President Donald Trump's government-wide hiring freeze will devastate the nation's public lands, including the National Park System, which is already overburdened with record attendance and staff shortages. The freeze is a nightmare scenario for the NPS and Bureau of Land Management, which is also understaffed.
The hiring freeze, issued Monday in an official presidential memo to all of the executive branch's agencies, is sweeping and resolute: The federal government will hire no new employees or contractors except for positions that agencies "deem necessary to meet national security or public safety responsibilities."
In the short term, this means that the 437 full-time jobs the National Park Service has posted to USAJobs.gov will remain vacant for the foreseeable future. In addition, the NPS hires about 8,000 seasonal workers every spring to deal with the influx of visitors during the spring, summer, and fall. These include park rangers, educational and custodial staff, and guides, and other support staff that are absolutely imperative to the normal upkeep and maintenance of the National Park System.
Late January and early February is when many of these seasonal jobs have traditionally been filled. According to people familiar with hiring practices of the agency, job interviews are ongoing but no job offers can be made without an exemption from the Director of the Office of Management and Budget. The memo gives the OMB director 90 days to set federal hiring practices and offer exemptions. Mick Mulvaney, the nominee to head the OMB, has not even been confirmed by the Senate yet, meaning no relief is in sight.
"The National Park Service is waiting for guidance on implementing the hiring freeze from the Office of Personnel Management and Office of Management and Budget," NPS spokesperson Tom Crosson told me. "As with previous hiring freezes, the National Park Service will work with the Administration to ensure that we meet the needs of park visitors across the system."
If there is even a slight delay in getting an exemption for seasonal employees, however, there's a good chance that park service could be interrupted.
"Unless the parks service gets an exception for seasonal employees it will cause no end of challenges for greeting visitors during the coming busy season," John Garder, budget director for the National Parks Conservation Association, told me. When I asked him if we could see widespread shutdowns, he said "it's difficult to overstate what the worst case scenario could mean. You're asking the right questions."
[If you work in the National Parks Service or Bureau of Land Management and have anything to share about the hiring freeze or this administration, contact me securely here.]
The last time NPS was affected by budget-wide cuts, during the 2013 budget sequestration, "we saw closed facilities, reduced hours, park roads weren't opening, visitor center doors were closed when visitors went there," Garder added.
This, at a time when National Parks are more popular than ever and are struggling to keep up with skyrocketing attendance. In 2016, there were more than 325 million visits to national parks, a 6.4 percent increase in attendance from record highs in 2015. Staffing, meanwhile, was 10 percent lower in 2015 (the most recent year numbers were available) than in 2010.
"The parks are already struggling to accommodate all of these visitors, and the cutback poses the potential to get much much worse," Garder said. "Come summer, we may see record numbers of park visitors questioning how their government is caring for America's most treasured places."
Crosson said the agency is currently fighting to ensure that firefighters and law enforcement officers, at least, are considered exempt from the hiring freeze.
"We realize that maintaining a full staff of firefighters and law enforcement officers at our parks is important for visitor safety," he said. "Therefore, per the provisions in the President's memorandum, we will work with the Department of the Interior to ensure that personnel responsible for the safety and protection of our visitors and resources are exempt from this hiring freeze."
A spokesperson for the BLM told me the agency "is still waiting for guidance."
A memo sent to all offices of the Department of the Interior requires that all public-facing emails and correspondence be cleared with the Trump administration. Several NPS employees have gone rogue in recent days, defying a Trump order to stop tweeting about climate change.
"It's the Cloud of Mordor, extended across the entire federal government"
Trump's hiring freeze is at odds with the statements of Director of the Department of Interior nominee Ryan Zinke, who told the Senate in his confirmation hearing that one of his main priorities would be to help get staffing levels back to normal and to get started on the more than $12 billion of backlogged park maintenance that is needed to do things like cull invasive species, protect flora and fauna, and update outdated facilities.
"The Parks Service workforce is lower than it's been in 20 years, but every measure of workload is significantly higher than it's been in years," Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonprofit group that helps environmental whistleblowers within the federal government, told me.
America's other public lands are threatened by the cuts, as well. Earlier this week, PEER published anonymous surveys filled out by Bureau of Land Management employees about staffing levels and their hopes for the Trump administration. BLM employees overwhelmingly said they are already stretched thin, and some even noted that a hiring freeze would delay the administration of oil and gas drilling permits, which is antithetical to Trump's plan to produce more energy in America.
"We don't have enough staff to do all the grazing permit renewals, and sage grouse habitat monitoring, and wild horse management, and oil and gas leasing, and transportation planning," one employee wrote. Another noted that the one thing the incoming administration could do to make sure the bureau worked properly would be to "NOT implement a hiring freeze—that would be a disaster."
The uncertainty at these agencies, which rely so heavily on temporary workers, highlights the fact that even brief disruptions to the machinations of the federal government can have long-lasting effects.
"We're hearing from employees that there has been nothing concrete besides the edicts [coming from Trump]," Ruch said. "There's high levels of anxiety. It's the Cloud of Mordor, extended across the entire federal government."
If you work in the National Parks Service or Bureau of Land Management and have anything to share about the hiring freeze or this administration, contact me securely here.