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The Arizona National Park Service Unit: Applying Advanced Investigative Science to Protecting the Nation’s Natural Treasures

By Matt Stoffolano, Chief Ranger, Visitor and Resource Protection, National Park Service, Southeast Arizona Group

he job requires visits to places where the terrain is steep and rocky, with narrow footpaths used to smuggle people and drugs. Individuals employed here experience the extremes of nature; summer temperatures soar to the triple digits, and winters are cold, icy, and windy. A heavily patrolled international border is a primary area of responsibility for this group. From this description, it may sound like this group could be engaged anywhere in the global war on terror or the international war on drugs. However, this is the patrol area for the National Park Service’s (NPS’s) Southeast Arizona Group (SEAZ Group) at Coronado National Memorial.

The mission of the NPS is one of resource protection and public safety: apprehending criminals that drain natural resources and threaten the safety of visitors. With its history and tradition of applying research and science to the practice of public safety, the NPS now commonly uses forensic science as a tool to safeguard the nation’s valuable natural resources. The NPS dedicates every effort and resource possible to building natural resource cases. Park rangers are experts in poaching investigations, using ballistic analysis, tracking, and employing necropsy skills and other forensic techniques relevant to these cases. The NPS is beginning to apply this same level of forensic investigation to criminal activity along the U.S.–Mexico border, including drug and human trafficking and possible terrorist threats.

However, this has not always been the case. Until recently, the NPS faced the daunting challenge of protecting the nation’s natural resources without the aid of much of the technology that other law enforcement agencies have used for years. With support from a wide variety of agencies and individuals, all offering unique perspectives, the SEAZ Group is helping to change this by paving the way for advancements in the application and the proliferation of forensic techniques within the NPS.

The Arizona Approach

The SEAZ Group consists of 14 park rangers responsible for 4,750 acres of parkland and a multitude of services within the park borders, including emergency management, search and rescue, emergency medical services, fire protection, and law enforcement. In addition, rangers often have to handle poaching, vandalism, and other criminal activity that could lead to arrest and trial. Forensic science, while commonly used in the wider law enforcement community, is only now beginning to enter the toolbox for park rangers.

In preparation for their duties, the rangers each receive full basic police training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, where they learn techniques such as general evidence collection, fingerprint collection, and DNA collection and preservation. The NPS has a two-week ranger operations course that provides focused training on tactical rural operations and tracking methods. In addition, the SEAZ Group partners with many other agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, federal and state law enforcement, and private contractors to introduce rangers to new or enhanced forensic techniques and applications.

These include

  • digital biometric collection methods for fingerprints and retinal image captures;
  • electronic fingerprint and latent print submissions for initial rough comparison and faster detailed analysis through the FBI Universal Latent Workstation;
  • advanced or improved methods for dye development, small particle reagent development, powder-based development, and fuming of latent prints;
  • DNA collection from captured evidence determined to be of significant investigative value to the unit or partnering agencies including the U.S. Border Patrol;
  • cellphone and digital media exploitation to track logistical items such as radios and night vision devices and to determine suppliers and routes for these items;
  • battlefield forensic exploitation techniques for assessing and processing a scene quickly and communicating or acting on any acquired intelligence;
  • forensic laboratory and contents in an expeditionary shelter provided by the National Forensic Science Technology Center; and
  • gas chromatography–mass spectrometry capabilities to test for the presence of explosives and explosive residue on captured evidence where these chemicals are suspected.

These investigative techniques are helping the entire unit develop advanced protocols for carrying out the NPS mission. The SEAZ Group’s goal is to arm its staff with operational techniques, building a robust understanding of the investigative process and sharing information with partners to achieve the greatest results in the field.

The SEAZ Group is taking these newly acquired skills, combining them with traditional law enforcement forensic techniques, and applying them in a dynamic field environment that includes rapidly changing criminal techniques and travel routes. The ultimate goal is to use new forensic technology and techniques to identify, collect, and process evidence faster than the NPS is currently able, providing greater value in a more timesensitive manner.

This is a shift in the way the NPS approaches criminal activity in the national parks. In the past, rangers would turn over evidence such as fingerprints, cellphones and communication devices, and DNA to another agency’s crime laboratory, or not collect it at all. Today rangers are taking a more longterm investigative approach to managing criminal activity, especially in parks along the U.S. borders. NPS rangers are looking at collected items for investigative and intelligence value, exploiting captured devices, and collecting and processing fingerprints and other biometrics.

This shift has not been easy. One of the biggest issues faced by the rangers is the commonly held view that the NPS does not have the capacity to manage investigations that involve significant forensic evidence. The SEAZ Group is working to dispel this misconception. Rangers are currently practicing mobile biometrics in the field, enriching their existing fingerprint database with newly acquired partial-print capabilities, and working toward successful prosecutions using ranger-collected and rangerprocessed evidence. Other agencies are becoming interested in this approach and have started to actively seek out partnerships with the SEAZ Group.

Lessons for the Future

The most significant lesson the SEAZ Group has learned is the importance of building and maintaining relationships with other agencies. Cooperative partnerships between federal and state law enforcement and the NPS are mutually beneficial, allowing for increased information sharing between the agencies. The direct result of these connections has been a dramatic sharing of information—especially between civilian law enforcement units—that fosters growth in both fields. Techniques that were once restricted to military use are now commonplace among civilian law enforcement agencies. Forensic disciplines that were traditionally performed by state or federal law enforcement agencies are becoming standard processes for units such as the SEAZ Group.

It is the hope of the SEAZ Group that this model of partnering and cooperation between agencies will become the norm throughout the NPS, allowing new techniques to be applied to problems unique to park rangers such as poaching, artifact collection, vandalism, and other resourceoriented criminal cases. The SEAZ Group is confident that this forward-leaning approach to the development and use of advanced investigative techniques will help protect the natural and cultural resources of the park and make the U.S. National Parks even more safe and enjoyable for visitors.

For more information on the SEAZ Group’s forensic initiatives, please contact the author at For more information on the NPS or on visiting any of the 22 national parks in Arizona, please visit ■

Please cite as:

Matt Stoffolano, "The Arizona National Park Service Unit: Applying Advanced Investigative Science to Protecting the Nation’s Natural Treasures," The Police Chief 78 (September 2011): 56–59.

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVIII, no. 9, September 2011. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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