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A View From The Overlook: Peter And Paul

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My previous column, “How do you get a permanent job with the NPS,” provoked a great deal of reader comment. (Had your humble correspondent mentioned the words “guns” or “mountain biking,” the rate of comment would have been even higher!)

We are pleased that everyone remained “on subject.” No one went off on a tangent, wondering if Your Correspondent was a Communist, or even possibly a Democrat. (Well, hardly anyone.) The comments were well-reasoned and well-written, showing a great deal of thought, effort and, sadly, anguish.

It seems that there are too many well-qualified candidates chasing too few NPS permanent jobs. A matter of supply and demand. Conversely, if you are a graduate of a medical school, ANY medical school, and can pass the boards, chances are you will be doctoring somewhere. Not true in the case of Public Land Management graduates.

So what can be done to balance NPS permanent jobs and candidates?

One of our commenters, a Social Darwinist named “Zebulon,” made the happy suggestion that NPS salaries be reduced to the point where it is difficult (but not impossible) to find any applicants for NPS jobs and thus a balance would be achieved.

My own suggestion would be expand both the staffing and the number of units of the NPS. (Knowing Congress and the Tea Party, the former rather than the latter suggestion is the one most likely to be adopted!)

So, how does one get a permanent job with the NPS?

Eccentric Millionaires Program

Well, there are several “Minority Preferment Programs.” My hands-down favorite is the “Eccentric Millionaire Program.”

“Millionaires are a minority?’’ you ask, incredulous.

Yes, and a despised and persecuted one, neighbor! Consider the poor Koch brothers; hardly a day passes without some left-wing fanatic demanding that something bad happen to these enterprising orphans! It’s only fair that the NPS established “The Eccentric Millionaire’s Program” to fight prejudice against America’s smallest minority by hiring some of them!

“How long has this program been going on?” you ask, dumbstartled.

Since the very first! Stephen Mather, the borax king, was our first hire!

“But why 'eccentric?'” you inquire.

Well, you have to be a little bit crazy to spend your own time and money on a government agency, but that’s exactly what Mather did. In fact, he got his friend, fellow millionaire, Horace Albright (potash), to join the program.

Understandably, hires under the “Eccentric Millionaires Program” are rather rare, but they do happen.

I recall two cases during my own career. Here’s one of them:

The first was at Bryce Canyon where I encountered the millionaire Chief of Interpretation, Jimmy Barnett. He had made a great deal of money as a self-made manufacturer at an early age. In between deals, he visited a national park and fell in love with “America’s Best Idea” and signed up. (Jimmy would good naturedly remark that his GS-12 salary just about paid the taxes on one of his factories) Jimmy was energetic, innovative and creative, as one would expect of a millionaire. He was also kind, helpful and charming, not always the attributes of a millionaire.

He had one disconcerting habit, however. (Disconcerting at least to the park superintendent). One of most enduring rituals of the NPS is the annual divying up of the pot of money that Congress allocates to each park for operating expenses. This ritual allows each division chief to show the superintendent just how shrewd and Machiavellian he/she could be in moving money around and subtracting money from the program of less articulate division chiefs.

Jimmy refused to play the game. When dolefully told that there was not enough money to fund certain of his interpretive projects, he would cheerfully say, “That’s OK! I’ll fund it out of my own pocket!” And, backed by his Daddy Warbucks fortune, he would write a check for the difference.

Any Other Minority Preferment Programs?

Are there other minority preferment programs? Yep! Nearly every historically persecuted minority can go to the head of the NPS employment line, and, given American history, that is potentially quite a few people. (Now there are those who claim that “Rednecks” have been a persecuted minority since that unfortunate day at Appomattox, but this is more a class issue than racial or ethnic.)

Is reverse discrimination in employment fair? It depends. As George Bernard Shaw once famously observed, “He who robs Peter to pay Paul will get no objection from Paul.”

However, the NPS is now getting vociferous objections from “Peter” (“Peter” being a member of the rapidly dwindling White majority who desires a permanent position with the National Park Service.)

“Peter’s” desire for permanent employment conflicts (at least temporarily) with the NPS desire for “Diversity in The Workplace;” that is, “Faces like America’s” on its Federal Work Force.

In order to get more “Pauls” into the NPS workplace, the Park Service has decided to nurture them in career choices by subsidizing a program called “Pro Ranger” that would provide basic skills training in being a law enforcement ranger with the all-important proviso that there would be a permanent job in the NPS awaiting the “Pauls” who completed the program.

While the NPS did not come right out and say that the program was a minority hire program, one of the participants, Philadelphia’s Temple University (Alma Mater of Bill Cosby) has a large “Inner City” population (Code word for “Black”, neighbors).

A second “Pro Ranger” participant is San Antonio College in the Texas City of that name. San Antonio College has a very large “Hispanic” population (Code word for Mexican).

The third “Pro Ranger” participant is Browning Junior College located on the Blackfoot Indian Reservation in Montana (The various “Peters” can be excused for suspecting that the selection of Browning Junior College was not entirely coincidental).

As yet, the NPS has not tapped the Asian community. (May we suggest either Honolulu Community College or Hawaii Community College in Hilo?)

Is this fair? Well, no.

Life Is Not Fair

However, as JFK once observed, “Life is not fair.”

It is not the fault of the modern-day “Peters” that there was historic discrimination against “Pauls,” resulting in a diversity problem in the National Park Service and that the “Peters” are understandably outraged that they should be made to suffer.

On the other hand, just as the courts have recognized that “Separate but equal” was not really equal, the NPS has come to the conclusion that “Equal Opportunity” is not as equal as it seems. True, “Paul “ is allowed to enter the competition, but “Peter” has a quarter-mile headstart due to cultural advantages; that is, an orientation toward the national parks and/or the Outdoors. “Peter’s” parents took him camping in the summer and skiing in the winter. There may have been riding lessons or “Peter” may have grown up on a ranch, or in various national parks, an experience highly unlikely for a “Paul.” “Peter’s” family may have owned a boat and “Peter” learned useful boating skills, including SCUBA. “Peter” would not be a bit shy about mentioning being a mountain climbing instructor on his resume, nor would his presence on the county SAR team be forgotten.

In short, “Peter” possesses a package of skills that puts “Paul” in the shade, skills acquired at no cost to the NPS. Who should we hire?

Well now, in a country with no history of discrimination, say Iceland for example, the answer would be “Peter.” Alas! We Americans are stuck with the baggage of our history, and the NPS has chosen to “jump start” the careers of some of the less obvious contenders for a permanent NPS position.

Understandably “Peter” cries “foul” and plays the Merit Card. “Peter” points out that he has put in years of hard work gaining Skills & Experience that “Paul” (through no fault of his own) simply does not possess. “Peter” claims to have more “Merit” than “Paul;” that is, bluntly, he is better than “Paul.”

Should “Merit” cast the deciding vote? It depends.

Consider the case of George “Dubya” Bush; an amiable, lovable lad, his merits were well-hidden, somewhere down below the Ordovician layer. 

Based on “merit” it would seem that “Dubya” would do best at a good community college. However, “Dubya” wanted to graduate from Yale like the rest of the Bush dynasty, and that is exactly what he did.

Now, as you know, Yale, like the rest of the Ivy League, is famed for its intellectual rigor. Indeed, if you get into an argument with a Yale graduate, you might as well roll over and die, because, sooner or later, the Yalie will drop the fact he/she is a Yale graduate and that is an argument ender. Or so it is believed.

So what happened to Merit? Well, in “Dubya’s case, it was judiciously balanced by Money & Power, those twin solvents of life’s problems.

The rest, as they say, is history. “Dubya” went on to become a very successful governor of Texas and two-term President of the United States. He really DID have Merit, it just wasn’t immediately discernable! (Think of “Dubya” as a pinhead-sized Sequoia seed finally growing into the largest tree in the world!)

Adjusting Merit

The same is true of the “Pro Ranger” candidates. Like “Dubya” most of them really do have Merit, but the Money & Power of the Federal Government must bring it out.

“BUT THAT’S NOT FAIR!” roars “Peter.”

Of course it isn’t, but sometimes you have to “adjust” Merit, if you know what’s good for you.

Consider the case of the University of California at Berkeley. “Berkeley” is considered to be one of the more prestigious schools in America. A Berkeley degree is highly sought after by Asian students and their ambitious parents. The problem is that Asians generally make better students than white Americans; not necessarily smarter, but more disciplined and driven (think family). Therefore, if you are going to admit students to Berkeley based on “Merit” (grade point,) your student body is soon going to look like the cast of a Kung Fu movie or a Bollywood epic.

Since largely white taxpayers support Berkeley, they are going to wonder out loud why young Christopher or Jennifer has no chance of getting in. Thus, the Berkeley Admissions Office is faced with exactly the opposite of the NPS problem: How to keep minorities.

So, the Berkeley Administration “adjusted” the Merit selection. Grades and test scores are important, but so is being “well rounded." One should play a sport, particularly a team sport. Now the average Asian student is not good at games. Not good at games? Ah, you may substitute community service; have you rescued any dolphins or tigers lately? Haven’t? Pity! (Asians tend to be less interested in saving the whales and more interested in family.)

So you can see that even a prestigious university is not above gaming the system when it comes to “Merit.”

“BUT THE PARK SERVICE IS STILL CHEATING ME OUT OF A JOB!” screams “Peter.”

Oh, all right! Let’s see if we can’t make it a “win–win” situation.

“Peter” would like a permanent job, so would “Paul,”, and the NPS would like “Faces like America.” That is, diversity in the work place.

The U.S. population is currently (roughly) 68.4 percent White, 16.4 percent Mayan-Aztec, 12.6 percent African American, 4.6 percent Asian and 1.1 percent American Indian and Polynesian. (There is no such race as “Hispanic” and the use of Spanish surnames as weapons in the anti-discrimination wars is incorrect. Nobody discriminates against Cameron Diaz or Penelope Cruz, particularly after they put on their bikinis.)

So why not set aside 33 percent of prospective yearly new permanent slots for the accelerated “Pro Ranger Program,” a program that the NPS has spent a lot of time and money on after the stark realization that “Equal Opportunity” is not all that equal.

That leaves around 68 percent of the annual supply of permanent positions to be acquired by people (usually, but not always White) through successful completion of a series of seasonal employment assignments in different parks under the supervision of different managers (to avoid cronyism).

What if the Tea Party types prevail and there are few or no new permanent positions for the year? Not to worry. Both the “Pro Ranger” and the Seasonal Ranger Source (two different programs), could be given a “rain check” for the next year. (Seasonals are used to waiting, but they will be far more comfortable with a rain check.)

Would the programs be subject to gaming? You bet! I recall one person who gleefully told me how he “beat the system." The person was whiter than Sir Winston Churchill (Churchill was one quarter American Indian or a “quarter breed” as we used to say back home in politically incorrect South Dakota). Anyway, the guy in question got in on the “Asian” quota; if one of your parents or grandparents was Asian, then you qualified as an “Asian" and could check that block.

It turns out that the guy’s grandfather, a white man, had been born in Constantinople (Now Istanbul), which, if you look at a map is just across the Bosporus, in (technically) Asia. To avoid such duplicity in the future, the NPS will have to decide on (A) which minority group was actually historically discriminated against, and (B) require DNA testing to prove membership in the desired minority.

The seasonal employment route has its own set of pitfalls; One legendary chief of interpretation remarked that “Seasonals don’t have 20 years of experience; they’ve had the same experience 20 times." (Your correspondent does not necessarily agree with this but it may have some merit.) To avoid this, the seasonal experience will have to be varied and the person mentored if they elect to take the permanent track.

Considerable effort will be needed to make this fair to everyone.

Comments

Owen, you are right, there where many school teachers, etc. involved in Interpretation when I started in Yosemite. I personally think it is an extremely important part of the NPS mission, these employees need to be very good speakers, have expert knowledge of the subject matter and be current on environmental issues within the park,. One example is the ecological role fire plays in NPS areas. PS has some valid issues, and I must admit most of my experience is limited to large western parks, but I really do see top flight interpretive personnel in the parks I visit and in Yosemite. They are very motivated, well educated, some have been there many years. I work with some simply outstanding interpreters in my duties as a Fire Information and Education Officer here in the Central Sierra. I think as a group, they are younger now, more current in the latest science in their field (then I ever was), physically fit, I just feel very good about the Interpretive division as a whole in the areas I work in. I do think they are among the first to get their budgets cut, interpretive hikes always on the chopping bloc. We talk about the importance of education, but in our Park budgets, our Interpreters really do take the hits. I think this is a real issue and very shortsighted. It explains to some extent the abuse of the "Intern/VIP" issue. In any case, thanks for the post.


Owen, the standards have fallen off a lot in my experience. There are still lots of good people doing good work but there are too many who do not. I think it also varies according to the site. I have the feeling that at the big crown jewel type places the situation is probably better.

In my experience most interp supervisors evaluate by word of mouth. It gets back to them how someone is doing and long as they aren't physically attacking visitors all is ok.

I've had a few occasions where I never saw a performance appraisal plan until the last day of work and the supervisor needed you to sign. And they think nothing of having you go back and sign in a spot to falsely indicate you were shown and given a copy six months before when you started.

Real program evaluations by supervisors are rare. And many people in supervisory positions aren't competent in the national standards anyway. At one park my one and only evaluation was when I was called to work for one day at a different duty station and the supervisor dropped a school group in my lap. She preformed her evaluation by eavesdropping at the door as she attempted to cover the visitor center information desk.

In the early part of the last decade the NPS created an outstanding system of standards in interp but no park was really required to follow them. Upon first meeting with one supervisor I was telling her about my goals for the season of gaining those certifications and I could tell she didn't have a clue what I was talking about.

Sadly these days it is not unusual for visitors come into a visitor center and hesitate to approach the information desk because they don't want to interrupt the conversation of the staff simply hanging out and shooting the breeze instead of doing work. Anybody who suggests maybe they should find some work to do is treated as a bigger problem than the problem itself.

The drive to drop barriers for people getting in the NPS has only caused these standards to be pushed further to the side. Until recently it was unheard of to see an interp position below a GS-4 now on USA jobs you see loads of GS-3 and even GS-2 positions! These are all at parks in urban areas. Certainly the reason for this is to make high school graduates and dropouts eligible for an NPS job. This drives off the more qualified people who have worked at higher grades and can't move to a big city for such low pay and a step down in grade. And why is the agency trying to get more urban high school only graduates? It isn't for operational needs or to improve service to the public but to satisfy a different goal entirely outside the mission of the NPS.


In my time, the uniformed NPS interpretive naturalists, both seasonal and permanent, were considered a highly elite group of professionals. Many of the seasonal ranger-naturalists were high school and college science teachers. Some were university professors. For the best, park visitors would often re-arrange vacation schedules to participate in their guided walks, hikes, and evening programs (often conducted under the stars, around an open campfire without slides or amplification).

The standards demanded of new hires were quite high. We were audited and evaluated frequently by supervisors, peers, and visiting specialists from regional offices. Mediocre performers were not rehired.

Attending a walk and an evening program conducted by a park ranger-naturalist was considered to be an essential part of the park experience.


Why do I find myself wondering how someone who hates the NPS so much and finds so many awful things and people crawling about in it would even want to be hired full time?


PJ-

Your "legendary" chief of interpretation is full of shit. That may be the case with seasonal interpreters who move around a lot and always stay entry level, but most other seasonal employees, including interpreters who stay in the same place and take on more responsibility, have far broader and deeper experience than the bosses often realize.

This is a recent blog post by Jon Marshall, a seasonal smokejumper:

http://todayssmokejumper.blogspot.com/2013/12/the-modern-smokejumper.html

"I began working for the Forest Service in the summer of 2000 with the Bitterroot National Forest on the Darby Ranger District. It was a busy season and I was exposed to the myriad of components that make up wildland fire. Over the next 3 years I worked on two different Hotshot crews; Sawtooth and Bonneville. My primary role on both crews was as a sawyer. By the time I left Bonneville in '03 I was a fairly competent C faller and had a good understanding of fire behavior and suppression strategies. I rookied for the Missoula Smokejumpers in 2004 and have remained there until today with the exception of two 120 day details; one to the Redmond Smokejumpers and the other to West Yellowstone. At this point I have roughly 150 total jumps and just shy of 60 operational fire jumps. I've pursued my overhead qualifications aggressively and am currently an ICT3 trainee, Division trainee and Helibase Manager trainee. I have a handful of single resource qualifications, including ICT4, Task Force Leader and Helicopter Manager. Over the past several years I've averaged in the neighborhood of 40-60 days working outside of the smokejumper program on overhead assignments, helicopter details or on miscellaneous details.
During the winter I've complimented my fire skills by working in the ski industry. I worked for the Snowbird Ski Patrol for 6 years before moving on to Snowcat and Heli-Ski, guiding in both Utah and Nevada for another 4 years. I was employed as a lead guide, avalanche forecaster and assistant operations manager. In 2010 I took a job with the Bridger Bowl Ski Patrol in Bozeman and currently work there as a senior patroller, assistant avalanche forecaster/technician, and avalanche search dog handler. I also work intermittently with the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Forecast Center and I volunteer for Gallatin County Search and Rescue, primarily as an avalanche search dog handler and certifier. In my free time I am a freelance photographer specializing in commercial and editorial portraiture and fashion. My degree from the University of Montana is in Financial Management with an emphasis in Investment Banking."

"At my experience level, 8 years after becoming a GS 6, I'm competing with probably close to 30+ other extremely qualified jumpers with an equal amount of experience, time-in-grade and qualifications for a seasonal GS 7 appointment in Missoula. Most have ~15 years of fire experience on engines, hotshot crews, and ~8+ years as jumpers. Most are married with kids. The current system of compensation is flawed and woefully inadequate. We need to be compensated for our skills, motivation, drive and leadership in the fire community. This summer I was supervising Task Force trainee's that were GS 12's making probably 3 times more than I was! Is it so unreasonable to think that if I'm managing close to 200 people on an active division with significant values at risk that I should at least be compensated as well as a Type 2 Crewboss?"

"To add insult to injury, many of us are not even eligible for basic jobs inside fire program leadership outside of the smokejumper program due to the simple fact that we lack time-in-grade at the GS 7 level."

The jumpers work for the USFS and BLM, and might be an extreme case, but this is really more common than you might think. There are some things done in the NPS primarily by seasonal employees that run pretty deep, like SAR, fire, some aspects of maintenance, and trails. Most superintendents and division chiefs have no idea, and would be shocked to learn, exactly what skill set their trail crew has (and needs to do their job). There are jobs in the NPS that any meathead or college student could do, but there quite a few that take a lot more than that.


The above comment deserves to be published as a stand alone article. Brilliant, and very well stated.


I don't think anyone can argue that more diversity in the NPS would be a good thing. Increasing diversity is like every other task people are faced with. It can be done well and thoroughly, which takes time and effort, or it can be done quickly, poorly, or for show. The efforts I have seen in my career fall squarely in the second category.

I don't know anything about the ProRanger program except what I've learned on NPT. I don't really travel in ranger circles, and I think it is worth reminding everyone that the NPS is a lot more than just rangers. I do have some experience with something that sounds similar, although with seasonal jobs instead of permanent ones. If the ProRanger program works as described here, I'd say there is a pretty good chance it will have similar problems.

Years ago at I park where I used to work, supervisors were "strongly encouraged" to hire as many people as possible out of a pool of students from a source known to be substantially non white. The students in question hadn't shown any interest in working for the NPS, they were just a list of names someone had access to. For a couple years we got a lot of these kids, and lost some good applicants who had applied through normal channels and never had a chance. The kids ended being about half white, half various minorities. They didn't really have any skills, some of them were terribly out of shape, or lacked a work ethic, and they had a pretty entitled attitude. Why shouldn't they, they're 18-22 years old and someone just calls them out of the blue and offers them an NPS job? They were hired for seasonal openings in all divisions, and not only were not very good workers themselves, but were a drag on their coworkers. Some had to be taught to drive on work time. The episode was hard on the long term staff. We ended up supervising and babysitting people who were supposed to be peers, and who were paid about the same that we were. We were the ones working with them every day, but we had no say in whether they were brought back. They had more job security than we did, and they knew it. You try telling a teenager under those circumstances to get off of their ass and swing that tool like they mean it. It isn't good for morale when you try your best to make some punk kid do the job he's paid for and just clean the damn bathroom thoroughly, finally just do it yourself, and then the superintendent, who's never given you the time of day, walks by and says to the kid "are you having a fun summer? We're so happy to have you working here, if you have any problems don't be afraid to let us know." In a couple years time, I don't think any of them were still working for the NPS. They just didn't have the interest, and had taken the jobs because they paid pretty well and had fallen in their lap.

The important lesson from this, and I can't stress this enough, is that they were not poor employees because some of them were non white. They were poor employees because they were kids with no work experience and no particular interest in working for the NPS. The NPS hires students in these schemes because they can use a noncompetitive hiring authority, and control the applicant pool, not because there is any reason to think that students will be any better at the jobs in question.

I think that this kind of hiring, where they are picking people up because they are students and it is easy, and because there is a good chance that they aren't white, regardless of any other qualities, is counterproductive in the long term. It leaves a lot of employees who would otherwise be sympathetic to diversity cynical and skeptical, and does nothing to foster a stable and professional, as well as diverse, staff.

I disagree that there aren't minorities who have the skills the NPS needs, and that therefore we need to cut them breaks that we wouldn't cut white people until they are up to speed. There are plenty of minorities out there with the skills. There are a lot of rural blacks in the south, with very good woods skills: loggers, hunters, fishermen, boatmen. There are black farmers, black arborists, there are still even a few black cowboys. There are hispanics all over who are very tough, skilled, and outdoor oriented. There are natives working fire everywhere in the west. There are tradesmen, police, paramedics, and teachers of all races.

If these more skilled minorities are not applying for NPS jobs, then more outreach is needed. If they are applying, they have a smaller chance of being hired due to the student hiring initiatives. Looking for pools of non white students to throw jobs at is a shortcut. The better way would be to fix the problems that prevent good seasonal employees from getting permanent jobs, diversify the applicant pool by figuring out how to reach the qualified minorities who are out there, and then hire based on qualifications alone. The result would be a diverse workforce, but without the bitterness, cynicism, and dysfunction that handing jobs to people based on race brings. It would be a much more thorough and effective way to diversify the NPS, but it might not show dramatic results within the 3-5 year ladder climber promotion cycle.


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