America's national parks are suffering the aftermath of President Trump's federal hiring freeze. Less than two weeks after he signed an executive order halting all new government hires, park employees, both seasonal and permanent, are understaffed, overwhelmed, and generally fearful of what's to come.
In response to Jason Koebler's story about the freeze last week, a handful of national park employees, many of whom are afraid to speak up thanks to Trump's communications ban at the Environmental Protection Agency, reached out to share their concerns.
Some are worried that vacancies could cause irreparable damage to national parks and forests. Others are exhausted from working overtime to compensate for their skeleton staffs. And many are seasonal employees who simply want to do the jobs they were hired for—a cruel irony, considering Trump's campaign was largely predicated on the promise of employment.
"My entire livelihood is up in the air right now."
Public lands have always been in the President's crosshairs, and with the support of a Republican-controlled Congress, we're on track to see a systematic dismantling of their legal protections. Agencies that oversee more than 608 million acres of land entrusted to the American people are expected to be devastated by the order.
Right now, several hundred open job listings from the National Park Service hang in the balance. Approximately 8,000 seasonal postings—from science technicians to custodians to trail builders to interpretive rangers—are also unable to be filled, despite many candidates having already been selected.
Unless exempted by the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, our national parks may look drastically different by the time summer rolls around.
"My boss wants to give me a job but no longer has the power to hire personnel. It's just kind of a waiting game," a biological science technician and seasonal employee for Yosemite National Park and Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks told me on the condition of anonymity.
"The hiring freeze is bigger than anything we've seen before. It wouldn't surprise me if there were cuts to purely science-based positions. You're looking at a lot of well qualified, good people who know parks like back of their hands; who love what they do, and aren't in it for money. Now, a lot of these people are going to take jobs elsewhere," they added.
Since the voices of federal employees are more or less muzzled at the moment, we've decided to publish some of their anonymous testimonials. They've been edited for clarity, and to protect the identities of those who contacted us.*
National Park Service entrance station operator, seasonal employee
This gentleman was supposed to be my new co-worker. He was supposed to have started long before the hiring freeze, but due to paperwork not being filed when it was supposed to, this is the situation now. I'm the only other employee that works the entrance station full time, so we have to rely on other employees willing to work overtime—myself included—to keep the station open.
My duties as someone who works the entrance station include welcoming visitors to the park, collecting fees, and providing information about the park to visitors. We are the first people that park visitors see as they come into the park. Some of the most important information that we give out to visitors is safety information concerning weather and beach conditions. We also provide information on the amenities available in the park.
Without that help—and if the hiring freeze continues into the summer season—it means that the entrance station will probably only be manned for the minimum amount of time. This means the park loses money that could go to programs, and other necessities to keep the park running.
My entire livelihood is up in the air right now. I don't know what will happen in March, and have no way to plan for what may or may not happen. I love the Park Service and the services we provide to the American people, and it saddens me to think that I might lose the possibility to continue working for them.
National Park Service wilderness EMT, seasonal employee
I have worked in service jobs for our government since I was twenty two. I am now twenty nine. I am not a college graduate. I am a hard worker and I try my best to be a good American who does a good job at whatever I am tasked with. I am not rich, but I am smart with my money and I do ok financially. I am very happy with the work I have been a part of since I started working for the national park service.
"Personally, I feel like this hiring freeze is a slap in the face to me and all my coworkers."
Being a seasonal employee for public lands these days is a lot like being a character from "Of Mice and Men." You work as hard as you can for a season in a beautiful place, watching other (mostly) more privileged people than you enjoy the spoils of your hard work. You have a dream of eventually getting a highly sought-after permanent government job, or eventually figuring out some way pull enough funds together to get a down payment on land that you can call your own. You often worry about the fact that none of these things are likely to happen on account of the fact that you are never guaranteed a job next season.
All it takes is the quick decision of someone with some agenda up in Washington to slash funding and drain swamps, or reel back spending to hurt thousands of people who just want to go to work every summer without begging. These are Republicans and Democrats, mostly middle-class, who love the American landscape more than its politics and the effect it has on anyone both international and national who take the time and effort to engage in it. They are hard working people who are often up before dawn and asleep after dark, battling elements and insects and politicians just to supply a mainline into the rugged individual beauty and solace that the contours of the American landscape and historical markers inhabit and indicate—just so that it can be accessible for all, for all time.
These are people who search for your loved ones when they are lost, and provide a venue to find yourself when you are lost.
They lose their lives and limbs fighting fires and building trails and saving endangered species. Their only agenda is to do their job well and to serve the country that they are proud of, so that others can do the same.
Personally, I feel like this hiring freeze is a slap in the face to me and all my coworkers who pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps to get this far and intend to continue to do so. And it is a negation of all the work and time we put in thus far
National Park Service ranger, permanent employee
I've worked seasonally for the National Park Service over the past nine years, and this year I was finally offered a permanent position with the agency. Now that there is a freeze, it's unclear whether or not my job offer will be revoked. I've reached out to several people in the agency with no response.
The constant budget issues have caused an ongoing state of anxiety, especially for seasonal staff. When I posted about my potential loss of a job online, I ended up being trolled by multiple strangers arguing that rangers deserve to lose our jobs. They blamed the government shutdown of 2013 on us, and claimed we chose to close the parks out of spite. When I pointed out that Congress is responsible for passing budgets—and without one, no one would be paid to work at the parks—I was told we should work for free and not "take it out" on the public.
Civil servants have been used as a political target by politicians, and have been blamed for their actions. They want the voters to think we're responsible so they can avoid taking responsibility for decisions that are out of our hands. With some parks already cancelling public programs due to staffing limits, I'm worried the blame will be placed on park employees again.
National Park Service wildlife researcher and ranger, seasonal employee
For the last two summers, I've worked at a national park, both as a civilian contractor and a ranger. We were already understaffed this last summer. The difference in staffing even between 2015 and 2016 is staggering.
The interpretive rangers (the people you meet at the visitor center who give talks and answer your questions) were having to double up on evening programs, and there were fewer of them behind the counter than in previous years. This was the year of the centennial, mind you, when park attendance exploded.
"Basically, it's all very confusing and it's clear that hiring officials are confused as well."
The parks are already run with a smaller staff than is necessary. And the hiring of seasonals is absolutely essential. Unfortunately, that hiring process takes quite a bit of time—anywhere from a month to a month and a half. Receiving candidates from the USAJobs website, reviewing the applications, setting up interviews, processing their paperwork. All of this is done at regional offices which will be inundated with everything at once when the hiring freeze ends.
If it goes on even a little bit longer, you're looking at visitor centers and campgrounds not being open until later in the summer. A co-worker I spoke to has told me that they're considering not opening one of their visitor centers at all.
People do depend on these jobs. I have friends who work at one park in the summer, another in the winter, but they're still seasonals. It's incredibly hard to get permanent status in the Park Service, and the hiring freeze is putting people's careers at risk.
Forest Service trail worker, seasonal employee
The Forest Service manages 193 million acres of public land in the US, compared to 84 million acres managed by the National Park Service, including most of our designated wilderness areas. While the Bureau of Land Management manages a lot of rangeland, the Forest Service typically focuses a lot more on recreation (i.e. direct user experience). Your typical mental picture of a hiking trail snaking across scenic mountains likely takes place on national forest land.
The Forest Service also employs up to 45,000 temporary, seasonal, and permanent employees annually, including about 10,000 wildland firefighters—twice as many total employees as the National Park Service, which has about 22,000 seasonal and permanents. Many experience even lower pay and less job security than National Park Service employees. As a seasonal Forest Service employee, I've struggled to find information about whether and how this hiring freeze affects me. I have several applications pending.
All [agency] job announcements posted on USAJobs after January 22 have been removed until further notice. [I have heard] there is a hold on processing applications even for job announcements that closed before then. However, [some of these vacancies are still up on the website]. Basically, it's all very confusing and it's clear that hiring officials are confused as well.
National Park Service acquisitions, permanent employee
What the administration also didn't take into consideration is acquisitions. Without hires, we [in our particular office] won't be able to procure the goods and services needs to support the National Park Service.
My office was already down [employees] heading into the busy season. We aren't sure how we will do it since we already burned through our overtime at the end of last fiscal year. So, the work won't get done.
Every year, our jobs get harder and harder since budgets get passed later and later, or we continually operate under continuing resolutions. There will come a point when we in acquisitions say, "oh well," and go home. We are done killing ourselves, and if the work doesn't get done, it doesn't get done.
We used to care but we don't work for free and we aren't going to do overtime every day to try to overcome the government's shortcomings. It's sad. We have felt the pressures just stack up and stack up and no one seems to notice. No one seems to notice the hard work we do every day. There isn't one person in my office that isn't pulling their weight. Not one lazy person. To be vilified now, as if we are the worst of the worst, is so disappointing. All we've ever done is support our government with pride and hard work.
National Park Service entrance station operator, seasonal employee
I work full-time seasonally in the fee booth entrance station at [a national memorial, which is part of the National Park System]. During the summer season, we may encounter over 1,000 cars coming through the park in one day. We also issue and sell park passes. Often, there are only two of us working the booths (there are 2 booths). If we are lucky, we have a third person helping out.
The line of cars can back up easily to the road if we do not move the cars through the station quickly. This is not always easy, and we also have to be accountable for the funds we collect. During the winter season, we normally have one person working a booth, while the other booth is closed. It will be total chaos if they expect one person to handle this amount of traffic alone.
I have worked two summer seasons, and I am looking forward to returning in April.