The National Park Service has a serious image problem, part of it earned, and part of it manufactured, that it needs to address.
The government shutdown both created and exposed much of the problem, which stems largely from inconsistent enforcement of regulations and poor communications that led to public confusion and anger.
Some of the problems that surfaced during the shutdown can be traced to the decentralized nature of the agency, and the fiefdoms that have developed in some of the larger, more iconic parks. While there is a director of the Park Service in Washington, individual superintendents have much leeway in how they manage their parks. While leeway makes sense when you're comparing a national seashore vs. a Yellowstone, Yosemite, or Grand Canyon, too much empowerment can lead to confusion and even resentment among the public.
With 401 units of the National Park System, and almost that many superintendents, consistency can be a hard thing to maintain under the current approach. But consistency also leads to a certain amount of comfort and understanding from the public, as they come to know what to expect, and certainty among the Park Service's field staff as to what is, or is not, permitted.
The recent closure of the park system highighted many problems, including a short memory. Even Park Service Director Jon Jarvis had to acknowledge that the agency didn't have a good plan for shutting down the system, in spite of a similar experience in 1995.
During the past 16 days we saw:
* A random approach toward the dissemination of information regarding the shutdown. For example, Cape Hatteras National Seashore left a spokesperson on board throughout the shutdown to respond to inquiries, but the public affairs specialists at Yellowstone, as well as some park superintendents, were furloughed.
* Most of the Blue Ridge Parkway initially was scheduled to be closed, but then was opened from end-to-end, while the adjoining Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park was closed.
* Cyclists and hikers were freely allowed on the Carriage Roads in Acadia National Park, while some who wandered into Grand Teton National Park were cited.
* Residents in homes within the Lake Mead National Recreation Area were forced to leave, while furloughed Park Service employees were allowed to remain in their own government-owned homes.
* An escort who took international exchange students to Olympic National Park was handed a $125 citation for stopping in a parking lot to take their pictures, while Sarah Palin and U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Michael Lee, R-Utah, were all present and urged protesters to push through barriers on the National Mall and smiled for the media without being cited.
* Rangers in some parks handed out citations to every visitor who entered in violation of posted closures, while officials in other areas approached the matter, where possible, with warnings and an explanation, and an apology for the inconvenience. Near the end of the closure Director Jarvis told his field staff to hold back from issuing citations, but that did no good to those already cited, and then only compounded the level of inconsistency experienced by the public.
While the Park Service's rank-and-file for the most part performed admirably during the shutdown under extremely trying circumstances, many were hassled and jeered, some even by congressmen who created the problem.
Now, with the wounds fresh and the National Park Service's centennial little more than two years off, the agency must take steps to win back the public angered by the closure of the National Park System, to strengthen its internal policies and processes, and to improve workplace morale.
What can the Park Service do now?
In the near term, the best thing the agency can do is fling open the park system's gates and let the public in free for a week or two. Put the park superintendents at the entrance gates, too, to welcome the public back.
That's the easy part. Building on that initial step will take time and determination.
* Some general suggestions:
* Become more transparent. The Park Service has a troublesome history of being insular and resistant to outside criticisms or suggestions. While the Obama Administration early promised to redefine government transparency, transparency is sorely lacking at the top of the Park Service....as it is throughout the administration.
* Establish a plan for shutting down the park system, one that clearly addresses the steps to be taken, and which includes a public relations plan. No doubt much of the anger from the recent shutdown stemmed more from miscommunication, or a lack of communication, than intentional actions.
* The Traveler respectfully offers the following specific suggestions and observations:
* Interior Secretary Sally Jewell should appoint a task force -- with representatives from outside government as well as inside -- to review how the Park Service interprets and implements the Anti-Deficiency Act during the recent shutdown, and make recommendations for the future, including the development of policies to address future shutdowns (which will certainly occur)
* Among the primary goals of the task force should be the clear articulation of what, if any, activities in the park system can continue during a shutdown (e.g., government/private residents, food services, schools, communications), what government services should be maintained, and what activities should be uniformly prohibited during the shutdown.
* Those determinations, whatever they are, should be cleared based upon legal opinions secured from both the Solicitor's Office and the Department of Justice.
* Written legal opinions secured from the Solicitor's Office and the DOJ should be used to develop a Director's Order (DO) with accompanying Reference Manual (RM) entries that delineate details for the implementation of that policy in a consistent manner, Service-wide.
* For example, the policy could be: "Park closures will be implemented with the goal of protecting park resources and maintaining public/employee safety, while minimizing impacts to the public in manner. Public uses and/or activities that do not add to the expenditure of government funds should be permitted."
Or, alternatively, "Park closures will be implemented with the goal of protecting park resources and maintaining public employee safety through the consistent with requirements of the Anti-Deficiency Act...All public use and activities are prohibited for the duration of the shutdown."
Whether maximally permissive or restrictive, whatever actions are taken to implement policy will be far more defensible, and even useful to future directors facing the wrath of congressional partisans, if the underlying policy is soundly based upon legal opinions rendered by the Interior Solicitor and DOJ.
* Remove local discretion over what types of public activities are permitted, and what government services will be provided. That would help the Park Service defend whatever actions are taken and help remove the matter from the political arena. The more specific the better. Removing local discretion in these types of situations would help the Park Service defend whatever actions are taken and help remove the matter from the political arena.
* The Park Service also needs to develop a better public relations plan. Posting closure notices that included a simple "We're sorry, but the parks are closed because..." sentence would have been a small matter, but also a slightly better PR move than simply placing signs saying the parks are closed.
* Every Park Service unit should have some public affairs specialists on the job to answer questions raised by the media and the public. Key to the success of a lawful shutdown is letting the public know what is happening and securing public compliance.
* Communicate with the public. While Director Jarvis emailed a letter to his furloughed Park Service staff during the shutdown, a bit odd in that most of those on furlough couldn't access their government email accounts, never did he reach out to the general public in a way that might have helped them better understand and respect the closure.
* At the very least he should have issued a release on October 1 through the agency's Washington, D.C., public affairs office explaining the need to close the park system, and perhaps even apologize for that closure, even though it wasn't his fault. At the Traveler we reached out that day for his reaction to the shutdown, only to be turned down.
The National Park System is a wonderful and enchanting place, and should never be used as a political pawn, as it was during the shutdown. Now it needs to become as inviting and welcoming as ever before, something only the Park Service can make happen.