Does the National Park Service have a culture problem?

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Rafting concessions on the Colorado (above) and other rivers have been at issue in some allegations of unethical behavior within the National Park Service in recent years Photo credit: Michael Quinn, National Park Service.

Rafting concessions on the Colorado (above) and other rivers have been at issue in some allegations of unethical behavior within the National Park Service in recent years Photo credit: Michael Quinn, National Park Service.

When I studied public historians within a large U.S. national park for my dissertation research 12 years ago, I was left with some questions that I’ve been pondering ever since and that have kept coming to the surface in various ways in more recent years. One of those–tricky to research but clearly important in understanding how the National Park Service functions–is the particular culture of the agency and how that shapes the NPS as both a workplace and an interpreter of the nation’s past.

I’m an anthropologist by training, so throwing around the term “culture” as we now do (“a culture of innovation” or “a culture of accountability”) always makes me want to say, “Wait–not every patterned human behavior is a ‘culture’!” But I do think it’s fair to say that the NPS has the kind of organizational culture that old-time anthropologists would have termed “tribal”: close-knit, protective of its boundaries, maintained in a fairly stable form over many generations. Given the Park Service’s roots in land management, its place within a federal government that has historically reflected the unequal racial power balance of the rest of the country, and its quasi-military structure, the culture that has been reproduced over time has tended to be white, male-dominated, and hierarchical.

Like other federal agencies and cultural institutions, the Park Service has grappled with this legacy in recent decades. Much has changed, but much also remains entrenched and troubling. Twelve years ago, it seemed to me that the very bureaucratic and insular nature of the NPS itself had something to do with what I saw as a reluctance to come to grips with vexed questions in the present, especially those involving the Park Service itself. I saw a tendency to muffle the possibility of dissent, leading to a good deal of self-censorship by those with a lasting stake in the agency.

Mobility among upper-level managers also played a role. Climbing the NPS career ladder requires moving around geographically, and key decision-makers at parks often seemed deeply invested in cultivating networks among the relatively small pool of administrators at regional and national levels. (Speaking about the long-lasting effects of those networks of influence, several NPS employees told me, “This is a small agency with a very long memory.”) Add to that a truly mind-numbing amount of paperwork plus decades of deep funding cuts, and it’s no wonder the agency as a whole has seemed to have a hard time with serious self-reflection.

This is true of many–perhaps all–large institutions and bureaucracies, of course. But over the past few years, a troubling record of ethical controversies suggests that the culture of this particular federal agency may warrant more public attention and rethinking.

One recent case involves current NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis, who authored a centennial book about the Park Service without following the official clearance process. Supporters argue that this is a relatively minor ethical lapse (Jarvis wrote the book on his own time and is donating all royalties to the National Park Foundation). But critics point out a longer pattern of questionable decisions. Some have seen a conflict of interest in Jarvis’s oversight at western parks where his brother has been a paid lobbyist for commercial rafting companies that do business with the parks. In particular, Jarvis’s approval of the promotion of a Grand Canyon superintendent despite questions over the man’s 2002 well-above-market-value sale of his house to one of these concessionaires added fuel to the controversy.

Canaveral National Seashore has seen four ethics investigations since 2012 over allegations of sexual harassment. Photo credit: Todd Van Hoosear.

Canaveral National Seashore has seen four ethics investigations since 2012 over allegations of sexual harassment. Photo credit: Todd Van Hoosear.

At the heart of the issue is that tight-knit, cohesive, intensely loyal network of mostly-white, mostly-male executives and the “circle the wagons” response to external threats. Whistle-blowers and journalists have noted the gendered dimension of this aspect of the Park Service’s legacy (for example, in sexual harassment incidents at the Grand Canyon, as reported extensively by Huffington Post and Washington Post, similar claims at Canaveral National Seashore, or the case of a superintendent who was moved to a post in Washington–essentially promoted–after he was discovered to have thousands of pornographic images on his office computer). Interior Secretary Sally Jewell recently referred to such reported cases as very likely “just the tip of the iceberg.”

Claims of retaliation–often backed up by courts and Inspector Generals’ reports–have also been troublingly widespread. At the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, a controversy over the park allowing tree-cutting by a wealthy neighbor resulted in a whistleblowing ranger’s dismissal (he later won his case and self-published a book about the experience). Those who do come forward (for example, a pair of seasonal rangers who were not rehired after reporting on a conflict of interest in a superintendent’s business dealings or a park biologist who reported on contracting violations, or even a law enforcement chief who was fired for talking to the press about the impact of budget cuts on her department’s work) are reportedly greatly outnumbered by people who are too intimidated to speak out.

Not surprisingly, staff morale has suffered in this climate. According to a survey conducted last year, the Park Service has fallen to the bottom quarter of all federal agencies in employee satisfaction, a stark contrast to the public’s still-favorable view. Public perception of the NPS as the “good guys” may ironically be one reason that news reporting on the problems hasn’t seemed to gain traction. And more collegial critiques of the Park Service, like my own dissertation or the 2011 Organization of American Historians report “Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service,” have tended to stop short of asking the really hard questions about how institutional culture may be getting in the way of the good work that so many historians and others within the agency truly want to do.

But saying nothing carries its own risks. What would make it possible to have a more open discussion of how these problems may affect the ability of people within the NPS to do their jobs ethically and well? I don’t have answers to that question any more than I did 12 years ago, but its persistence makes me think it’s worth opening the topic again here.

~ Cathy Stanton is a Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at Tufts University and an active public historian. She serves as Digital Media Editor for the National Council on Public History; this post reflects only her own experiences and views and does not represent the organization in any way.

For further reading (many of these sources are also linked in the post above):

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3 comments
  1. Debra says:

    I worked for the NPS for a couple of years. Saw a lot of people not promoted or not hired (even though they were qualified) because they were not part of the good ol boys and girls. First time working for the government after 25 years working with the public, couldn’t believe how they operated.

  2. Eleanor Mahoney says:

    Interesting piece! How do you think this culture has affected interpretation at park units? My sense is that there is a dual challenge – internal pressure to not rock the boat (as you detail above) and also a fear (too strong a word?) as to how particular interpretations of the past might be critiqued by visitors/politicians from across the political spectrum. NPS is home to first rate historians, scientists, interpreters, and more, but these individuals are under constant scrutiny regarding the histories (yes, plural as Imperiled Promise emphasized), that they choose to tell.

  3. Great article! In so many ways and with thorough documentation, Cathy Stanton has done an incredible job of describing a “culture” which coddles, promotes, and protects far too many middle management supervisors and superintendents who break laws, violate regulations, and ignore both personal and federal standards of ethical behavior. Much of the problem is that those who do wrong simply are not disciplined and punished in any way. And so they do what they do because they feel they are immune to discipline…..because in reality they are! And the blame starts at the top. If top management doesn’t set an example and if they don’t demand discipline for those who do wrong, the culture we have will just continue. My wife and I know because we are among the few whistleblowers who can talk publicly about our experiences (www.schundler.net). We won our case but not because we got any help from anyone in the NPS or the Dept of Interior. If anything, they fought us, tried to frustrate our case, and hoped they could just wear us down.

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