Hiking Trail in a National Park

By Darren P. Salute, Esq.

September 4, 2023, is Labor Day, which traditionally signals the end of summer. That means it is most likely the last time thousands of families will have a chance to vacation together this year. Many will travel to their destinations by air. Most will travel by car. An ever-increasing number of us will use this time to visit one of our amazing national parks.

Much of the property held by the United States is made available for the use and enjoyment of the public as part of our national park system. This system consists of hundreds of parks, forests, recreation areas, game preserves, and historic sites located throughout the United States. California boasts ten national parks, which include: Yosemite, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Pinnacles National Park, Lassen Volcanic National Park, Point Reyes National Seashore, Redwood National Parks, Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, the Channel Islands National Park and, YES, Alcatraz is now a national park through the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.

While it is wonderful and satisfying to see that millions of Americans have been, and will continue to, travel to our beautiful national parks each year, some visitors exhibit a disturbing trend of poor behavior. What’s even more alarming is that these visitors might not even realize their behavior may be illegal. The following activities performed by visitors in our national parks are not only frowned upon but are also against state and/or federal law, which could result in mere fines or imprisonment.

Specific Illegal Activities and Restrictions in National Parks

1. Do Not Disturb the Animals At All. (36 CFR § 2.2 – Wildlife Protection)

This includes such conduct as disturbing or moving dead fish, licking psychedelic toads (seems fair), and if you can imagine, teasing the animals while they are breeding. Yes, this last one is actually against the law in all of our national parks. You cannot disturb the animals in any way in our national parks. So taking a Selfie with Yogi or Boo Boo and their mate is a No! No!

2. Do Not Throw Anything Into the Grand Canyon. (CFR §2.1- Preservation of natural, cultural, and archeological resources)

So if you get the urge to throw or hit a baseball or golf ball into the Grand Canyon or anywhere else: don’t. It is not only illegal but could hurt someone down below as there are numerous trails and paths people take to get to the bottom of the canyon.

3. Do Not Take Anything From or Bring Anything Into the National Parks Ecosystem. (CFR §2.1 – Preservation of natural, cultural, and archeological resources)

The Code of Federal Regulations prohibits the taking of “pretty much everything” from our national parks, including “plants, soil, rocks minerals, wildlife (living or dead), etc.” Moreover, it prohibits introducing new wildlife, fish, or plants, including their reproductive bodies, into the park’s ecosystem.

4. Do Not Leave Your Mark (Vandalism). (CFR §2.31 – Trespassing, Tampering and Vandalism)

It is illegal to deface any structures at our national parks, both natural and man-made. This includes tagging, applying stickers, and writing your name in permanent marker on a rock or tree.

5. No Swearing or Making Obscene Gestures. (CFR §2.34 – Disorderly Conduct)

This conduct is deemed to be disorderly and is enforceable at all of our nation’s national parks.

Some of the more unusual activity restrictions at our national parks also include:

  1. No giving birth in the Saline Valley Hot Springs or Death Valley National Park.
  2. No bringing pets with you on rafting trips down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon National Park.
  3. No burying your poop less than 3 inches deep at Shenandoah National Park.
  4. No intimidating golfers or tennis players at Washington, D.C. National Parks.
  5. No balloons without a permit in Joshua Tree National Park.
  6. No Rolling a Rock Down a Hill at all National Parks.

Legal Implications and Jurisdictions

So, what do you do if you should suddenly find yourself in a national park, doing one of the above, and a Park Ranger suddenly appears before you?

Most people will simply have to pay a fine and move on with their lives. However, what about the more serious offenses? What about potential jail time? That depends on the park’s jurisdiction and the rule or law that has been broken.

The National Parks have four types of Jurisdiction. Which types a park has and where is usually decided at the park’s founding but may be changed later. The types of Jurisdiction are:

1. Exclusively Federal Jurisdiction

Every arrest is prosecuted by the Federal Government.

2. Proprietary Federal Jurisdiction

This is the largest percentage of jurisdiction regarding Federal Land. When ownership of a piece of Federal land is proprietary, the Federal Government is said to have taken over none of the State’s obligations for law enforcement. In other words, State and Local law enforcement officers will still handle calls for service as if the land were privately owned. However, the Government still gets to enforce its park rules (CFR). So, if you break a park rule, that is deemed a Federal Crime in the Federal Courts with a Federal Prosecution. If you commit a state crime like public intoxication or assault and battery, you will find yourself in the State Court wherein the national park resides, dealing with a State Prosecutor.

3. Concurrent Jurisdiction

Both the Federal Government and the State Government have full authority to prosecute you. Thus, it depends on who issues the citation or makes the arrest.

4. Partial Jurisdiction

The State and Federal Governments decide who gets to enforce certain laws. For example, at Blue Ridge Parkway (a national parkway spanning the southern and central Appalachians), the laws are enforced by the Federal Government. However, the State of Virginia, one of the states wherein the parkway is located, wanted to keep the State liquor laws for itself. Thus, if you break them, you are prosecuted in Virginia State Court.

Do You Need Legal Help?

For the rest of the 2023 summer season and beyond, we hope you don’t find yourself in trouble at one of our national parks in California for doing something you did not know was illegal. Contact Bradley, Gmelich + Wellerstein LLP for more information on these and other lesser-known state laws.

Darren P. Salute, Esq. About the Author

Darren P. Salute, Esq. practice includes counseling clients and litigating civil and business matters. He has litigation experience in many areas of law including business litigation, franchise litigation and registration, intellectual property, trademark, copyright, trade dress and trade secret infringement, real estate, unfair competition, and related business torts.