National Park Service officials have found themselves turned into political pawns, first as the administration's face of the government shutdown and now by being splintered through a handful of park openings.
The political standoff in Congress has greatly raised the profile of the agency, but not as "America's best idea." Rather, as administration foes would have it, as an overzealous agency determined to inflict as much public inconvenience as possible.
The shutdown of the National Park System has spurred "occupy" movements by some business owners angered by the lack of park visitors to cater to, "civil disobedience" stands in a bid to "take back our parks," and at least one criminal action in the form of an artifact hunter taking to Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park with a metal detector.
The economic pain of missing tourists during the height of the fall tourism season prompted officials in Utah, Arizona, Colorado and some other states to work out agreements with the Interior Department to, essentially, loan the department enough money to reopen Arches, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain, and Zion national parks.
Not interested in "bailing out" the federal government was Wyoming, while officials in Washington, Montana and California also declined the opportunity to loan the government money to open more parks.
Park Service officials, meanwhile, also relented and let the concessionaires who run the Pisgah Inn and Peaks of Otter Lodge along the Blue Ridge Parkway reopen those lodges for business.
This splintered approach to opening parks and inns has created a new tapestry of the National Park System, one that is not in the best interests of the Park Service, according to the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.
"The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees has consistently advocated that Congress pass a budget, open the entire federal government including ALL of America's 401 national park areas. We sympathize with the National Park Service as they have faced unrelenting political pressure to accept state funding to open just a scant few national park units through special agreements with some states," Joan Anzelmo, a former park superintendent and now with the Coalition, said Sunday. "In its own sad way, the degree of pressures that have been applied speak to the extraordinary places that America's national parks are and the huge economic generators they are for their respective communities and states.
"However the same partisan politics that caused this very unnecessary shutdown are also some of the same tactics used to force the agency to open a few parks," she added in an email. "We think this will further divide the country and separate 'the haves' from the 'have not states.' The irresponsibility of Congress in not passing a budget is increasingly pitting Americans against Americans."
The antipathy towards the Obama administration has provided much fodder for right-wing columnists and bloggers, who rallied particularly under an anonymous quote from a Park Service ranger who purportedly claimed, "We've been told to make life as difficult for people as we can."
The use of anonymous sources poses a slippery slope, as the New York Times' Public Editor noted Sunday. On one hand, if that ranger's quote had a name attached to it, there very likely would be ramifications for him or her. But anonymity can lead to questions to the veracity of the quote, too. Was that really the message from Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, or possibly only the thoughts from a disgruntled Park Service employee?
In the end, the pressure on the Park Service from Congress, states, and partisan bystanders is enormous.
"We particularly deplore the way some in Congress, some in the states and some in various political groups have intentionally put National Park Service employees in the crosshairs of sensationalized coverage, often ignoring the real facts to score partisan political points," said Ms. Anzelmo.
"Park rangers, long a revered symbol of America, who spend their days helping park visitors, including at times putting their lives on the line to save others, are being grossly used by partisans to fuel hateful sentiments," she added. "It is unprecedented in the history of the agency now approaching its 100th anniversary in 2016. It is also dangerous for the employees who remain on duty.
"Our greatest hope is that all National Park Service employees remain safe throughout the entire National Park System. Further, we continue to urge Congress to pass the budget now."