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Reader Participation Day: What Deviations From National Park Standards Have You Seen?

Elk Bugle Corp VIP in GRSM

Four VIPs (Volunteers in the Parks) in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

When I was a volunteer in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we were handed two shirts: a long-sleeve for the winter and a short-sleeve shirt for the rest of the year. But how did we know when winter ended and summer started?

Twice a year, former Superintendent Dale Ditmanson put out a directive when it was time to switch from one shirt to another. Other rules took up two pages of the training manual for volunteers.

The year after the accompanying picture was taken, VIPs (volunteers in the parks) handed in their green ball caps and given brown ones, so that we couldn't be mistaken for rangers.

I became attuned to looking for procedures and standards and deviation from them. For example:

* Visitor Centers open on time, to the minute.

* Ranger flat hats are worn outside and not inside a buiding.

* Rangers and volunteers who staff the desk at the visitor center never recommend a specific private business. They'll say in general, "there are lots of places in [the gateway town] where you can get lunch.

* People coming into parks are referred to as visitors and never tourists.

* And the stores in the parks are bookstores, never gift stores, no matter what they sell.
Have you seen deviations from National Park Service practices by rangers or volunteers? In what parks?

Do these breaches bother you?


"Mary was a ranger who had to learn things the hard way. Like Rule Number One: Measure your head before you order your ranger hat---or you'll have to stuff paper towels inside the headband to keep the hat from falling down over your eyes. Rule Number Two: If you must wear mascara to work, make it waterproof---the guys will laugh at you when you turn into a raccoon during a water-sprayed rescue mission under Yosemite Falls. Rule Number Three: Say "I don't know" if a park visitor asks a question and you don't know the answer---There will always be a crowd standing around you when a camper asks "Oh ranger, what kind of squirrel is that?" And If you draw a blank and say, "Uh? A bushy-tailed squirrel?", a guy with a video camera will be there to correct you. "It's called a California gray squirrel," he'll say, the disgust dripping from his voice."

One thing I used to really hate about working with volunteers, bookstore employees, and sometimes even other NPS employees at a visitor center is how they would hi-jack your visitor contacts. They look at the work we do as just hanging out and chitchatting with the public but it is supposed to be much more than that. A good interp ranger is always looking for opportunities turn a contact into more than just simple dispensing of information, but where appropriate, to find a way to help that visitor make a deeper connection to the park. Or sometimes you sense that the person just needs to know exactly what they asked and wants to be on their way. But so often as I would be about to nail down some important point I had been leading to with a visitor -they are completely enthralled- and the VIP or book store employee will butt in and take things in a completely different direction --sometimes to topics that have nothing to do with the park. It is incredibly frustrating. And you can't really say anything to them and the bosses are so happy to have the free labor they won't say anything to them. Then you get the rep as someone who doesn't like volunteers because you take all that NPS interp training seriously and try to implement it.

Once upon a long time ago, I was a new chief of interpretation and resource management at Wupatki/Sunset Crater when a visitor asked me a question about a flowery bush. I told her what it was and then turned back to the Navajo maintenance worker I'd been talking with.

"Lee," he said, shaking his head, "that not rabbit brush, that big snake weed. You tell her wrong."

I called the lady back and confessed my error and then stood there with her while we both listened spellbound as Tommy Dempsey spent about half an hour teaching us both about the medicinal uses of several desert plants. When time came for seasonal training, Tommy was one of the instructors. We never were able to convince him to try giving an evening program, but if he had, it would have been a hit.

There are certain bars in lower Manhatten were it is not unusual to see uniformed NPS personnel having a few drinks. For whatever reason there are always a few who didn't want to change out of the uniform after their shift.

I've seen volunteers criticize park policy to visitors and get into arguments with visitors. I've seen volunteers refuse to wear shoes while volunteering. I've seen volunteers call private businesses to do repairs on park facilities.

I've seen NPS personal hanging out, chatting, and smoking cigarettes in public areas. I've seen staff obviously under the influence at work.

I could go on and give more examples and more details but that would risk my nom de guerre. But it seems the worst of it among the NPS employees is in the urban parks while problems with volunteers are all over. Sadly, the worst of it is in interpretation. There are many wonderful volunteers as well but in a way even being too wonderful is kind of a bad thing with volunteers because it only causes the agency to rely on them more and more.

Retail stores, hotels, and other public accommodations use "secret shoppers" to check up on staff performance and bust the worst offenders. I'd like to see the NPS create a corps of secret visitors to go around and do the same. I am sure it doesn't happen because they fear what they would find.

Agreed, Lee. I'm spending my summers driving a tour bus now around the park and it warms my little heart when I'm out and about and see the Chief of Maintenance or the Museum Curator or the Building Preservation Specialist [all true memories] walking down the street about their behind the scenes duties suddenly respond to a visitor's query as well as an Interp would have. On the other hand, I've been in other parks where the front line interps were obviously Retired In Place and it is disgusting.

Roger's comment is right on the mark.

But y'know, there is something we could all do when we visit a park. When I see something worthy of praise, I get the name of the ranger, maintenance person, volunteer or whoever. Then I send a letter of thanks to the superintendent asking that the compliment be passed to the person who earned it.

A couple of years ago I received a note from a superintendent who they have occasional complaints in that small area, but she couldn't remember ever having had someone write a compliment. She seemed shocked that I took the time to do it.

On the other hand, when I've noticed something that I felt needed to called out, I found a way to get a note or email directly to the employee. I've been surprised how often I've received a thank-you from the person for pointing it out.

I've never had to -- and hope I never will -- take issue with something grossly out of line. But if it happens, I'll not hesitate to write to the superintendent, too.

What's the saying? Praise in public, criticize in private.

There is a wonderful story about Frank Kowski and the Southwest Region's forester Es Lampi. (I've heard it from a couple of good sources, so I think it's actually true.)

Once upon a very long time ago, Frank and Es and some other regional office folks were on the north rim of GRCA when someone asked if a lightning fire on an isolated chunk of rock might spread to the forest on the rim. Es replied that it could and to illustrate his point, he made a paper airplane and tossed it off the edge of the canyon. It caught a thermal, climbed and circled gracefully and finally landed back in the forest.

Boys will be boys, and soon the whole gang was making airplanes out of any paper they could find and were having a gleeful contest to see whose could fly farthest.

Someone reported it and a brand-new seasonal ranger arrived. He took a look at all the paper strung around the forest. Approaching the group, he is supposed to have said something like, "Gentlemen, I'm sorry, but this littering is simply inexcusable. I'm going to have to write citations. May I see your driver's licenses?"

Frank stepped forward and handed his to the young ranger. The ranger clamped it in his clipboard and started writing. Then he paused, looked at the license and then at Frank. "Uh, Sir, do you happen to be the same Frank Kowski who is the Southwest Regional director of the National Park Service?"

Frank allowed as how he was and introduced his companions. The young ranger is said to have chewed on his lower lip for a while before he took a deep breath and said, "Well, Sir, if anyone should know better, YOU should." Whereupon he finished writing the tickets.

Frank and the others left the north rim, visited the magistrate at the south rim and paid their fines. Frank is said to have told the young ranger later that, " . . .if you had backed down, I'd have had your badge on the spot."

If the story is indeed true, I believe that young ranger retired a few years ago as superintendent of one of our larger park areas in Utah. I never met him, so never had a chance to ask.

They just don't make 'em like Frank any more.

As a visitor to parks I often experienced instances where I thought the visitor was being ill served. I have also been involved in, as well as the subject, of the management evaluation process. Too often a management evaluation focused on whether the T's were crossed and the i's dotted from an administrative standpoint. The result was that most evaluations were of the parks administrative functions. I have always thought a management evaluation should emphasize how the visitor is served and the resources were bring managed. The first step in that process should be two to four individuals visiting a park doing what any other visitor would do and without the knowledge of park management.
It is not that employees are uncaring, but more a case of being unaware of anything beyond their immediate concern. I recall a meeting in the Chief Ranger office in Yosemite. Each of us went through what we thought was happening in the park, when one of the naturalists reminded us of what the birds and other park wildlife were doing. Often as a ranger I would walk around in uniform oblivious to the visitors I was passing, being lost in my own thoughts about my job. I think we all tend to be that way and it takes an outside force to make us realize what we are doing.

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