Archive for January, 2017

The Rebel Rangers


National Park Service Alaska Regional Office, Anchorage, Alaska

It’s been interesting to me to see a lot of the early resistance to the Trump administration coming from National Park Service employees, starting with the famous tweets about climate change from the Badlands National Park Twitter account and continuing with the various “Alt-NPS” Twitter feeds (the authenticity of which is impossible to confirm, of course, but it’s quite possible at least some are legit). There are some very specific reasons having to do with the NPS’s structure and policies that make it a particularly likely source for this type of thing, and I think some of them are actually problems that really should be addressed in the long term, despite how useful they may be in the short term in pushing back against Trump’s agenda. (I haven’t been very political on this blog in a while, but it should be clear from the above where my sympathies lie, and I think most people who care about scientific inquiry and public lands are lining up similarly.)

First, the NPS relies very heavily on non-permanent staff who are hard to keep in line with threats to their job security because they don’t have any to start with. It’s been reported that the Badlands tweets were actually by a former employee who still had access to the account, which is the justification park management gave for deleting them. It’s possible this is just an excuse made up by management to save face in front of the new administration, but I doubt it. I think it’s most likely that Badlands hadn’t changed their Twitter password in a while, and a former seasonal or term interpretive ranger who still knew it was able to get in and make the tweets before anyone was the wiser.

So far so good, but it’s not actually good for an agency to rely so heavily on such a transient workforce. There are some good reasons for so much of the work being seasonal, to be sure. Many parks have very pronounced seasonal patterns in visitation that require big differences in staffing levels, especially for the jobs that require a lot of interaction with visitors (mostly interpretation and law enforcement). A lot of seasonal staff are young people at a transitional point in their lives, and a short seasonal gig fits well; this was the case for me at Chaco, and it was a great experience that I don’t regret at all. So I’m not saying the NPS should do away with seasonal work entirely. There are a lot of people, however, who decide to make park-rangering a career, which typically requires several seasonal jobs in different parks before a permanent opening opens up. These are not good jobs. The pay is low, and they come with very meager benefits, especially compared to permanent federal jobs. So people who decide to devote their lives to the serving their country through working in its parks have to go through several years of eking out a living with no job security before they get their first “real” job with some semblance of stability. (There are some interesting parallels here to academia.)

A better way to accommodate the seasonality of NPS work might be to expand the use of so-called “career-seasonal” jobs, which guarantee continued employment in subsequent seasons even though they only allow for a certain number of hours per year. This sort of arrangement isn’t for everyone, but it could help provide more stability to people who want to continue doing this work rather than moving on to something else. Whether or not this would be a viable option, some sort of shift away from such heavy reliance on short-term seasonal staff would have a lot of benefits, I think.

Similarly, I think the NPS overuses so-called “term” jobs, which are typically one to four years in duration, for work that is really a part of ongoing operations. Again, these jobs, which are more typically back-office administrative positions rather than visitor-facing ones, have fewer benefits than permanent ones and don’t pay particularly well, and they lead to the same pattern of career people moving from park to park for years before they can snag a permanent position. Unlike with seasonal jobs, I don’t see any valid justification for such extensive reliance on term employees for this sort of work. There is a role for this kind of job, but it should really be focused on short-term special projects rather than ongoing operations.

Secondly, the proliferation of renegade tweets on official accounts early on, and of renegade accounts once management began to crack down on those, is a symptom in part of the highly decentralized structure of the NPS compared to other land-management agencies. There are real problems with the considerable amounts of autonomy granted to park superintendents, which has contributed to recent scandals at parks like Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yosemite. Tighter oversight of superintendents by regional management would be a good idea, I think.

But the decentralization goes well beyond them, and to some degree is a function of the nature of the work itself, as encapsulated in the term “ranger” itself. There’s just a limit to how much supervision even park management can exercise over individual employees when wandering around the park is a big part of the job. I can attest that when I was first starting to lead tours at Chaco I was told that a senior ranger would go on one of my own tours within the first couple weeks to check on me. It never happened, not just in the first two weeks but ever. Especially at smaller parks where staffing is always stretched pretty thin, there’s not a whole lot of effective supervision and management just has to trust that employees are doing things right. And again, many of these employees are seasonals without any real job security, which further limits the options management has for dealing with a rogue ranger. This has been another contributing factor to the scandals I mentioned above. Visitor feedback is one of the main mechanisms for supervision in this context, which is a good thing to keep in mind if you have a particularly bad (or good!) encounter with a ranger at a park as a visitor. They really do read those comment forms.

Luckily, in my experience the vast majority of NPS employees, regardless of their employment status, are conscientious and passionate about their jobs, so the lack of supervision and need to rely on trust aren’t as big a problem as they could be, although as the recent scandals have showed they can lead to big problems if management isn’t making a conscientious effort to exercise what supervision it can and to create a healthy working environment for all staff. The excessive autonomy of superintendents and especially the over-reliance on non-permanent staff are bigger problems, and the latter in particular is unconscionable even if it does enable some snarky tweets directed at Donald Trump.


Snow Ranger at Chaco Visitor Center

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