ethical leadership free of the taint of politics and a massive self-perpetuating bureaucracy. In my view Mary Bomar and crew are failing. Many out there think more money will solve everything. I don't believe that for a minute.

As long as the parks have to even have to respond to the ideas and proposals of people like Michael Chertoff and Dick Cheney there is little hope that the institutional framework is in place to do the job that is needed to be done. There are better containers out there to nurture the parks and I'm determined to keep the discussion going until we come up with something better that the current model of dysfunction and waste.

I don't support privatizing the parks, but I find this onerous. It raises other issues in respect to the way laws are enforced in the parks and the general way that parks are managed. A long time ago, Alston Chase argued about Yellowstone that the park was managed on the basis of law enforcement considerations - he went so far as to argue that the natural regulation policy that the park adopted was essentially a law enforcement concern. He said that in part because he could not explain the contradiction he saw between the hands off policy toward elk and the hands on policy in managing grizzly bears (except when they were starving). While Chase obviously had some axes to grind, I think the notion of control and public lands is an essential concept. It finds a more extreme expression in the Real ID program. If the parks aren't going to be checking for IDs, that doesn't change the basic ideas.

I don't see privatization as a check on this; in fact, it might prove to be more onerous, excluding people for any reason the owners deem acceptable. The only check I can think of as possible is popular grassroots resistance to these kinds of policies; if people aren't complying (already some states have refused to comply), then the program will be moot. However, if enough people do comply, then it won't be long before the parks will find a way to comply as well.

So, this is serious to me even if the info that Jeremy found out is true because of the issues it raises in general about identification requirements in any context (including the park context). It's also serious because of what it might suggest about management philosophy in parks at large.

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

I agree with Jim. This about the larger context of who is in ultimate control and how they use their power in the context of park management.

This subject warrants further inquiry. Thanks for bringing the issue to light.

The Real ID Act takes effect May 11, 2008, not "in just over a year," as this article states. At least get the date right!

Also, any DHS directive about how to enforce this law can be changed at the pleasure of DHS. Just because they say right now that they won't enforce it to the hilt -- which of course they WOULD say in order to deflect criticism and opposition to the law -- nothing prevents them from changing their minds next year, tomorrow, or right now.

Anonymous, before you call me out for having got my facts wrong, would you mind doing your own fact check? In March of this year, DHS announced a 20 month delay, pushing the time of enforcement from May 11, 2008 to the end of December 2009.

I made reservations at White Wolf and Curry Village in Yosemite over the Labor Day weekend. In order to verify that I was the reservation holder, I had to show my driver's license. Delaware North, which runs the Yosemite accommodations has my name in its computers showing all my stays from previous years. Who cares? If the government as well as Delaware North know that I like to visit Yosemite, I really don't care. The government already knows my Social Security number, they issued it! The government post offices know my address! It's far more of an intrusion that I am required every April 15 to supply the government with all my personal financial information or else. What's really odd is that those who rant against Real ID, have no problem with proposals that the government run the entire health care system and then have access to everyone's personal medical history. Compared to that, knowing that I like visiting national parks is nothing.

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