The Gentle Anarchy of the Park Ranger

“Rogue” National Park Service Twitter accounts play on park rangers' distinct place in American culture.

A park ranger with his back toward the camera walks through a forest.
Nick Adams / Reuters

Probably the first AltParks project started in 1919, just three years after President Woodrow Wilson signed a law creating the National Park Service to oversee what were then 14 parks, including Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Glacier. Robert Sterling Yard, a Princeton-educated veteran of the New York Sun and Scribner’s, was running the new service’s public-education wing, where he produced publicity praising the parks as the nation’s “gallery of masterpieces” and “the shrine of the Infinite.”

Other Park Service officials at the time had a less religious view of their role. Visitors to Yosemite could enjoy jazz concerts, light shows on the famous waterfalls, and circuses featuring the park’s amiable black bears. Yard was disgusted: He saw this commercialization as turning natural cathedrals into theme parks. So, he created the seed of a counter-movement, the National Parks Association, which pressed for a vision of the parks that was more Hudson River School, less Coney Island.

It is partly thanks to the group’s work that national parks remain largely wild. Later, Yard co-founded the Wilderness Society, whose work has helped to keep more than 100 million acres of public land in its “wild” state.

Much is known all about Robert Sterling Yard’s move from the Parks Service to opposition work, because it happened in real life. By contrast, no one is sure who is behind the Twitter accounts AltYosemiteNPS, AltUSNatParkService, and BadHombreLands NPS, “the unofficial feed of Badlands National Park.” In the past week, these and other “alternative” feeds’ tweets and logos began showing up in the social-media feeds of people who don’t trust or like the Trump administration’s environmental direction. Their content blends basic facts about climate change, praise of wilderness from the likes of John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt, and exhortations to oppose Donald Trump’s nominees.

Many of the feeds are widely received as coming from employees of the same agencies in their off-duty—or, if you prefer, rogue—hours. (Though one prominent account now claims to be run by environmental activists and journalists.) The feeds have stepped into a space briefly opened by verifiable public employees who were promptly shut down earlier this week. On January 24, the official Badlands feed posted, “Today, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere is higher than at any time in the last 650,000 years. #climate.” Coming as the Trump administration removed references to climate change from the White House website and froze the Environmental Protection Agency’s funding for research (the freeze was lifted on Friday), this bare factual tweet rang of defiance. Shortly afterward, it was taken down.

Soon thereafter, the alternative accounts began to appear. NASA and the EPA have their anti-Trump Twitter doppelgangers. Even an alternative account for the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site, in West Branch, Iowa, has been reminding followers of Hoover’s warning that, “Immediately upon attaining power each dictator has suppressed all free speech except his own.”

No matter who is running the alt-public feeds, the popularity of their tweets seems to come from their saying and doing things that many of the people who are alarmed by the first days of the Trump administration would love to see from public servants. That the first, actually official Badlands tweets on climate science became a cause célèbre indicates just how subversive and defiant basic science feels to critics who don’t trust the new administration to honor it.

Park rangers and scientists are often special for people who grew up reading Ranger Rick, the National Wildlife Federation’s children’s magazine, and watching Jacques Cousteau’s strange undersea expeditions. To them, rangers represent a kind of officialdom that is basically benign, peaceful, and as likely as not to side with dissenters.

The uber-cranky environmental writer Edward Abbey, the author of Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang (which affectionately describes a plot to blow up an unwelcome dam), worked as a ranger in Arches National Monument and on other public lands. Although Jack Kerouac famously didn’t do his own driving in the trip documented in On the Road, he did work for the Forest Service as a summer fire lookout on Desolation Peak in the North Cascade Mountains, the experience that formed the basis of his rumination on American Buddhism, Desolation Angels. These particular federal employees have always seemed halfway to being gentle anarchists in outsized boy-scout uniforms.

This week’s resisters fit other archetypes, too. For liberal American who grew up, or started growing old, under Obama, notions of a hostile government probably come as much from fantasy fiction as from lived experience. As they take the measure of their new reality, fantasy inevitably fills some of the gaps. Rangers and scientists, more than most of people, seem likely to have Katniss Everdeen’s ability to live outside the fences if necessary or Aragorn’s tracking skills. The young-adult fiction of resistance is very much about taking to the woods, where the official illusions of power count for less than knowing how to snare a rabbit.

Science is not really a safe exit ramp from politics. Public-opinion researchers find that liberal and conservative worldviews about issues like child-rearing, gender, and race are the best predictors of attitudes toward climate change, and people who understand science and statistics are actually more ideologically polarized in their views of climate change, not less. As Benjamin Franklin famously observed, humans’ power of reason means we can often find reasons for whatever we would like to believe. But the congenial, outdoorsy, and fact-minded bureaucrats that the AltParks tweets conjure up—however fictionally—appear to be giving comfort to readers who are getting used to mistrusting their actual government.