One Ranger Speaks

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.


44 thoughts on “One Ranger Speaks

  1. Mark October 18, 2013 / 12:01 pm

    >> Over the last several weeks some people have targeted the NPS and its employees

    And some NPS employees targeted park goers by telling them they can’t take pictures where they were standing and such nonsense. And Brooks who raises claims of his political agnosticism to near saintly levels is outraged by the former and not the latter. I’m shocked, shocked I tell you.

    • Brooks D. Simpson October 18, 2013 / 1:18 pm

      By definition, one can’t be a park goer to a closed park. To ascribe this (or my comment) to some political agenda strikes me as absolutely absurd. But then that’s what I’ve seen from most critics of the NPS. The only reasonable observation I’ve seen comes from Al Mackey, who rightly points out that perhaps the NPS will now have to plan on how to handle future closures, which (of course) will take time away from their other duties.

      Mark’s always upset with me when I don’t agree with his sense of finely cultivated outrage. That’s when he finds me flawed and biased. 🙂

      • M.D. Blough October 19, 2013 / 4:42 pm

        Brooks, they had a contingency plan. It was published with all of the other contingency plans. I’m not sure if there is a way open to federal agencies that covers: “How to respond to unscrupulous politicians who not only voted for (1) cutting off all funding to federal agencies to compel a political objective they have failed to achieve through the standard legislative process; (2) have repeatedly voted, with some success, for slashing funding to the national park system; and (3) some of whom support opening national parks and forests to increased drilling, etc at fire sale prices and even selling off the parks themselves to private interests.

        These employees are mostly covered by the Hatch Act. Defending themselves from unfair attacks that are emanating almost exclusively from one political party (yes, I know the other one is not eligible for sainthood but we’re talking about the treatment of the NPS at the moment) can put them at great risk.

        • Brooks D. Simpson October 19, 2013 / 8:54 pm

          I asked the individual in question if I could repost the comment, and I received the go-ahead.

    • John Foskett October 18, 2013 / 2:02 pm

      There’s a difference between complaining about isolated acts by some employees and blanket statements by an allegedly responsible elected official smearing all of them with his false characterizations to serve a political agenda. You bet that a small minority of employees reacted wrongly to the stupid, wholly unnecessary shutdown by taking it out on the visitors. Guess what – that happens whenever you have a large group of individuals involved. But there were plenty of instances where the employees were simply and properly doing their jobs. Unfortunately, some pols decided to throw all of them under the bus for perceived political advantage. I again invite the grandstanding pol in question to actually show up and get his soft hands dirty doing the work a lot of these “thugs” do every day so that the public is safe and served at our national parks.

  2. John Heiser October 18, 2013 / 12:07 pm

    Thank you for carrying this message, Brooks. No matter the circumstances and hard feelings that have arisen due to the shutdown, employees of the National Park Service will continue to serve national and international visitors with the same cordiality and consideration for their safety and enjoyment of the national parks and monuments as before. We were the people who missed the parks most of all.

  3. Al Mackey October 18, 2013 / 1:03 pm

    Great comments, but I do have one thing I’d like to contradict:
    “but ask yourself: do we REALLY want to get good at shutting down the government?”

    Yes, we do. This isn’t the last time the government will be shut down. Just because we don’t want to do something is not a reason we should not do it as well as we possibly can. I don’t think anyone in the Park Service will say the NPS was flawless in this shutdown, which means there are lessons to be learned and applied, and they need to endeavor to do it better the next time the government shuts down, because there will be a next time.

    • Lyle Smith October 18, 2013 / 6:58 pm

      I’ve drawn the same conclusions as you Al.

    • pycarecen October 18, 2013 / 8:25 pm

      How much money should Congress appropriate so that all Federal agencies have shut down plans? I’m guessing that it would cost billions, and that by the time the next shutdown occurred they would be out of date.

      • Al Mackey October 19, 2013 / 9:02 am

        If anyone who worked for me ever said we don’t have the money to make a contingency plan I would fire him that very instant, Pat. It’s a fundamental part of the job of being a manager. A manager has to plan for contingencies, otherwise that manager is not doing their job. You plan for contingencies, and you update your plans on an annual basis. Congress doesn’t need to appropriate another penny for this. This is something they should already be doing.

        • John Foskett October 19, 2013 / 12:06 pm

          I don’t disagree with the abstract concept. Now what does it mean in the real world? Other than avoiding a small number of allegedly rude responses to the public next time, what is the contingency plan here? in other words, what is “better the next time”?

          • Al Mackey October 19, 2013 / 3:30 pm

            Right off the top of my head, the planning would look at all the sites and determine which, if any, can remain open because, like the Claude Moore Farm, no NPS personnel are at the site. Determine where there can be agreements with states to provide operating funds if there is a government shutdown. Determine the procedure for getting those agreements. Determine the Public Relations strategy. Determine the communications strategy. How will you get the word out during a shutdown? What, if anything, can you do during a shutdown to mitigate its effects on the public? How will you explain the closures to the public? Are there any private sector partnerships you can leverage?

            There are a lot of things that can be thought out in advance.

          • John Foskett October 20, 2013 / 8:28 am

            Some of that may work for the smaller or urban sites. Mostly, however, you’re going to be coming up with a press release. There isn’t much you can do about allowing access to the biggest magnets (such as the ones I’ve named) because of the support structure, etc. that’s required. The real solution is to avoid these games in Washington, which are primarily about a crowd of cynical pols catering to their “base” in order to be re-elected. This wasn’t a natural disaster.

          • Al Mackey October 20, 2013 / 10:21 am

            It’s unrealistic to think that the two parties are not going to shut the government down again. It is part of a manager’s job to plan for contingencies such as a shutdown, which is a very predictable future occurrence.

    • Keith October 20, 2013 / 8:29 am

      Al, I would have to respectfully disagree with you about “getting good” at shutdowns. We seem to be on a path where shutting down the government is becoming the “new normal.” I think that is a dangerous thing. Moreover, there are 401 national parks and monuments, along with several hundred more affiliated sites, staffed by tens of thousands of employees across the country and even overseas. Even if there were standards and procedures for future shutdowns, there would inevitably be anomalies and inconsistencies. How could there not be? The NPS would get blamed again, only more so for violating the new shutdown procedures.

      Shutdowns are a tool to inflict blame and embarrassment on the opposition. It takes a lot of nerve to shutdown the government and not expect pain and consequences, when that’s the whole point.

      • Al Mackey October 20, 2013 / 10:30 am

        Keith, I’ve been a manager now for the great majority of my adult life. If I failed to perform well in a crisis not of my making I would have been fired long ago. Managers plan for things to go wrong, otherwise they are irresponsible. There are a bunch of pithy sayings that can be called clichĂ©s but really encapsulate what a manager needs to do in this situation. Failure to plan is planning to fail, and prepare for the worst and hope for the best. If, as you say, shutdowns are becoming the new norm then if any NPS director in the future fails to have a comprehensive plan in place for a shutdown, then my first thought would be that director has to go because they are doing a disservice to the public and to their own employees. When the NPS shuts down a facility and then a few days later has to reopen it because they determined they didn’t need to shut it down, and this happened more than once, then it shows somebody didn’t do their job and the public was unnecessarily inconvenienced and people at the site were unnecessarily stressed.

        If the job of the park service involves having sites open to the public, then their job necessarily entails planning for a shutdown and getting good at it so they can have sites open to the public.

        • Jimmy Dick October 20, 2013 / 1:48 pm

          There should not be any shutdowns period. The fact that there have been shutdowns shows the failure of politicians to accept reality, especially when the last three shutdowns have been failures. The NPS should not be developing a plan to shut down any park due to a political party throwing a temper tantrum and using the NPS as a pawn.

          I for one resent the shutdown or any shutdown of the government by any political party.

          • Al Mackey October 20, 2013 / 4:43 pm

            I don’t like shutdowns any more than the next person. Maybe it’s just me, but I just don’t understand the feeling that we ought not to have plans in place to maximize our performance no matter what the circumstances.

          • John Foskett October 21, 2013 / 7:25 am

            Aside from the limitations inherent in what can be done, there’s a danger in ameliorating the perverse tactics of some political elements. Frankly, I’m all for the public squealing in lieu of doing superhuman contortions to (try to) make it as painless as possible. The solution is for the voters to understand that they’re being cheated and misled by a crowd of frauds whose mission in life is to get re-elected by crating gridlock.

          • Al Mackey October 21, 2013 / 9:26 am

            There’s nothing superhuman about making a plan, having agreements in place, and deciding ahead of time how you’re going to communicate with people.

            What I see, in essence, is the desire to make a shutdown as painful as possible. So was the charge made by the Republicans accurate after all?

        • Keith October 20, 2013 / 4:05 pm

          Some mistakes might have been made here or there, but the Park Service didn’t perform poorly during the shutdown. When a government shuts down things . . . shut down. Blaming the economic and public relations consequences on the agencies is the lowest of the low.

          I agree that managers should prepare for contingencies and emergencies. My argument here is that institutionalizing shutdown procedures is a dangerous precedent.

          • Al Mackey October 20, 2013 / 5:00 pm

            I think when the park service reopens facilities that it closed, it is admitting that it unnecessarily closed those sites. That’s not good performance.

            If some sites can remain open, then the park service, in my opinion, needs to keep them open.

            I just don’t understand the feeling that we would not do all we could to perform as well as possible in any situation, even in the situation of a government shutdown.

            Otherwise, it leaves one open to the charge of deliberately making the shutdown as painful as possible on the American people. And if they deliberately avoided being able to perform well, that charge would be accurate.

          • Keith October 20, 2013 / 5:38 pm

            It is my understanding that the few parks that opened did so because the states in which they are located ponied up the money with the proviso that they would be reimbursed when the shutdown ended.

            Maybe we’ll have to agree to disagree on the other stuff.

          • M.D. Blough October 20, 2013 / 7:41 pm

            There was a distortion that was really an overt lie that claimed that Harry Reid had said that he didn’t care about the shutdown stopping funding for clinical trials for kids with cancer and, for that reason, would oppose legislation that, while continuing the shutdown, would fund such trials . As Media Matters reported, “Specifically, conservatives are claiming that Reid replied to a reporter’s question, “If you can help one child with cancer, why wouldn’t you?” by saying “why would we want to do that?” In fact, Reid was responding to Sen. Chuck Schumer, who had interjected, saying “why pit one against the other?”. What Reid and Schumer opposed were pitting groups against each other to get their funding reinstated instead of simply ending the shutdown.

  4. M.D. Blough October 18, 2013 / 1:26 pm

    Well said. I just wish it hadn’t been necessary for this ranger or any ranger to have had to say anything .

  5. Dale Brown October 18, 2013 / 2:06 pm

    I’d actually like to hear more about the rangers that told people “they can’t take pictures where they were standing and such nonsense.” How about some details.

    • Michael Confoy October 18, 2013 / 4:45 pm

      Agreed, as Jon Stewart says, sounds like it’s from BS Mountain.

  6. Vava Schroeder October 18, 2013 / 5:11 pm

    don’t worry. people with a brain know who really caused the shutdown and that the NPS is part of the government, hence you can’t visit a park. Only morons like Palin and Cruz don’t get it.

  7. Natalie October 18, 2013 / 6:38 pm

    NPS had no reason to “shut down” open air memorials. Are you insane or do you just not get it that it cost more to close than to leave it as is which, by the way, was how all the other sane presidents did it in the past. You, sir, should be charged for taking up oxygen! I’d rather quit my job than be one of the nps who placed a stupid barricade!

    • Brooks D. Simpson October 18, 2013 / 7:37 pm


      Do you think anyone who disagrees with you is insane? Might that be a form of insanity?

      The Grand Canyon is an open air park. So you would not mind if Rangers were not there? Others might disagree.

      Other open air memorials and sites have their own issues of safety. For example, you might want to be careful going up the stairs of the Lincoln memorial or standing on certain boulders at Gettysburg if it’s wet. One might also be concerned about vandalism without proper security.

      As for noting that it cost more to shut things down than to keep them open, perhaps you should share that observation with the people who represent you in Congress.

      No one “takes up” oxygen.

      You are free to quit your job. Thank goodness the NPS is back on the job.

      • John Foskett October 19, 2013 / 7:59 am

        Not to mention “open air” parks like Glacier, Grand Teton, Rocky Mountain, North Cascades, Denali, and Yosemite. Lots of opportunities to get in real big trouble in those places. Fortunately, with funding we have dedicated seasonals and permanents to keep visitors safe.

      • M.D. Blough October 20, 2013 / 7:48 pm

        How about climbers on Denali? You can’t get more “open air” than that. The NPS spends a massive amount of money and risking the lives of their own personnel in rescuing climbers on Denali, many of whom get in trouble because of their own inexperience and carelessness. (Denali, BTW, was ranked 10th among the 11 most dangerous mountains in a recent survey. Only about 1/2 the climbers reach the summit and over 100 climbers have died in the attempt.)

  8. Pat Young October 18, 2013 / 8:29 pm

    Wasn’t U.S. Grant ultimately responsible for all of this by signing the Deficiency Act? Why aren’t we holding him accountable?

    • Brooks D. Simpson October 18, 2013 / 10:33 pm

      Because he’s a Republican president. At present the choice for blaming is between a Democratic president and Republicans in Congress (you are free to pick which ones you want to blame).

      • Buck Buchanan October 21, 2013 / 11:31 am

        ****golf clap*****

  9. James F. Epperson October 19, 2013 / 7:48 am

    It wouldn’t hurt for US agencies to develop some boilerplate talking points for any future shutdowns, just to communicate better w/ the public. Of course, doing so takes time away from other tasks, and this costs money. Is anyone going to appropriate additional funds for this purpose?

    The suggestion that NPS folks were told to make “life as difficult as possible for visitors” defies common sense.

    • Al Mackey October 20, 2013 / 10:42 am

      Additional funds for doing what they should be doing anyway?

      • Matt McKeon October 20, 2013 / 2:18 pm

        The problem isn’t a lack of contingency plans. The contingency plans worked and the monuments were closed. If you don’t provide funds or staff to provide services, those services don’t get provided. Vacationers were inconvenienced. Exactly the same scenario as when Newt Gingrich had the brainwave to pull this last time.

        Its that the shutdown was dumb, expensive, ineffective and highly unpopular. The anger and disgust felt by most people needed a scapegoat, and goodness it couldn’t be the people who actually shutdown the government and closed the parks. And the “both sides do it” doesn’t fly when one party voted for the shutdown and one party voted against it.

        I suggest the first question asked of any candidate for Congress is: would you vote to shutdown the government?

        • Al Mackey October 20, 2013 / 4:40 pm

          Matt, I could be wrong, but looking from the outside it seems as though the only plan in place was the identification of who was considered an essential employee. I think this shutdown showed decisively that’s not enough. They left themselves open to the [false, in my opinion] charge that they were deliberately trying to make the shutdown as tough as possible on the American people. If, at the outset of the shutdown, they put out the list of which sites would be open and which would be closed, and then set in motion a communication and public relations plan, things would have been much better for them. The fact that they opened sites during the shutdown they had previously closed shows there was not much thought put in prior to the shutdown regarding which sites could remain open.

  10. Matt McKeon October 20, 2013 / 2:30 pm

    The focus on the national parks is more than a little selfish. If the rest of the government shutdown except the national parks, would everything be OK? White, middle class people are inconvenienced and the sky must fall! Folks waiting for cancer treatment? Doable, politically.The visuals aren’t as striking as the Grand Canyon, I guess.

    I imagine the people who are responsible for this fiasco are forming their contingency plans. Can’t wait. A massive march on a National Park? A sit in at the Lincoln Memorial? Will Michelle Bachman be the new Rosa Parks for the tea party? An improved version without the gratitutous blackness.

    • Pat Young October 20, 2013 / 5:58 pm

      Does anyone think that if the World War II Memorial had remained open, the same grandstanding would not have gone on somewhere else? Unless the NPS played whack-a-mole with roving patrols following Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin around to reopen parks as they arrived at them, we would have seen the same story at a different location. Don’t believe me? Look at the dozens of sites around the country the Tea Party “reopened” last weekend.

      The fact that some sites were reopened during the second week is hardly an indication of wrongdoing by the NPS. If we accept that, then no change would be possible once the shutdown began.

      Frankly, I tend to agree with Matt on the entitlement felt by some folks (emphatically NOT Al) It reminds me of the white folks I know who want Muslims placed under tight scrutiny “to protect us from terrorism” but who object to taking off their shoes at airport security.

      I don’t understand why we are supposed to be outraged over the Claude Moore Farm, a site no one in New York has heard of, but not at the closing of the freaking Grand Canyon.

  11. Dale Brown October 21, 2013 / 5:45 am

    This may be a day late and a dollar short, but …

    I don’t know how much simpler it could be.

    NATIONAL parks are operated by the United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, a part of the United States GOVERNMENT.

    A GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN closes ALL U.S. government operations that are considered non-essential.

    National parks are considered non-essential operations.

    Ergo: National parks are shut down.

    Now, on to the next red herring.

  12. Al Mackey October 21, 2013 / 9:38 am

    Here is the mission of the National Park Service:

    The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. The Park Service cooperates with partners to extend the benefits of natural and cultural resource conservation and outdoor recreation throughout this country and the world.

    To achieve this mission, the National Park Service adheres to the following guiding principles:

    Excellent Service: Providing the best possible service to park visitors and partners.

    Productive Partnerships: Collaborating with federal, state, tribal, and local governments, private organizations, and businesses to work toward common goals.

    Citizen Involvement: Providing opportunities for citizens to participate in the decisions and actions of the National Park Service.

    Heritage Education: Educating park visitors and the general public about their history and common heritage.

    Outstanding Employees: Empowering a diverse workforce committed to excellence, integrity, and quality work.

    Employee Development: Providing developmental opportunities and training so employees have the “tools to do the job” safely and efficiently.

    Wise Decisions: Integrating social, economic, environmental, and ethical considerations into the decision -making process.

    Effective Management: Instilling a performance management philosophy that fosters creativity, focuses on results, and requires accountability at all levels.

    Research and Technology: Incorporating research findings and new technologies to improve work practices, products, and services.

    Shared Capabilities: Sharing technical information and expertise with public and private land managers.

    Being able to identify which sites can remain open in a shutdown, such as the Claude Moore Farm, allows them to continue to fulfill as much of their mission as they can during that shutdown.

    Being able to have in place agreements with states that can keep sites open in a shutdown, such as we saw with the Grand Canyon, is fulfilling the “productive partnerships” portion of their mission and allows them to continue to fulfill as much of their mission as they can during that shutdown.

    Failing to have a comprehensive plan is contradictory to the mission of having effective management and “Instilling a performance management philosophy that fosters creativity, focuses on results, and requires accountability at all levels.”

    Quite obviously the Park Service can’t fulfill its entire mission in the event of a shutdown, but they can fulfill some parts of it. It’s their responsibility to find ways to fulfill as much of their mission statement as they can during a shutdown.

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