21 January 2018
Visitors to Our National Parks Deserve the Unvarnished Truth about History and Science
Posted by Dan Satterfield
Note: The following is a guest post by Brian Ettling. It’s from his own blog, and I’m indebted to him for allowing me to share it here. I met Brian briefly at the AGU Science meeting in San Francisco a few years ago, and what he has to say is important.
“A man or woman could hardly ask for a better way to make a living than as a seasonal ranger or naturalist for the National Park Service.” – environmental author Edward Abbey.
For the past 25 years, I have been a seasonal park ranger at Everglades National Park, Florida and Crater Lake National Park, Oregon. Let me start by saying I write the blog as a private citizen, not as an employee of the National Park Service (NPS) or federal government. The opinions I express here are strictly my own and not necessarily shared other park rangers or the NPS.
Because of my life experience, friends have asked recently about Trump Administration actions, especially Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. They wanted to know my reaction to Zinke’s reportedly dressed down Joshua Tree superintendent over climate change tweets, National Park Service scrubbing 92 documents about climate change from its website, or most recently nearly all members of National Park Service advisory panel resign in frustration.
When asked, this is my answer to recent Trump Administration actions:
You own our national parks. When you go to national parks, you expect to hear the truth on slavery, Jim Crowe, women’s rights, gay rights, the importance of wildfires, Japanese internment during WWII, treatment of Native Americans, the re-introduction of wolves, and climate change.
If you go to Mt. Vernon and ask the ranger: ‘Did George Washington own slaves?’ If the ranger said, ‘Oh, that is just too controversial to talk about,’ that would be totally unacceptable.
It is the same thing with climate change. If you go to a national park and ask a ranger, ‘How is climate change impacting your park?’, you should be able to get an honest answer. Never accept it if they want to shy away from it. If they refuse to talk about it because a directive from anyone higher in their chain of command, complain immediately. Immediately write, e-mail and call that national park, your member of Congress and the Director of the Department of Interior. We cannot allow censorship in our national parks.
Even more, I have shared this thought with friends:
“Park rangers have to follow the orders of our superiors, including the Secretary of the Interior and the President of the U.S. Thus, if they tell us that we can no longer talk about climate change on the job, we have to obey them. I am not sure yet if recent actions by the Trump Administration is a directive for NPS rangers to stop talking about climate change. However, at the very least, it creates a chilling effect. This is why anyone who cares about climate change must still ask ranger about climate change. It is your right since you own our national parks.
When I wear that uniform seasonally from May to October, I am just a loyal employee. If any ranger told you with climate change or any science or historical subject, ‘We are not allowed to talk about that,’ that is not acceptable. Don’t take it out on the ranger, because they are following orders. However, do contact that park, NPS, the Department of Interior and your member of Congress to tell them that is not acceptable. Thank you for letting me share this with you.”
On an interview profile with radio host Debbie Monterrey of 1120 KMOX AM radio station that aired on January 6, 2018, Debbie asked me directly: “Just recently on the news, President Trump went to Utah and made a big announcement that was apparently popular with some politicians and not necessarily popular with others about scaling back some of Utah’s national monuments and I could not really remember a time when somebody had done that before, like ‘here is a national monument. Nope, we are taking it back.’ What is your feeling on that? Does Utah need more protected space or not?”
My response “I am speaking here today as a private citizen, not as an employee of the National Park Service. What I like to tell people is that you are basically as an American Citizen an owner of our national parks. You get to determine how big or small they are. You get to determine how well they are protected, what kinds of commercial services they get to have on them. It is ultimately your choice and your determination.
As park rangers, we are basically foot soldiers. We have to follow orders. We have to go with the park that has been given to us and what our managers, and what Congress, and ultimately the U.S. President tells us to do. So, what I would recommend for people to do is to get involved. Study up on the national parks and our natural areas, and figure out the best ways that you want them protected.”
Bottom line: If you love and want to protect our national parks, learn about them. Keep yourself informed about threats they are facing. Act when you see they are being threatened by contacting your member of Congress, voting, and organizing with your friends and family.
It is not to park rangers to protect our national parks and the planet, it is up to you.
I love this sign we have at the Crater Lake National Park Interpretation workroom:
But, what about your career as a park ranger?
A few days ago, my friend John Davis from Climate Reality Project, expressed his fear to me that I could jeopardize my seasonal park ranger job by speaking out publicly about climate change. I appreciated John’s deep concern because It is always a temptation to return to my job as a seasonal park ranger. I would certainly not want to harm that amazing possibility for me. However, this was my response to John:
“I don’t want to necessarily return to my job as a seasonal park ranger. Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely loved being a park ranger, but I do want to move on with my life. I may change my mind in April when I need to make a decision. However, I live with my wife in Portland. I would rather work locally here. My dream is to organize, write, and lobby full time on climate change. That is my dream now.
I have done everything I have wanted to do as a park ranger. There is not any regrets or really any more boxes for me to check off. I got to do a climate change talk for 7 seasons as a park ranger and speak to thousands of people. The program is recorded on YouTube. Ryan Zinke cannot take that away.
I blogged about seeing climate change as a park ranger and Climate Change impacting our National Parks: It’s no Joke. I did a webinar for Citizens Climate Lobby about how talking about national parks is a good way to lobby with staff or members of Congress about climate change.
I saw the impacts of climate change in the national parks and now I want to be an advocate and organizer for change. I feel like I did my part. Now my advice to everyone is: YOU own our national parks. You ultimately decide how big or small they are, how well they are protected, how much they are impacted by climate change, and if the rangers can freely and honestly address the subject of climate change in their ranger talks.
As I continue to tell friends, feeling helpless or hopeless is not an option with the Trump Administration. You have to stand up and fight for what is right. Don’t back down. The health and future of our national parks and our planet is at stake.”
John and other Climate Reality friends seemed happy and relieved by my comments.
Expanding my life beyond being a park ranger
If you talk to most of my park ranger friends, I am a very odd duck. Most of them are living their dream being a park ranger. They are very happy in that role. They want to make a career out of it and have that good 401K plan available when they retire. Thus, they don’t want to go out on a limb and say anything risky that could harm their careers. I have nothing but respect for my friends that are doing this. Many days I am jealous of them for having a steady job and path for a solid financial retirement. However, that is just not me.
20 years ago, I lamented to a fellow ranger friend Tim after giving a ranger talk that I would really like to be an environmental activist. My friend Tim replied: ‘Then you probably should quit your job as a ranger and become one.’
At the time, Tim’s words stung because I loved being a ranger. Deep down, I knew Tim’s words were true. I was never going to be fully happy as a ranger because I like pushing the envelope. I like being a change agent and organizing for environmental action. Park rangers are foot soldiers who are loyal to the National Park Service mission “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
It is not a park ranger’s job to advocate for environmental policy or action. Rangers who lead public talks and programs are called Interpretation rangers for good reason. We are simply supposed to interpret the meaning, significance, history, wildlife, and impacts happening in our national parks and connect it to visitors’ values. For example, we can tell you that climate change is a threat to our national parks. Thus, we should take action to reduce this threat to our national parks. However, it is not up to the park ranger to endorse or suggest actions. The park visitor is sovereign to agree or disagree with the park ranger’s interpretation and then decide for themselves how to respond with action.
As a park ranger, I did my best to uphold and respect this principle tenet. However, as a concerned citizen, I always knew I wanted to do more beyond this as a climate change organizer and activist in my free time and offseason.
Thus, I am very proud over the years not just being a park ranger, but also I roles I have played as a Toastmaster, Climate Reality Leader & Mentor, instructor for St. Louis Community College, writer, and a self-proclaimed Climate Change Comedian. No, as I have always stated, ‘I am not that funny.’ However, my short comedy videos did open up some doors for me, including a web redemption interview on Comedy Central’s Tosh.o in August 2016.
My supervisor at Crater Lake has advised me against making waves. However, I do like making waves and making an impact. That is when I am happiest.
A quote inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr goes, ‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.’
I feel I like must speak out on issues such as injustice, inequality, and climate change as a private citizen in ways I cannot speak out as a park ranger. I must do all I can to reduce the threat of climate change and I cannot feel like I can fully do that just as a park ranger. Hence, this blog.
Even more, it has been a dream and struggle of mine for years to transition from a park ranger to a full-time climate organizer, writer, and lobbyist. It is still my struggle trying to make a living calling this deeper calling of mine. However, it is my dream, passion and overwhelming desire to make this happen.
I want to live by the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote:
“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
For climate action, never forget: you own our national parks
As a seasonal national park ranger and a private citizen, my response will always be:
You own our national parks. It is up to you and your actions to protect them.
Hopefully, this blog and my life will somehow inspire you to take actions to project our precious national parks and our planet.
Even more, may these quotes which inspired me over the years to act, inspire you:
“The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it” – Robert Swan, British polar explorer and environmentalist.
“Anything else you’re interested in is not going to happen if you can’t breathe the air and drink the water. Don’t sit this one out. Do something. You are by accident of fate alive at an absolutely critical moment in the history of our planet.” – Carl Sagan, American astronomer and science communicator.
“So many of us don’t realize that we are the government. I like to call it ‘the God of they,’ as in, ‘Oh, they’ll fix it.’ No, it’s up to us.” – Photographer Clyde Butcher.
Finally, I have been saying for almost 20 years now:
THINK GLOBALLY, ACT DAILY.
A final note from Dan:
I recently attended a ranger talk at Harpers Ferry National Park, the site of John Brown’s raid and attempted slave revolt.This event was a strong catalyst for the Civil War. The superb talk lasted two hours and included the controversies over the monuments there that last through to today. It was history that some in the crowd were likely uncomfortable hearing, but that talk made me proud to be an American. I would like to mention the rangers name, but I’m frankly afraid to, and for reasons that should be obvious in the current climate. The full time and part time rangers to our national parks and monuments must tell the truth about our history, and about science, with no politics and no political interference. We must never accept anything less. Rangers like Brian are what make our National Park Service the best on Earth.