THE BUZZ 2: National Park Limbo

By on January 31, 2017

NPS faces a murky future under a new administration.

(Photo: National Park Service)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – President Trump’s recent hiring freeze on the National Park Service is concerning to people across the nation. And in Jackson, a gateway community to Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks that relies heavily on park visitation for its economic vitality, there could be major ramifications.

Spokespeople from Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks said that all new administrations require an adjustment period, so it is hard to predict the possible outcomes of this one. Specifically, it is too soon to say exactly what the hiring freeze will mean for Wyoming’s national parks, said Denise Germann, GTNP spokesperson. She says the park is working with both the Office of Budget Management and the Office of Personnel Management to see that they have sufficient staffing for the peak season.

Inquiries for more information were directed toward both offices, but neither the OBM nor the OPM responded to email requests for comment.

Still, the question at large seems not to be “if” the federal hiring freeze will impact national parks, but how much. Amid all the uncertainty, the number of open positions at NPS is telling. There are 437 full-time NPS jobs posted on USAJobs.gov. GTNP has 11 full-time job openings, for everything from park ranger to fire dispatcher to wildland firefighter to trail crew. These listings do not include the hundreds of seasonal employees required to keep the park operating smoothly during the summer season. Germann estimated 230 for Grand Teton alone.

It’s a simple equation, explained Jonathan Schechter, economist and executive director of the Charture Institute.

Increased demand plus decreased resources multiplied by a “self-defeating” government equals a “recipe for a very bad situation.”

Indeed, Yellowstone and Grand Teton have seen record-breaking seasons year after year. They need the staff and the funding to keep up with the millions of visitors that come through.

On top of that, they need adequate full-time support to keep up with maintenance and infrastructure.

Yellowstone is particularly behind in that department. The park had $633 million worth of repairs in 2013, according to the Deferred Maintenance by State Park report released by NPS in 2014.

Compounding that, Schechter says, is employees’ low morale that comes from being overworked and under-supported.

“People are running the government who actively … make a point of bragging how much they hate government,” he said. “And they put them in charge of the henhouse. It’s bound to be discouraging.”

Schechter says there is no way to predict the concrete impact the new administration will have on the parks’ health, but when you put “foxes in charge of henhouses … you can reasonably predict a bad outcome.”

The impact of park visitation on Jackson’s economy is hard to understate. Tourism to Grand Teton alone generated more than $500,000 in revenue to gateway communities in 2015, according to the National Park Service’s report on Economic Contributions to Communities. Yellowstone generated $600,000, but that revenue is distributed through gateway communities in Montana as well as Wyoming.

If national parks must raise their entry fees to compensate for lack of resources, Schechter says that might not bode well for tourism economies. As energy prices dive and energy revenues decline, efforts to boost tourism increase.

Without the resources to support it, that’s like “pouring gasoline over a fire,” Schechter said.

There is also a predictably national risk involved in restricting federal resources. Former GTNP spokesperson Joan Anzelmo observed that interior agencies like NPS and BLM staff more than just a local workforce. Many of their employees are among the first to respond to natural disasters or national emergencies. Paramedics, firefighters and law enforcement officers within these agencies are occasionally called to duty for emergencies well outside their jurisdiction.

“When you begin to gut those agencies,” Anzelmo said, “you don’t have any bench waiting to help. Military is wonderful, but you need a civilian workforce scattered throughout the U.S. … You can’t gut it to dysfunction and expect it to rise in a national emergency.”

The crux of the issue seems to be that the future of national parks is uncertain, but it is even more difficult to predict without access to knowledge.

An apparent media gag order on a handful of federal agencies, NPS among them, further obstructs what the public understands about the new administration. While Anzelmo acknowledged there are always things to work through during an administration transition, she says she is wary of the power and scope of this particular adjustment period. “At different times, different administrations might be more specific,” Anzelmo said. “Those things happen. What’s important is how long do they last? Is it short-term, or is it going to be the new way of this administration conducting business? I hope it’s the former.”

Anzelmo worked for the National Park Service for 35 years, from President Ford’s administration through Obama’s second term. It is reasonable, she said, for incoming administrations to “press pause” on things while they get a sense of the inner workings of each agency.

For example, Anzelmo says it is expected for issues that are “highly sensitive” to “run through a chain of command instead of a standard news release.”

It would be irregular, however, for public agencies to fail to provide “day-to-day public information” like road closures, avalanche danger and weather predictions.

So far, social media accounts for Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and Bridger Teton National Forest seem uninhibited. GTNP is still posting alerts on its website, and BTNF continues to release locally relevant news releases on its website, though attempts to reach a representative were unsuccessful.

Anzelmo hopes such information remains available. “It does not bode well for this administration,” she said, “if there is going to be any intent to suppress [information]. It makes no sense whatsoever. You can’t deny facts.”

Concerned members of NPS have already positioned themselves at the head of the resistance. Reports that NPS tweets about climate change had been deleted and Twitter accounts silenced were followed by the creation of “alternative” NPS accounts—along with alternative NASA, Forest Service, EPA and others—intent on continuing the discussion about climate change. Badlands National Parks was first to respond on its own Twitter account, but soon a group of 59 “rogue” park employees from nine different national parks created “Alt National Park Service” on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

“We formed to ensure the protection of the environment for future generations to come,” the Facebook page reads. “We were forced into a media blackout, hiring freeze, policy changes, and possible reduction in funding. We are here to stand up and speak out against the current administration. We all refuse to be silenced while we watch everything we love crumble.”

Yellowstone is among the parks represented, but PJH’s attempts to reach Yellowstone’s rogue employee were unsuccessful.

Over the weekend, former National Park Service director Jon Jarvis released a statement on Facebook decrying the Trump administration’s “unsuccessful” attempts to “suppress the National Park Service.”

“The NPS is the steward of America’s most important places and the narrator of our most powerful stories, told authentically, accurately, and built upon scientific and scholarly research,” the statement reads.

“These are not policy issues,” it continues. “They are facts about our nation, it is how we learn and strive to achieve the ideals of our founding documents. To talk about these facts is core to the mission of the NPS. During the Centennial of the National Park Service, we hosted over 300 million visitors (now that is huge) to the National Parks and most came away inspired, patriotic and ready to speak on behalf of the values we hold most dear. The new Administration would be wise to figure out how to support the National Park Service, its extraordinary employees and their millions of fans.”

Schechter agreed. “It doesn’t augur well for America’s ‘best idea’ if we’re entering into an era of alternative facts.” PJH

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