When people look back on the past week, I suspect the key images they remember will be the various shots of barricades, traffic cones and police tape around national monuments and across the entrances to national parks, national scenic parkways and even preventing access to private property. Of all the events this was both the most visual and the most unexpected. A government agency they had always thought as benevolent, the National Park Service (NPS), unexpectedly turned into something that seemed alien and even frightening.
Before last week the NPS had one of the most favorable images among federal agencies. Mention the name and people recall family vacations to Yellowstone Park, the Grand Canyon and Smoky Mountain National Park. Mention the expertise of NPS personnel and it brings back memories of class trips to Washington DC, Yorktown, Valley Forge or Gettysburg with knowledgeable tour guides explaining the significance of the sites. Far more Americans interact with NPS personnel at some time in their life than ever deal with an IRS examiner. While some may be aware that the NPS is also a law enforcement agency, that aspect of the NPS image has definitely been one of an Officer Friendly type keeping park visitors from harm.
That changed abruptly last week when stories about barricades around open air monuments like the World War II memorial broke. It was as if the neighbor's golden retriever, given snacks or petted for years, suddenly snarled and sank its fangs into a person's calf muscle. After what they saw the NPS do over the last week a great many people may never going to look at government in the same trusting way again. The friendliest dog in the kennel of federal agencies turned out to be a wolf and the thing about wolves is they can never really be tamed. When a so-called tame wolf senses it is stronger than a human it will assert physical dominance. There is a new thought now simmering in the minds of many Americans: might other federal agencies also be wolves in service dog harness?
Certainly the failed roll out of the Obamacare exchanges is of greater economic consequence than the NPS story, but political consequences are often based more upon expectations than total economic impact. Among those who were paying attention it was almost a given the rollout of the exchanges would have three results: the software would not work as advertised; the young invincibles would not flock to buy a product they don't think they need; and people who already had insurance would be shocked at how much more they would have to pay for worse coverage than they currently enjoy. All three of those expectations were met. Many people who supported Obamacare in principle do have serious doubts for the first time, but the event wasn't truly staggering in terms of unexpected consequences.
That Obama might become vindictive during the budget and debt ceiling debates was not a huge shock, either. His nasty side has been analyzed at American Thinker many times since he came onto the nation's political stage. What came as a twin shock to many Americans was that Obama's weapon of choice would be the National Park Service (NPS). Nor did people expect the Park Police would blanket the nation in barricades, not only at the entrances to national parks but also around open air monuments, around private facilities leased from the federal government and on roads used to access private residences. Certainly the use of the IRS against conservative groups such as the Tea Parties probably had more concrete short-term impact in terms of the 2012 elections, but how many people really trusted or liked the IRS to begin with? That scandal was also mostly about politics and political players. It lacked both compelling images and sympathetic victims who weren't activists. The NPS story has both images and non-activist victims in spades.
Here is the latest NPS move, which reaches a whole new plateau in the level of obnoxious behavior.
It what looks like a spiteful move, the NPS even removed handles from water spigots along the Chesapeake and Ohio canal where bikers and joggers exercise as well as along the Great Allegheny Passage, just to ensure people don't get any water from them.
Instead of saving money, the NPS is expending additional resources to go out of its way to close such locations and to make people miserable. Now maybe the political appointees ordered the park closures themselves, but this sounds like the work of someone at a more local level in the agency.
Many on the left seem to realize what a monumental mistake this has been for proponents of big government solutions. Its images are bad on their own. On top of the IRS and other scandals plus the disastrous roll out of Obamacare, it may well be devastating. The evidence is in the lack of any but the lamest of "you Republicans shut down the government what did you expect" comments by the trolls on the often very long comment threads to stories about the latest NPS outrage. Those who have tried to blame the veterans, tourists, business owners and homeowners who have been made victim by the NPS find themselves very unpopular.
Scholars and consultants who study the way organizations establish and can then destroy a positive image may be studying the NPS's sudden transformation from friendly tour guides to Brownshirts for a long time. In most organization level disasters, there are employees who knew better but who either stayed silent or were marginalized. Where were the NPS employees with the sense to insist this was a dumb move? One answer may be they are enjoying their retirement.
Federal employees are retiring at a faster rate this year than in 2012, according to the federal Office of Personnel Management. About 82,000 federal workers have filed retirement claims since January, up 30 percent from claims filed last year.
Common sense may be departing along with the expertise. For those who think 82,000 fewer senior bureaucrats might be a good thing, note that given this administration's propensity to play politics new hires are likely to be in the activist wolves as opposed to faithful civil servants.
I see Mark Steyn has called for abolishing the IRS and the NPS. There is a sickness in the regulatory bureaucracy that Americans should be ashamed of. The NPS, like the IRS, is corrupt and should be abolished -- and the government's parks (they're clearly not the people's) returned to the states.
That may be the only solution. All current personnel may have to go to change the culture back to what is appropriate among civil servants. Otherwise the agency may revert.
Image by Dennis Evers