The Dark Side of the NPS--Part I

The Dark Side of the NPS
Filing a Freedom of Information Act Request,
Writing the Office of the Inspector General (DOI),
and Submitting a Whistleblower Protection Act Complaint
and trying to work with the DOI"s Core Plus ADR process
and eventually working with the Office of Special Counsel

The National Park Service is one of America’s best ideas!!

The almost 400 units of the National Park Service---our national parks, seashores, and recreation areas, and our national monuments, historic sites, and battlefields, etc.---are amazing places. They have vistas that take your breath away; they have wonderful exhibits that interpret and educate; and National Park Service Rangers and employees usually are enthusiastic, dedicated, and committed people.

And many of our favorite and most cherished memories come from our visits to national parks ....and from our experiences within the National Park Service.

Unfortunately, there's another side of the National Park Service---it's what some of our friends call “the dark side of the NPS.”

It's the part of the NPS where some people are acting badly. It's where some people are wasting money and resources, they are committing what borders on fraud and the abuse of power through the misrepresentation and falsification of how our laws and federal regulations were intended to be followed, and they are abusing the power and responsibility entrusted to them. They are doing things they should not be doing, and they are not doing what they should be doing. And in the process, they often violate the laws of Congress and ignore the memorandums of the President, and the Attorney General, and the Secretary of the Interior. And worst still, they feel they can do this with part, because many laws and regulations simply are not enforced.

And are some of our worse experiences within the "dark side of the NPS:"

Using the Freedom of Information Act: Intimidation, Collusion, Misrepresentations, and a Questionable Appeals Decision

In our web pages describing our experiences at Mesa Verde National Park in 2009, I brain-numbing detail...every step of my FOIA request seeking some basic financial information (, and I described how it took months and months of work and numerous letters to recieve only 23 pages of information--19 of which eventually were printed in less than five minutes!

During my FOIA odyssy, I did have some good experiences with a few FOIA professionals. For instance, Diane Cooke who had been the head of the NPS's FOIA Office when I started to ask for information clarified some of the rules and guidelines I would have to follow and confirmed that even as a government employee and a Park Ranger, I could pursue a FOIA request. Charis Wilson who replaced Diane Cook during the process helped with quick and efficient responses, and accepted my interpretations of the Code of Federal Regulations. And before I had done anything, I had called and spoken with Alexandra Mallus, the head of the DOI's FOIA Office, who confirmed the new administration's commitment to openness and transparency. The Office of Goverment Information Services (OGIS) also was very supportive and helpful.

On the other hand, in my earlier journal, what I had never discussed was the darker side of my FOIA experience---namely,

Simply stated, there seems to be a well developed "culture" within the NPS which rejects the letter and intent of the Freedom of Information Act, which does not want to release requested information quickly and easily, which does not want to have management decisions or activities scrutinized or questioned or challenged, and which seems to be well orchestrated in a way that frustrates, misleads, and discourages anyone filing a formal FOIA request. It's also a culture that protects its own---working in unison to obstruct even the most basic and simple FOIA requests, and reaching from the lowest FOIA officers up to the Solicitor's Office where final appeals are heard.


From the very beginning, I kept my FOIA activities very separate from my duties as a Park Ranger---e.g. I wrote the letters at home using my own computer and my own printer, I delivered the letters in civilian clothes only when I was off-duty, and I made it clear I was writing as a citizen, and not as a Park Ranger. Nevertheless, instead of viewing my FOIA request as the legitimate request of an American citizen---a right guaranteed by the Freedom of Information Act---the park's response was to remind me I was working in an organization with a chain of command---and that I was someone working at the bottom of that chain of command. Essentially, I was told through implied warnings and subtle intimiation to stop asking questions and just do my job as a ranger.

For instance,

  • On July 1, 2009 I wrote Linda Lanier, the Budget Analyst of MVNP, asking for a copy of the park’s 2007 and 2008 financial statements and a copy of the “2008 Superintendent’s Annual Report.”

    • The very next day, on July 2 2009, I was told to report to the office of the Chief of Interpretation, Tessy Shirakawa---where I was to meet with her and one of our supervisors, Rose Salazar. Essentially they wanted to know what I wanted. I repeated what I had written Linda Lanier, and in response, I was told, “The park doesn’t give out that information.” Furthermore, they said the superintendent was ordering me to work through the “chain of command” and only through the "chain of command." In describing what I wanted and what I was became apparent these long-term employees of the National Park Service were unfamiliar with the Freedom of Information Act and how it gives every American citizen the right to view certain public documents and records, and it was obvious they couldn't separate my role and responsibilities as a Park Ranger from my rights and responsibilities as a private citizen..

      And in the opinion of all our friends in the Park Service, this meeting with the Chief of Interpretation and one of the two supervisors for the Interpretation Department was no less than a thinly veiled warning to "back-off" and stop asking questions.

  • On July 10, 2009, the Chief of Interpretation forwarded an email she had received from the Deputy Superintendent with the financial estimates for the first half of the fiscal year of 2009. Curiously, this wasn’t what I requested. And instead of responding to me personally---as a citizen who had requested specific public information---it was forwarded once again through the “chain of command.”

  • On July 20, 2009, I wrote another letter to Linda Lanier---this time asking for more information and more specific information about the travel expenses of the Superintendent and the Chief of Interpretation, and about sister park relationships, and about why certain positions hadn’t been filled. Once again, I wrote Linda Lanier because she was the Budget Analyst of the park and “had the easiest and quickest access to all the information I was requesting”---information to which the Chief of Interpretation admitted she did not have access.

    Quite frankly, my list of questions had also gotten longer...because as soon as other rangers and employees heard that I had begun to ask questions, they gave me more questions to ask. And I was warned again and again that because of the vindictive nature of the Superintendent that I probably would never work at Mesa Verde NP again.

    • The next day, on July 21, 2009, the Deputy Superintendent, Bill Nelligan, responded to me in an email in which he wrote:

      “Bruce, I'm in receipt of your July 20th letter. As a park ranger you should be aware that during this time of the year, headquarters staff is fully engaged in year end closing procedures. Linda is already working additional hours to meet year end closing deadlines and reporting requirements, along with new requirements mandated under the ARRA. As her supervisor, I will not redirect Linda to respond to requests for information that are not required for the performance of your duties as a park ranger. Once the year end closing process is completed, your request for information will be addressed. If you would like to meet to discuss this further, please work through your division chief, Tessy Shirakawa to schedule an appointment. Bill”

    • My response to Bill Nelligan's email was a letter to Tessy Shirakawa, dated July 24, 2009: Letter of July 24, 2009

  • Finally, having had no success at getting any of the information I had requested through a more informal process, I filed my first formal FOIA request on July 31, 2009---filing it with Jack O'Brian, the FOIA Officer for the Intermountain Region of the NPS.( From the very beginning I had been in contact with Diane Cook, the former FOIA Officer of the NPS, and she had clarified the guidelines I had to follow and had suggested I file my initial request directly with the regional office and not with the park.)

    • Almost immediately I heard the Superintendent, Larry Wiese, told the Chief of Interpretation, Tessy Shirakawa, that I should never be re-hired again and that she and my supervisors should begin creating a paper trail that would support this.

    • Suddenly warnings and subtle intimidation had shifted to planned retaliation.
The Apparent Collusion among some NPS FOIA Professionals to Frustrate and Discourage

Simply stated, there were many times when I thought Jack O'Brian at the NPS Regional Offices in Denver was working in collusion with the Deputy Superintendent, Bill Nelligan, to frustrate and discourage me.

When a FOIA request is filed, for instance, the requestor is allowed two hours of free "search" and preparation time, but if more time is required...the requestor has to be willing to pay a fee that is calculated by multiplying the number of hours required to respond to the FOIA one of three hourly rates base:

  • the "Clerical" rate is based on responses that can be done by employees at GS-7 and below...and is charged at $23.40/hour.
  • the "Professional" rate is based on responses that are done by employees at GS-8 through GS-12 ...and is charged at $40.80/hour.
  • the "Managerial" rate is based on responses that require the skills and experience of employees at GS-13 and above and is charged at $59.00/hour.

In my case, Jack O'Brian and Bill Nelligan apparently agreed to charge me the highest possible hourly rate---the "Managerial" rate of $59/hour---the rate that can be assessed only if the information being requested had to be processed by a "manager"---specifically, a G-13 or higher government employee. At Mesa Verde NP, the only two G-13's or higher employees who had access to the information I had requested were the Superintendent and the Deputy Superintendent.

Quite frankly, I was convinced Linda Lanier or several other people could have compiled the information I had requested---nevertheless, Jack and Bill decided that only the Superintendent or Bill could process my request. Was the reason for this simply to inflate the fees I would have to pay to have my FOIA request processed?

They also agreed on a totally inflated estimate of the number of hours required to process my request---namely 29. This too seems to have been designed to dissuade me and to encourage me to stop asking questions and to withdraw my FOIA request.

  • Curious note: At the end of Bill Nelligan's email to Jack O'Brian giving his estimate that it would take 29 hours to respond to my FOIA request (see the last page of Jack O'Brian's letter to me dated August 29, 2009, Bill closes by saying, "Thanks." Why would Bill say, "Thanks?" Had Jack given Bill a few suggestions on how to discourage FOIA requests---specifically by inflating the fees that would have to be charged---and was Bill thanking him for that suggestion? We don't know.

Consequently, the first official response I received to my formal FOIA request was that it would cost me $1593---and I was supposed to send a check for $1593 before any work could be done on my request.

After talking with Diane Cooke, former head of the NPS's FOIA office, I modified my FOIA request, and asked for whatever information could be processed in my two hours of free research and review time. Curiously Bill Nelligan and Jack O'Brian chose to completely ignore those instructions. Instead they came up with another unrealistic estimate of how much time it would take to process my FOIA request and said I had to send a check for $796.50 before any work could proceed. Why would they do this?

Many people have questioned whether the skills and experience of a G-13 or higher manager really were necessary to process my FOIA request, and whether the amount of time required for a G-13 professional to process my FOIA request had been artifically inflated. If this was true, some have suggested the estimates developed by Bill Nelligan and approved by Jack O'Brian could border on fraud. I don't know....but I did feel there was obvious collusion between these two NPS professionals. And unfortunately, no one in the process---the regional FOIA officer himself (officially the one overseeing the FOIA response of Mesa Verde National Park to my FOIA request), the national NPS FOIA Officer, Charis Wilson, or later the Appeals Officer in the Solicitor's Office, Darrell R. Strayhorn --- ever challenged the decision to charge me the highest possible hourly rate, nor to question the number of hours required to process such a limited amount of material.

Special Note: Ten days after this second modifed FOIA request was filed, however, the Superintendent of Mesa Verde NP, Larry Weise, suddenly announced his unexpected retirement from the National Park Service. And...the processing of my FOIA request was taken over by the new Acting FOIA Officer of the NPS---Charis Wilson.

Repeated Misrepresentations of FOIA Regulations

In my journal, one can read still another battle I had with both Jack O'Brian and later with Charis Wilson, the new Acting FOIA Officer of the NPS. Quite frankly, they both misrepresented the requirements of the current federal FOIA regulations. Specifically, they said I had to specify how much I was willing to pay to have my FOIA request processed---even if any costs would have been a de minimus amount or an amount less than an estimate of $250 as specififed in the Code of Federal Regulations. Fortunately, after writing why I disagreed with their reading and interpretation of 43 CFR 2.18 and with several other sections of the most current CFR pertaining to FOIA requests, Charis Wilson apparently agreed with me and my FOIA request finally was processed.

Unfortunately, what she then sent me was only 23 pages of information---which she said was all they could process in my two hours of free search and preparation time. Of course, looking at time stamps on the 23 pages shows that the financial reports for FY2007, 2008, and 2009 only took four minutes to process and print, and the vender file on Cyark was only one printed page. The remaining file was a copy of a "Sister Park Declaration"---what one could find on the first listing of a Google search. Needless to say, I felt I had not received two hours of preparation and review time---especially since this information presumably was prepared by a G-13 professional manager---namely, the Superintendent and/or Deputy Superintendent of Mesa Verde NP.

The Questionable Decision of the Final FOIA Appeal Officer, Darrell R. Strayhorn

What was finally sent to me was only 23 pages of information...and most of the pages are time stamped so I could see how long it took to process. Simply stated, it was hard to believe I had received my full two hours worth of research and preparation time. And so I appealed the amount of information I had recieved to the FOIA Appeals Officer, Darrell R. Strayhorn, in the Office of Solicitor in the Department of Interior.

Surprisingly, Darrell Strayhorn agreed with the NPS and its FOIA officers. In fact, she argued I had received what I could have expected in my two hours of free preparation and review time. Specifically, she wrote:

"The NPS's personnel spent 45 minutes determining where the documents that are responsive to the modified FOIA request are located; 25 minutes looking for and retrieving possibly responsive documents from storage; and one hour and 20 minutes searching through its on-site records to locate responsive materials. The NPS also advised the Department that its personnel spent 25 minutes performing adminstrative tasks such as "scanning" and "pdf'ing" responsive documents and "drafting and transmitting email of FOIA attachments" to its acting FOIA Officer."

Most people reviewing the documents I received are just amazed the Intermountain NPS FOIA Officer didn't challenge the professionals at Mesa Verde NP, and totally amazed that the DOI's Appeals Officer agreed with the park. In fact, 22 of the 23 pages sent to me are standard reports of the park's financial accounting program---easily generated and printed in less than ten minutes.

In the end, one can conclude only that there is a certain culture present---it's a culture that rejects the spirit and intent of the Freedom of Information Act, fights the dissemination of any information through the FOIA process, and supports the most twisted and illogical reasons for not responding to FOIA requests quickly and thoroughly.

Letters to the Department of Interior's Office of the Inspector General

What I haven't disclosed before is that I wrote the Office of Inspector General on October 1, 2009 to report what I thought had been “significant” and regular instances of waste, fraud, and abuse, and basic mismanagement by Larry Wiese, the superintendent of Mesa Verde National Park."

On September 8, 2009, I had sent Jack O'Brian, the FOIA officer for the Intermountain Region of the NPS, the second and carefully modified FOIA request. Ten days after Jack O'Brian would have received this FOIA request, Larry Wiese, the former Superintendent of Mesa Verde National Park, announced his sudden and totally unexpected retirement from the National Park Service.

Because Larry Wiese's decision to retire so soon after I had sent my second, modified FOIA request seemed very suspicious and possibly incriminating, I wrote the Office of the Inspector General (DOI). Within a few weeks, an investigation of Larry Wiese was initiated by the Office of the Inspector General; and in the end, the OIG presented a summary of its investigatoin to the Colorado Office of the United States Attorney.

I wrote another letter to the DOI's OIG because of what appeared to be a blatent violation of federal code 5 U.S.C. § 3110 and the Department of Interior’s “Ethics Guide for DOI Employees” dated January 2009 as it relates to nepotism. Simply stated, the Chief of Research and Resource Management had appointed his wife to be the park's Museum Curator.

What is that more letters are not written to the Office of the Inspector General. Like any organization, the National Park Service has a few problems---and there are many instances of "waste, fraud, and abuse" occuring regularly.

For example, in his responses to the OIG investigator, Bill Nelligan, the Deputy Superintendent and later the Acting Supintendent at Mesa Verde said he didn't think Larry Wiese's excessive travel was "unusual or unnecessary" and that... "If the Superintendent's in the Park too much, then he's probably not doing his job." To which I would respond, "Why?" Why should a Superintendent be away from the park he is supposed to be managing? How many other supervisors or Superintedents feel part of their job is to be away from the park they were hired to be supervising? How many feel it is appropriate to spend close to 5% of a park's budget on travel---and then travel with virtually no oversight or accountability?

In the end, there's a fair amount of "waste, fraud, and abuse" in many of our federal agencies. But among those who know about it and among those who see it every day, few are willing to ask questions, file FOIA requests, or write letters to the OIG.

Simply stated, the problem is that in spite of the Whistleblower Protection Act and the No Fear Act, and in spite of regular reminders that these laws were passed by Congress and were designed to protect government employees when reporting "waste, fraud, and abuse," most government employees fear retaliation. In part, its because the Whistleblower Protection Act is not enforced aggresively, employees are not protected, and retaliation is frequent and well known.

As soon as I began to ask questions about the park's budget, for instance, friends and associates began to warn me that I would never be re-hired as a seasonal at Mesa Verde.

Filing a Whistleblower Protection Act Complaint

There's something wrong about the atmosphere of fear and intimidation present at so many national parks;and yet, it's there, it's ever present, and it's well known. To be sure, look at what happened to Sara and me!

Sara and I had planned to return to Mesa Verde National Park during the 2011 summer season. We had had emails from our supervisor, Linda Martin, indicating we could plan on returning, we had told our friends that we would be returning, and we had made plans based on being at Mesa Verde in 2011. And then on January 14, 2011, Linda Martin called us to say that she had been ordered by the new Superintendent at Mesa Verde, Cliff Spencer, not to re-hire me. On January 18, 2011, Sara was called and told Linda Martin had been ordered not to rehire her.

Subsequently, on February 8, 2011, we called the Whistleblower Protection section of the DOI's Office of Inspector General to report what had been done to us. Since this involves quite a bit of information and is on-going, a separate web page is being dedicated to The Dark Side: Part II---Our Whistleblower Protection Act Complaint and the Office of Special Counsel

The Lighter Side of the Dark Side of the NPS

At times I have written other articles about some problems within the National Park Service---problems that might be viewed as the "lighter side of the dark side of the NPS." Most of these can be found on the The National Park Traveler website:

Go to:
The Dark Side: Part II---Our Whistleblower Protection Act Complaint
or Return to:
Another Season at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island---2011
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