Back in the days when I was training young rangers, one of my stock lectures included a short homily that went something like this:
People sometimes ask me, “What’s the hardest part of being a park ranger?”
They’ll be expecting me to say fire-fighting, or mountain search and rescue, or something like that, but I’ll tell them it’s something entirely different.
“The hardest part of being a ranger,” I’ll say, “is when you’re writing up some loudmouth violator who’s cursing you out while you’re writing, and he’s not satisfied with that, but now he’s cursing out your mother and your dog and your great-uncle Harold, and you calmly peel off the ticket and hand it to him and courteously tell him he can contest the charges in court if he’d like, and please be careful pulling back out into traffic, and you are so pissed but you’re determined you’re not going to show it…
“… and then, while you’re still clenching and unclenching your jaw muscles, some other visitor comes up to you and asks you, ‘Where’s the rest rooms?’ and not only do you tell him what he wants to know, you smile and make him feel like you’re really glad he asked such an interesting question…
“…that’s the hardest part of being a park ranger.
“If you can do that, I’ll hire you and teach you the other stuff.”
Now, while I liked to think I conveyed the concept particularly effectively, there was certainly nothing new about that emphasis on positive interaction with visitors. In the days when I was wearing green and gray, it was axiomatic that being a good representative of the National Park Service was a critical, can’t-live-without-it, ranger skill.
I’m starting to wonder if that philosophy still applies. A couple of weeks back, there was an eruption of discussion on NPS-related blogs and listervs about the decline in “customer service” standards within our national parks.
One contributor wrote,
At Disneyland they genuinely act like they want you to come and visit their property. I can tell you honestly that the reception that I have received from rangers at (several national parks) was less than warm and friendly. My many experiences with the Zion fee rangers, at their entrance gates, has been one of encountering mostly surly and stressed-out government employees, who are long on finger-wagging and short on courtesy. My visits to the Grand Canyon and Yosemite have been little different. I have always contented myself with the scenery and quiet of these places and had conditioned myself to not expect too much service or warmth from park employees…
Another quoted a talk delivered in 2000 by no less than a former NPS Chief of Interpretation:
In my travels around the country this past year I had many great experiences like visiting Arches NP, Canyonlands NP, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison NM. I was most pleased to be treated well as a visitor and to observe that other visitors were enjoying themselves and also receiving excellent service. However, I am beginning to think that the service we provide to the public may be slipping, may be inconsistent across the system, and may be putting a little tarnish on the jewels…
Consider the new National Park Pass. Recently, upon entering a national park, I showed my new Park Pass and the ranger at the entrance station said, “Flip it over.”
No hello, no welcome, just, “Flip it over.”
I said, “Excuse me?”
He said, “Flip it over, I need to see if it’s signed. You can go in now.”
They say, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” That morning I understood what they meant.
Sadly, I found myself agreeing with these perceptions.
Two years ago, my brother Mycroft and I took our mother on a big western tour in honor of her 80th birthday. Grand Canyon was our first stop, and we bought her a Golden Age pass at the south entrance station.
The fee collector at the entrance station grilled her harshly, addressing this white-haired member of the “Greatest Generation” by her first name as if talking to a child. Nodding toward Mycroft and me, she warned my mother sternly on what trouble we’d all be in if some other family member attempted to use our mother’s pass fraudulently. It was clear she looked at us as a car filled with potential cheats.
The whole process embarrassed me as a career NPS employee, but I was able to assuage my mother and brother’s feelings by assuring them that this behavior was atypical, and explaining the pressures of working at an entrance station, and the supervisory challenges of inculcating the proper customer service ethic in a staff with constant turnover.
An isolated incident? I’d hoped so, but this winter I made my first visit to Death Valley in nearly 30 years, and among the changes I encountered were ATM-style fee collection machines at every overlook. I popped my credit card into the first one I saw, and dutifully paid the fee. An hour or so later, I stopped at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center info desk, and asked for a park map. The desk interpreter’s only words of reply were a mechanical, “The entrance fee is ten dollars.”
I politely explained that I’d paid at an overlook, and for reply I got a curt, “Then I’ll need to see your receipt.” I trudged back out to the car, got the receipt, brought it back, and handed it to the ranger. He took the paper, initialed it for some inexplicable reason, and handed me a map, all without a word of welcome or explanation.
I worked in the park business for 32 years. I know that entrance station and info desk jobs can be tedious and stressful, and I’m willing to cut harried front-line employees the occasional slack. But neither of these incidents happened on busy days.
So, what’s going on here? Did my brother and I, and the others who shared their unhappy experiences, simply have the bad luck to encounter rotten-apple employees? Or are parks so short-handed and supervisors so overloaded that no one takes the time to train staff in proper visitor service anymore?
Shockingly the answer seems to be, “It’s worse than that. This is the way rangers are being trained these days.”
A former fee collector spilled the secret:
When I was a fee collector–in the mid-90′s–at Grand Canyon, we were told/trained to check IDs on ALL passes. Apparently there is always some sort of “trafficking” issue with the other passes, so we were told to look closely at ALL of them. Generally you were supposed to check on ID when selling a Golden Age as well; we were told to make sure people were “old enough” to be carrying the pass–it’s a tough crowd out there I tell ya!!!). But we were told specifically to check all passes when presented with any of them at the entrance gate. I remember questioning why we would check the Golden Age passport but apparently everyone was suspect. But this was very routine.
Having said that though, I think it is troubling. I had many colleagues that I worked with out there who took their responsibility to stop this “trafficking” as their main priority, and in fact treated most people as guilty before being proven innocent. They were downright militant in the checking of passes and took great pride in how many they could confiscate on a summer day despite long lines at the South Entrance.
So now we know. That’s the way some parks are training their rangers to behave.
An interesting sidenote to the discussion was the reaction expressed by more than one participant: the tired old wheeze that, “Those cop-like law enforcement rangers have a bad attitude.” A couple of typical specimens:
Too many law enforcement personnel approach visitors with “guilty first, negative-style contact” rather than, “Good morning, how are you today?” and, “We are glad you could visit,” all said in a sincere manner.
Ever since the law enforcement rangers got their commission, and their great big new badge with a difference, it seems that they have become more aloof from the public… expecting the worse from them (they might be dangerous crooks).
You’ll note that not one of the reported incidents involved a law enforcement ranger; they talked about fee collectors and interpreters. But there are some people who are so consumed by their prejudice against the enforcement role that they’ll happily blame commissioned rangers for global warming, the stolen 2000 election, and Barry Bonds’ drug-fueled mockery of a sacred baseball milestone.
No, the common denominator is very clear, and has nothing to do with law enforcement. It’s money.
Each one of the incidents related to the Service’s new emphasis on siphoning greenbacks from the visitor’s wallet.
It’s greed, folks, pure and simple.
And with the trend toward imposing new fees for everything you do in a national park, it’s coming soon to a park near you.