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What it's like to work for the National Park Service right now

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A view from inside the NPS as the Trump administration begins

Sunset at the Badlands
Sunset at the Badlands
Matthew Paulson: Flickr/Creative Commons

The social media activity of the National Park Service likely wasn’t a highlight of your feed until earlier this week. A series of “rogue” accounts, such as the Badlands National Park Twitter account, began tweeting climate change facts as a response to the incoming administration’s order that select government agencies, such as the EPA and the Department of the Interior, limit contact with the public, including on social media.

Many of the posts focused on the science of climate change, a contradiction of the administration’s stated policy preferences, as well as those of Scott Pruitt, who has been nominated to be the head of the EPA.

This social media ban isn’t the only thing weighing on the minds of career civil servants and government employees. Earlier this week, the Trump administration announced a hiring freeze for federal employees. Along with the incoming administration’s anti-regulatory stance, “drain the swamp” rhetoric, and potential funding cuts, it’s added up to a very uncertain time for public servants.

To get a better sense of what’s going on inside the National Park Service, as well as other federal agencies, Curbed spoke anonymously with an NPS employee. The employee, a plant biologist who works at a national park out west, deals mainly with reclamation, education, and maintenance of federal land.

Describe your tenure at the National Park Service.

“Up until this past April, I’ve always been a seasonal employee, and it’s a really hard life. It takes about 10 years at this point to become a permanent federal NPS employee, and it’s a labor of love. We make jokes that we’re paid in sunsets. You struggle for up to a decade before you have a chance to work year-round. It took me seven years.

Part of my job includes working with youth groups and kids that are conservation minded, and its always been hard to tell them this is a good idea and a job worth pursuing when I’m struggling to make ends meet. I always tell people it helps to be eternally optimistic and have a very positive outlook, because the entire lifestyle can really drag you down. You really have to know that you want to do this. It’s not easy.”

How has the change in administration affected you and your colleagues?

“So, with this change in administration happening now... I’ve had interns working for me for years, and this year was going to be their chance to become a real uniformed government employee. We’re making a lot happen here for peanuts, working on budgets that are from the ‘90s. We’re stretching every dollar that we can, and we’re having documented success. It’s not just me saying, Wow, our invasive species populations are going down and our habitats are recovering from the damage—outside groups come to evaluate and judge our successes.

With this hiring freeze, and feeling that our own bosses are calling us leeches, it’s hard for me to stay positive right now. And I think that’s across the board. But I’d also say that I’ve talked to people who have been around the NPS a lot longer than me. It isn’t the first time that something like this has happened. I can tell the difference between those who have been through tumultuous times, and the newer people. Some are weathering the storm better than I am.”

National Park Service logo and sign Flickr/Creative Commons

As far as you understand, the hiring freeze means you won’t be able to hire seasonal workers?

“This administration is proving that we can’t make any assumptions. In the past, other hiring freezes haven’t applied to seasonal staff. But everything is so backed up that I’m worrying the freeze will sabotage my entire field season, my entire job may be in jeopardy, and I won’t be able to accomplish anything without seasonal staff. They’re the ones in the field, pulling the weeds, doing the research, taking visitors throughout the park. Everything is [made more] possible with seasonal staff.”

Do all NPS locations have similar job structures?

“This is all of the NPS. The Fish and Wildlife Service has a similar job structure, and the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, U.S. Geological Survey, the Bureau of Reclamation; there are probably more that I’m forgetting. We’re all part of the land management agencies.”

Are there any specific interactions you or your immediate superiors have had with the new administration so far? I know it’s early, but I’m curious what that communication has been like.

“I have two of the memos, but they’re available online, so they’re not secret. It’s basically been, Stop what you’re doing, don’t make any guesses. They’ve been clear we don’t have any directions and the hiring freeze is in place. If you’ve given out a job offer and they’ve accepted it, and the start date was before February 22, they’re good to go. Any start date after that could be cancelled. It’s up to the regional director’s discretion whether those offers will be revoked.

The original order for the hiring freeze says it’ll be in effect for 90 days, or until the director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and the Office of Management and Budget come up with a plan. The OPM hasn’t named a director yet. It’s kind of indefinite, as far as I can tell, and there’s nobody available to make clarifications.”

When you talk to people who have been around longer, through other administrations and transitions, have they said this is less organized, more organized, or par for the course?

“Some of the more older people in the online NPS groups I’m a member of say, Calm down, there’s nothing you can do. You’re just going to have to grit your teeth and wait. Unfortunately, waiting just delays my hiring for months.

Richard Trott of the National Park Service puts up a sign announcing the closure of the Lincoln Memorial due to the government shutdown
Richard Trott of the National Park Service puts up a sign announcing the closure of the Lincoln Memorial due to the government shutdown on Tuesday October 01, 2013 in Washington, DC.
Photo by Matt McClain/ The Washington Post via Getty Images

How do you respond to the environmental sentiments and scientific sentiments of the incoming administration?

“I don’t know if I can add anything that hasn’t already been said. Scientific facts exist. Don’t know that I can say anything more delicate or eye-opening.”

I imagine it could be hard to do this job based on beliefs that your boss doesn’t acknowledge.

“I’m going to do what I’m doing, regardless of what my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss cares about. The NPS is going to exist, and it’s going to make it through this.

I have one project with a 15-year end game. With land management, you think longer-term than four years. It’s not changing what I’m doing, or what I’m going to say to my staff.

Of course, show me your budget, and I’ll see what you care about. I know the money won’t be there for certain science activities, but I can’t say that people here will stop caring or doing the things that they know are right.”

Are your colleagues troubled by the fact that information was pulled off the EPS, and that these so-called “attacks on science” may pose issues for you and your colleagues?

“At the National Park Service, we feel that we have a sentimental value to people. It’s a place that people visit that they can appreciate personally. Sometimes, even to me, a person who works for the government, like in the EPA, can seem a little far-off.

I think we can feel a little more protected and valued at the NPS. If anyone tried to sell off Delicate Arch-Arches National Park, people would be losing their minds. I do worry about people at Bureau of Land Management, they’re going to be the first on the chopping block if there’s any sort of land sale. I feel like, we work at the crème de la crème, a place that’s universally celebrated across the U.S.”

What do you think about the rogue Twitter accounts that were started over the last few days?

“I think they’re amazing, and I also worry. I love the fact that the NPS is not going to just go quietly into the night, but there’s been a lot of debate on these NPS forums. The full-on politicizing of parks, that doesn’t look good for us. We should be the agency dedicated to the land, not throwing ourselves into the ring. It’s one thing when it comes to defending science and land management issues, but it’s another thing to make personal insults about Cheetos and Doritos.

We can't verify that they are real NPS or other agency staff at this point. Once they got a lot of attention, people jumped on the bandwagon. At first it was amusing, but I am wary that anyone can claim to speak on behalf of the federal agencies for publicity, because the blowback will be on the real agency.

But as an employee here, you do feel a bit bound and gagged. There’s already an anti-Fed sentiment out here in the west. I’m just another person at the grocery store, the person drinking a beer next to you at the bar. I’m not some faceless Washington stiff wearing a suit.”

What do you want people to understand about the realities of being a federal employee now?

“I feel cheesy saying this. But with the NPS and other land management bureaus, we just care about one thing: We care about the land.

We don’t get paid very much. I’ve never bought furniture. I have no savings. I lived in my truck when I couldn’t find temporary housing. I never stop applying for jobs. This mythical, spoiled government employee sitting pretty and laughing about how easy his job is just doesn’t exist as far as I’m concerned.

In my heart, I live and breathe this mission. The park service, it’s the greatest miracle. Even people in New York City rest a little easier knowing Yellowstone exists. We came up with the park service out of nowhere. America did it. It’s a special thing and the rest of the world follows us.”