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Ranger Rebellion: Park Service, Other Science Agencies Confront New Administration

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Tweet from the AltYosemite Twitter account
A representative tweet from the AltYosemite Twitter account.

It's unlikely that anyone was surprised by the outpouring of liberal-leaning opposition to the Trump administration in the days after the January 20 inauguration. But few expected the federal government itself to be one of the most prominent sources of that opposition.

It all started within minutes of that Inauguration. The National Park Service's main Twitter account retweeted New York Times reporter Binyamin Appelbaum's photo of crowds that day side by side with a similar photo of the 2009 Inauguration of Barack Obama, not long after retweeting a different Twitter user's mention of apparent scrubbing of information on climate change, LGBT issues, and health care from the new administration's website's. The Park Service's Twitter account bears the usual note that retweets are not intended as endorsements of the reposted content, but the relatively innocuous acts — retweeting verifiable facts — struck a large exposed nerve at the White House. 

The result: an emergency White House directive ordering agencies like the the Interior Department, the EPA, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to stop posting on social media.

The National Park Service, part of the Interior Department, uses its Twitter accounts for a lot more than disseminating fun facts about the Parks: aside from using Twitter and other social media to educate the public about science, culture, and history, the Parks routinely use their Twitter and Facebook accounts to warn travelers of dangerous conditions in and near the parks. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one National Park Service public information staff person told me January 20 that the order "endanger[ed] the public, considering [Twitter] is used for emergency comms, eg. snow storms in Sierra Nevada."

In one of the first examples of the Trump administration walking back part of a policy that it seemingly didn't think through before enacting, an order came from the White House later that day allowing the parks to use Twitter for public safety alerts.

And there it stood over the weekend, as something like one percent of the population of the United States turned out for protest marches, some of them, as in Washington, D.C., taking place on land managed by the National Park Service. 

Badlands NPS deleted tweets
Screen capture of deleted tweets posted January 24 on the Badlands NP Twitter account

Four days later, the relatively obscure Badlands National Park in South Dakota seized global headlines with four tweets that should have been thoroughly uncontroversial, sharing established facts about climate change. Though they're still available at archive.org, not to mention in perhaps a hundred thousand publicly available screen captures, the tweets were promptly removed from the Park's feed — along with an earlier Tweet quoting a stirring part of the Organic Act of 1916, which created the National Park Service.

The National Park Service issued a statement saying that the four tweets were posted to the account by a former ranger at Badlands who still had the Park's Twitter password. Badlands NPS removed the tweets without being instructed to by the White House.

Deleted controversial tweet quoting a 1916 federal law
Deleted controversial tweet quoting a 1916 federal law

By then, it hardly mattered. The day beforehand, Badlands had had around 7,000 Twitter followers. By the end of the day, the Park had gained more than 70,000 more followers. (At this writing, that's grown to 241,000.) And with the social media furor, millions of people around the world read at least one of the four tweets.

It's worth repeating: None of those four tweets included information that is in the least controversial. Though they were adorned with climate change hashtags, the data cited in those tweets isn't rejected by even the most ardent climate change deniers.

That's where things stood at the end of Tuesday, January 24. A social media account of a federal agency chartered with sharing scientific information self-censored statements of fact out of fear of political reprisal from the White House. It was a development many had foretold of the Trump administration, but the fact that it came just four days into the new administration was highly unnerving. The clampdown on science seemed to be moving faster than anyone had anticipated.

Except that to all appearances, National Park Service rank and file staffers weren't going quietly.

Within hours of the BadlandsNPS tweets being removed an "alternative" Twitter account for the park was established, its name a sly nod to a Trump campaign gaffe. Its tone was a bit more combative than your usual National Park Twitter account: the BadHombreLands' bio read "Protecting rugged scenery, fossil beds, 244,000 acres of mixed-grass prairie & wildlife from two-bit cheetoh-hued despots."

Before the end of the next day, several similar "rogue" NPS Twitter accounts had been established, including @AltNatParkSer, @AltYelloNatPark, and @AltYosemite. They were joined by informal accounts purporting to represent staff at other federal agencies, including the EPA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Weather Service, NASA, NOAA,  the USDA, and Health and Human Services, among others. (For some reason, no one associated with the Bureau of Land Management seems to have been moved to create an @AltBLM account.)

It is, of course, unclear whether all of these accounts are actually operated by current or former staff of their respective agencies. In some cases, as with the EPA and NASA, there are two or more competing "rogue accounts." Some of the accounts may be run by activists not directly affiliated with the agencies in question: the @AltNatParkSer account announced publicly that it was handing itself over to be run by independent activists and scientists.

In fact, there's been disagreement online over the last few days as to  whether all the accounts are actually run by disgruntled federal employees and their supporters. One account in particular, @RoguePOTUSStaff, has been discussed as a likely hoax account by some, based on little actual information. 

Park Ranger resistance graphic
A graphic inspired by the issue. | Creator unknown: via Christine

Some of the so-called "rogue" accounts may well be run as hoaxes, possibly even with the intent of spreading misinformation down the line. But it's not at all implausible that most of the accounts are likely run by agency staff, retired staff, and interns or other colleagues. Frustration among agency scientists was already rife before the inauguration; political interference with federal science did not begin with Trump. (We have reported on several different examples of the Obama administration overruling the scientists on its payroll, on issues from protection of gray wolves and wolverines to air pollution standards.) That was with administrations that merely tried to discourage scientific results they didn't like. An administration such as Trump's that declares itself actively hostile to the very notion of objective fact, is likely to have raised ire even further. 

There's also the fact that strong dissent isn't just coming from federal agencies with a scientific mission. Hundreds of employees at the State Department, for instance, signed a dissent message objecting to last weekend's suspension of immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries. That was an unprecedented act, and it was met with a stinging rebuke from the White House. Days later, Acting Attorney General Sally Yates directed Justice Department staff not to defend Trump's Executive Order barring entry by people born in Muslim countries, a move that signaled significant dissent within Justice as well.

What's more, the so-called "rogue" NPS Twitter accounts have been met with wide if tacit approval by a number of former National Park Service personnel. Former Park Ranger Mark Kaufman put it this way in an article in Popular Science:

Badlands National Park[']s behavior was widely labeled as “rogue.” A captivating angle, to be sure, but it would have been more accurate to call this behavior “normal.” Park rangers have written and spoken about natural phenomena like bears, forests, volcanoes, and climate for decades… [T]o scientists—and, I'd wager, most park rangers—the idea that the tweets were somehow inappropriate is baffling.

Perhaps most telling of the Park Service's general internal consensus about its communication duties was a statement released late last week by Jon Jarvis, the recently retired Director of the National Park Service, which is worth quoting here nearly in full:

I have been watching the Trump administration trying unsuccessfully to suppress the National Park Service with a mix of pride and amusement. The NPS is the steward of America’s most important places and the narrator of our most powerful stories, told authentically, accurately, and built upon scientific and scholarly research. The Park Ranger is a trusted interpreter of our complex natural and cultural history and a voice that cannot not be suppressed. Edicts from on-high have directed the NPS to not talk about “national policy,” but permission is granted to use social media for visitor center hours and safety. The ridiculousness of such a directive was immediately resisted and I am not the least bit surprised. So at Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta should we not talk about his actions to secure the rights to vote for African Americans in the south, or is that too “national policy? At Stonewall National Monument in New York City, shall we only talk about the hours you can visit the Inn or is it “national policy” to interpret the events there in 1969 that gave rise to the LGBT movement? Shall we only talk about the historic architecture of the Washington, DC home of Alice Paul and Alva Belmont or is it too “national policy” to suggest their decades of effort to secure the rights of women can be linked directly to the women’s marches in hundreds of cities last weekend? And as we scientifically monitor the rapid decline of glaciers in Glacier National Park, a clear and troubling indicator of a warming planet, shall we refrain from telling this story to the public because the administration views climate change as “national policy”? … To talk about these facts is core to the mission of the NPS … The new Administration would be wise to figure out how to support the National Park Service, its extraordinary employees and their millions of fans.
Smokey the Bear resists
Smokey the Bear resists | Creator unknown

That kind of language coming from a recently retired agency head suggests that even if one or two of the "rogue" Twitter accounts is a hoax, that their overall message is nonetheless one with a good deal of support within the country's science-oriented agencies.

Regardless of their sources — the identification of which would necessarily put any involved federal scientists, staff, or interns in danger of losing their jobs — the accounts found a huge amount of support on Twitter, the social medium of choice for working scientists. Long concerned over Candidate Trump's antiscientific pronouncements on the campaign trail, not to mention his cavalier relationship with easily verifiable facts, the progressive wing of the scientific community found inspiration in the anonymous Tweeters' acts of disobedience, and started planning their own response to the administration's antiscientific policies.

As of this week, those efforts have culminated in plans for a day of protest modeled to some extent on January's Women's March. The National March for Science is scheduled for April 22, 2017, in Washington and numerous other cities across the country. 

If you're wondering whether environmental science will be a focus of the March for Science, consider this: April 22 is Earth Day. 

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