Bruce and Sara as National Park Rangers at
Cape Hatteras National Seashore

October 10, 2006

The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, and the End --October 10, 2006

The Good---for instance, Rangers who swear in Junior Rangers!

The Good!

Working as Park Rangers has been just as exciting and enjoyable as we had expected!

Everyday we’ve been able to talk with people and to share stories and experiences; we’ve been able to help them enjoy their vacations and their time at the Lighthouse; and we hope we’ve been as helpful to them as so many Rangers had been to us in the past.

And in return, people have been wonderful! They have been friendly, they have been appreciative of what we do, and they remind us again and again of how lucky we are! In fact, almost every day a visitor will thank us for what we are doing; and people are always sharing how jealous they are and how much they would like to be Park Rangers!

Meanwhile, the other seasonal Rangers and our supervisors also have been great! They are people who enjoy the natural and physical resources of our park, who look forward to working with people and preserving the resources of the park, and who are interested in teaching, communicating, and educating.

And so it’s been good!

Of course, as with any large organizations, there are some problems in the National Park Service. It’s a large bureaucracy, it’s a department of the federal government, and it suffers from the usual tribulations of large, federal bureaucracies. In talking about these problems and in describing some of them, I hope no one gets the wrong impression. We do so not because we want to criticize, but because we are concerned and hope things can change; we describe the “Bad” and the Ugly” as we’ve experienced them not because we are discouraged or frustrated, but because we see ways in which the National Park Service could improve and become even better.

And if given the chance, we look forward to many more years of either working as seasonal Park Rangers (Interpretation) or as volunteers in some of our National Parks!

The Bad---for instance, Rangers who get eaten by mosquitos!

The Bad

When we first started volunteering at Ellis Island and during the first few months of seeking jobs as Park Rangers, someone said things are done three ways: the dumb way, the dumber way, and the government way!

After years of dealing with state bureaucracies and DEP bureaucrats, I had a suspicion of what he was suggesting, but we have seen other examples!

For instance, employment policies often are inefficient and illogical, human and natural resources are often wasted or remain unused, and channels of communication can be convoluted and totally ineffective.

The Ugly---for instance, Rangers who become rigid and fossilized!
The Ugly!

Within our small part of the NPS, there seems to be layers and layers of authority and responsibility. Unfortunately, most managers feel they often are given responsibility for decisions, but not enough reasonable authority. Even when they try to make simple decisions, they often are overruled, and decisions are constantly being reconsidered, changed, and altered because someone higher up wants to “micro-manage” everything that happens under them.

Eventually people stop trying to make decisions, anything new or different is avoided, and “other” people and committees have to be consulted on literally every decision. Consequently, it takes forever for anything to be resolved.

In part this is because people aren’t rewarded for creativity, but for not causing problems; they aren’t praised for initiative or imagination but for towing the line; and they aren’t promoted because they are the best managers, but often because of politics, or because they have upset the fewest number of people, or because they are close to retirement and there’s no where else to put them.

In the business world, everyone knows things change---markets change, conditions change, regulations and laws change. Any company that wants to be successful and wants to survive, has to change constantly; and companies that don’t change with the times, tend to go bankrupt, or just fade away.

Unfortunately, the Park Service may be aware of this, but it avoids change and structures rules and policies in such a way that change can’t occur as quickly and naturally as it should.

  • For instance, we’ve talked about the personnel problems. After six months, we finally have a sense of what we could have done in the beginning to save time and human resources, we know which programs worked and which didn’t, and we know what we maybe should have done and didn’t. But this collective wisdom is about to leave and a new staff will be here to start all over again---and usually when confronted with a new position and a new job, the tendency is to seek out and be guided by what had been done in the past. And that’s good---but not if it happens again, and again, and again.

  • The summer Rangers tried to develop some new trails this year, or just to recognize some existing trails as official trails within the Park since officially we have only one trail---a trail that is short, full of ticks and chiggers and mosquitoes, and not wheel-chair accessible . Unfortunately, as soon as “upper management” heard about this, they said we should forget about it. No reasons were given; we just were told to forget about it. So even when a small change is suggested, even when some summer Rangers recognize a need for improvement, nothing is done and initiative and creativity are shut down!

  • After checking with our immediate supervisor, Oliver was “deputized” and put to work. He would “rove” with us and several times went out with other Rangers too. Everyone loved him!

    Unfortunately, when the main headquarters heard about this, we were told we shouldn’t use Oliver. Other Parks use dogs, and Oliver isn’t just any dog---he was raised as a Seeing Eye Dog. Nevertheless, we were told to not use him. There never was any discussion about this, no reasons were ever given, and no one explained why the decision had been made. Again, why not consider the benefits of a trained dog like Oliver? Why not think a little about how much easier he makes walking and roving the beaches, or just working around the lighthouse grounds? If other parks can use K-P dogs and/or if what is called "Public Relations" dogs are used by many parks and organizations, why can’t Cape Hatteras? Worse still, why not even talk about it?

  • On another web page, we talked about the proposal to remove the clock mechanism and pedestal from the lighthouse. Whereas some things and some decisions can take forever here, others are accomplished quickly.

    For instance, the proposal to “lend” the clock mechanism and the Fresnel pedestal to the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum is a fairly significant decision, and yet it was made quickly, with no public comment or discussion, and without consulting those who work everyday with the lighthouse and visitors to the lighthouse.

    Unfortunately after a brief comment period and no public hearings, it was announced early in October that the clock mechanism and pedestal would be removed as originally planned. And when I asked if I could see the comments that had been sent to the Superintendent, I was told they are still reviewing their policy towards opening the files.

    We all feel this is not only too bad, but just another example of “the ugly”. And by “the ugly” I mean a management style within the Park Service that often pretends it’s a branch of the military, that avoids inclusiveness and openness, and that uses rank and administrative authority instead of consensus building and inclusiveness.

    Local residents have complained that “the government keeps ramming things down our throats”, and doesn’t try to get local input, and doesn’t encourage public participation in decisions. At first we thought these comments were a bit of typical anti-government paranoia or cumulative mistaken reality. But after seeing the way the pedestal issue has handled, we might have to agree with these sentiments.

    To be sure, the Superintendent is trying to build bridges and present another face of the Park Service, and in some areas, he’s been very successful. But as soon as more people hear about what has been decided and what is happening to the pedestal, another hornet’s nest of bitterness will take root---and the local residents will be justified in their feelings. To be sure, there was no effort made to let the public know what was happening, and the proposal was presented in the midst of the busiest time of the year for residents on the Outer Banks. There was very little time to comment, there were no public meetings, and there were no opportunities to discuss the proposal in an open forum. In the end, there was a fair amount of anger and resentment in the community.

Yes---there’s an "ugly" side to the Park Service, and that’s unfortunate. But then again, it's human, it's managed by people who are being asked to do more and more with fewer staff, and it's no worse than many large and bureaucratic companies or non-profit institutions.

In the End....
Rangers who still want to be Rangers!

The End!

After all is said and done and in spite of all our concerns, we cherish our days as Park Rangers, we'll miss Cape Hatteras National Seashore and "our" Lighthouse and the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and we hope our Cape Hatteras National Seashore days are only the beginning of many more days as Park Rangers (Interpretation) in the National Park Service!

Return to opening page Bruce and Sara in Cape Hatteras

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