Among the employees of the federal government who returned to work yesterday were the people who work at the National Park Service. These are the people who work hard to maintain and interpret the hallowed ground that so many of us like to visit. Among their number are many fine historians and as fine a group of dedicated public servants as you are likely to come across. I’m honored to work alongside them and pleased to call them my friends. Last July I saw them do a superior job with the sesquicentennial at Gettysburg in what was close to a flawless performance, all things considered.
Over the last several weeks some people have targeted the NPS and its employees in ways that I found disturbing, unreasoning, and at times downright detestable. The very people who supported the shutdown of the federal government then attacked these people for doing their job under bizarre and unbecoming circumstances. Some people argued that it was time to consider whether it was time to take the battlefields away from the NPS; others wanted to reduce the funding of an already-underfunded group that is making do with the limitations of the sequester. A congressional hearing designed to discover how and why the NPS’s leadership went about its decision was far more revealing of the incompetence and outright stupidity of some of our nation’s elected representatives.
Kevin Levin covered aspects of the impact of the shutdown on the NPS and the controversy surrounding NPS decisions and the reactions to them quite well. I could not bring myself to do the same, because, quite frankly, I was too angry at the people who heaped such abuse on such good people who were doing their job and who found themselves placed in no-win situations. Instead, I now offer the candid comments of one of those Rangers, someone who simply does the job they are supposed to do with the skill, the passion, and the commitment that characterizes the many people of the NPS I know. I think these folks are entitled to have their say.
My final thoughts on the shutdown, before I head back to work tomorrow:
1) I know what it’s like to find your ideology tested by events. I get it. I also get the powerful need to blame. But blaming the NPS for closing the parks when the government shut down is a dangerous and ideologically bankrupt course to take. I encourage anyone who is currently incensed at the NPS to propose a solution that would have been legal, practical, safe, and actionable at the last minute. We always enjoy learning from our mistakes, and will doubtless add many things to the “how to behave during a government shutdown” manual, but ask yourself: do we REALLY want to get good at shutting down the government?
2) I understand the perception that the NPS turned their backs on visitors, and in particular, veterans – no one feels that pain more keenly than park rangers. My heart aches for the thousands of disappointed visitors who wanted to come to these truly national, democratic spaces that we manage. However, if you’re really concerned for veterans, remember that veterans make up an enormous amount of the federal (and NPS) workforce. Cozy feelings towards our veterans must include not forcing them to file for unemployment, or work without pay.
3) I understand the powerful urge to find a bad guy, and simplify complex issues. I am often guilty of this myself. This is a perfect opportunity to reflect that ideology is often the enemy of reason. The NPS reflects society: there are many Republicans (and even Tea Partiers) who make up the work force. If there were any directives (verbal or otherwise) to make “life as difficult as possible for visitors,” this would have been forwarded to the press immediately, and ethical and Hatch Act violations filed against the perpetrators. I would have done it myself had such orders come my way. In a heartbeat. They didn’t.
4) I understand and greatly respect the tradition of limited government, of fiscal responsibility, and debt reduction. Historically, there is ample evidence to suggest that this tradition has served us well over the centuries. Why, then, is the party most identified with this tradition, the Republican Party, grilling the NPS director over closing down the parks when faced with no funding? Isn’t that the idea? When you don’t have the money, you can’t do [fill in the blank]? This antipathy doesn’t make sense.
5) You want the parks to thrive? Come visit a national park and do it soon. Have lunch in the area, visit other sites nearby, or stay in a hotel. The people and places that support the parks have taken the worst hit – their livelihoods, their mortgages, and their children’s Christmases were adversely affected by this breakdown of reason. Many of them are doubtless veterans, too.
6) Think before you post. The vitriol spewed at park rangers in particular has been very disheartening. If you believe that park rangers are “jack-booted thugs,” or that we’re all a bunch of political stooges, I know something about you: you haven’t been to a National Park. Please come by – we’d still love to see you. It might just change your life. I, for one, am happy to be serving you once again.
I’ll see you folks on the battlefield.