Before Trump and the gag order, morale was extremely low [at the National Park Service] because we were paid in rainbows and smiles. We were dealing with fires and we were carrying dead bodies from the wilderness, and we didn't have health care or benefits. So then if you have a few thousand employees treated like that, and then if you say the purpose of their work is invalid, and if you can't speak about certain things, then you can't do your job— if your job is to preserve America's legacy by telling the stories of the place and the people and the animals, and then speaking for all of them that can't speak for themselves.
Those sharp words come from Michelle Botsma, a former park ranger for the National Park Service. During the four years that Botsma worked for the NPS, she made $15 an hour (with a college degree) and was categorized as a "temporary employee." She was also given different job descriptions every six months—a ploy, she claims, by the government so as to avoid paying the cost of employee health care. Botsma's experience was not unique, and because the NPS has been chronically underfunded since its inception, rangers find themselves having to take on dozens of tasks outside of their job description in order to maintain the United States' national parks.
While these problems predate the current administration, they've only been exacerbated in the Trump White House. In the first five days of his presidency, Donald Trump issued a gag order for the NPS and the Environmental Protection Agency, preventing employees from sharing research findings, updating their websites, mentioning climate change, or communicating with the public. Since then, Trump has gone on to fill his cabinet with controversial selections such as EPA chief Scott Pruitt and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. Trump's newest budget proposal also calls for a 31 percent cut to the EPA's budget, as well as 12 percent slashes to the budgets of the Departments of the Interior and Energy—the former of which houses the NPS in the first place. All this, and the NPS already faces a $12 billion maintenance backlog of work.
"When the gag order hit, it felt like a punch to the stomach because it was so sudden, and like I couldn't accomplish my job," says Alejandra Martinez, a park ranger in the Southwest, (not her real name; she spoke under the condition of anonymity). "Once the public found out about it [the gag order], they tried to get you to admit or say something that you couldn't. So it was tiring. But I think the public showed that they valued us more than the government."
Since the gag order, dozens of rogue NPS social media accounts have sprang to life, cobbling up hundreds of thousands of followers within just a few months. With the popularity of these rogue accounts, Martinez and others at the NPS receive constant inquiries from journalists, many of them hungry to expose the rangers behind the accounts. Martinez doesn't know who is managing these rogue accounts, but she feels they are a "mixed blessing": They've raised awareness around the issues she and her colleagues are facing, yes, but they've also invited even more public scrutiny.
Martinez is most concerned about how Trump's proposed budget cuts will affect her agency and the public at large. She also worries about how proposed bills that weaken safety standards for oil and gas drilling will permanently change our environment for the worse.
The park that Martinez currently works at is close to a town experiencing a natural gas and oil boom, "Since then, the night sky has been degrading fast. I used to be able to see all the stars, and then months of lights, drills, and gases affected visibility." If other parks allow oil and gas drilling, Martinez explains, "air quality won't be great, and the visual experience of parks will be hurt."
Since the inception of the national parks, park rangers, environmental scientists, conservationists, and activists have struggled to protect common lands. As early as the late 1800s, John Muir, the prolific writer, conservationist, and founder of the Sierra Club, worked tirelessly to conserve land throughout the U.S. He is responsible for helping the government establish Yosemite National Park, the second national park (after Yellowstone) in the country in 1890. In so doing, he also shaped public opinion and increased a sense of ownership and need to protect public land in America.
"The battle we have fought, and are still fighting, for the forests is a part of the eternal conflict between right and wrong, and we cannot expect to see the end of it," Muir said in an address to the Sierra Club in 1896. "The fight for the Yosemite Park and other forest parks and reserves is by no means over; nor would the fighting cease, however much the boundaries were contracted. Every good thing, great and small, needs defense."
It wasn't until 1916 that the NPS was established; it has since faced many setbacks. Clashes between the law, government, private interests, and the NPS have emerged—often at the expense of the NPS employees. There were two government shutdowns of national parks in 1995, another in 2003, and, most recently, Trump's month-long hiring freeze earlier this year.
And while the NPS has diligently continued its work, many public lands remain very much in jeopardy: ThinkProgress' Nicole Gentile reports that, because of legislation that was passed by the Trump administration, the House of Representatives no longer needs to estimate potential financial losses before giving away public land. "Bills to dispose of public land will skip several steps in the normal legislative process, coming up for a vote without any discussion of the costs and benefits," Gentile writes. "The House approved the rules change by a vote of 234 to 193."
So what does this mean, and how could acts like this affect current and future generations?
"The park service was a radical idea to begin with and the park service always had to fight to remain a viable organization. I think it would be really easy to dismantle the park service," says Botsma, the former park ranger. "I worry that we measure outcomes for anything in monetary terms instead of in terms of quality of life and ecological health."
Ramapo College of New Jersey professor Ashwani Vasishth says that, collectively, people must prioritize "[what] we don't want to see happen: oil spills, contamination of groundwater, pollution of nature, noise pollution, air and water pollution, soil erosion. If we could all agree that those are bad things, then there is no leg to stand on these [administration's] moves."
So, as NPS employees continue to speak up, the words of the rogue accounts are heard, and public outcry comes in the defense of the agency, a change in the trajectory of environmental irresponsibility of this current government is possible. And we can look to the history of the national parks and the current struggle of their resistance as inspiration, as the NPS have always found the strength not to remain silenced.