SILENCING THE PAST
Government Shutdown Means History Is on Hold at National Parks
Explaining the historical import of National Park Service sites is more calling than career for most of the people who do it, but the shutdown has played hell with that dream.
Much media coverage has focused on the negative impacts of the longest government shutdown in history, from airport security, to the GDP, to FDA food inspections. We have also seen damage to our National Parks: overflowing toilets and trash bins, and even destruction of Joshua Trees. And while much attention has been given to the sufferings of federal employees, little has been said about the shutdown’s impact on the thousands of National Park Service workers who are public historians.
These park rangers preserve and interpret America’s most treasured historic sites. They explain our Founding Fathers’ optimistic visions of democracy at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. They lead visitors in the battlefield footsteps of Civil War soldiers, explaining what they fought and died for and why the conflict destroyed slavery.
They keep America accountable for its sins at the Harriet Tubman National Historic Site in Maryland, the Sand Creek Massacre Site in Colorado, and the Manzanar Japanese Internment Camp in California.
At Seneca Falls, the Stonewall Inn, or the Pettus Bridge, they educate about the American people’s fights to expand citizenship rights to more people than our Founders envisioned. In the hands of these public historians, the homes of presidents or other notables such as Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, or John Muir become a lens for exploring different times and themes in our history.
From the Washington, D.C. Mall monuments, to Alcatraz Island, to Pearl Harbor, these rangers teach in settings more engaging than a classroom, sharing with millions of visitors the tragedies, the violence, the inspirations, and the ultimate triumphs that are our shared American story.
No one knows the history of these sites better than these professionals. They conduct as much research as academics and deliver presentations, lectures, and tours to a broader swath of people than scholars will ever reach in the classroom. These historians also cultivate, interpret, and preserve important relics, and identify lands and structures in need of preservation, fighting the urban development and suburban sprawl that threaten our historic treasures. They do not do it for the money. Most have college degrees and skills that could earn them more in the private sector or in higher education than they earn as federal employees.
Because of the shutdown, I reached out to a sampling of these federal workers to hear how they felt and what they were going through. I received responses from an array of historians that staff parks stretching from the mid-Atlantic to the Deep South to the Midwest, and although we have never met in person, they trusted me to keep their comments anonymous.
One thing is clear: These historians absolutely love their jobs. One described the lifelong pursuit of a National Park Service career as “a full born obsession” that led them to college and graduate school “so I could work and achieve a higher degree to get the requirements for the job I wanted in the NPS. I paid my dues by doing unpaid internships” and then “moved states away from friends and family to take the first permanent position I could to get in. I've followed the steps to get to success, [only] to now be barred from work for no reason of my own.” Sadly, the ranger admitted, “I have broken down and cried… I cannot stress how bored and anxious I am. I want to return to work. I get such joy and satisfaction in life from my job.” All the public historians I talked to agreed about this personal toil. “Right now I'm sleeping a lot more than I usually do,” one told me. “Oftentimes I feel lethargic and depressed.”
Despite President Donald Trump’s insistence that many “if not most” federal employees support his wall, none that I interviewed does, although most were careful in wording their opposition, as they are discouraged from publicly commenting on political topics. Others were more forthcoming. One told me they were “absolute and unequivocal” in opposing the wall, expressing frustration with how the president paints the political sentiments of federal employees differently depending on what argument he is making in the moment. “One minute he'll say furloughed federal employees are completely behind him and the shutdown,” a ranger told me, “but the next minute he says most of us are Democrats opposed to him.”
But while the public historians I talked with do not want the wall, none see their opposition as an issue of political party loyalty. “It's not even a liberal or conservative thing but a matter of common sense to me,” one ranger said. “The wall would be expensive, force the government to seize private lands, be a threat to wildlife living on the border, and would do little to actually enhance border security.” Another park historian was more measured in their opposition. “If it made good policy sense, or had broad political support, sure [I’d support it],” they noted. “On its own,” however, “no way. It goes against almost everything I understand to have been the intent of [America’s] founders.”
Most of the rangers avoided placing blame for the situation, though one quipped, “Trump said he would gladly own this shutdown, so I'm taking him at his word.” Another felt it is “an event of the president's creation, although now both Congress and the president seem more interested in playing games than addressing the issue.” Yet they all agreed, as one worded it, that the whole thing is “a manufactured crisis not rooted in statistical trends on illegal immigration through Mexico or practical policy.” Mostly, the park historians resent being pawns in a political fight. “I'm not a stooge for anyone's politics,” one said bluntly, “neither is my family, and I am frankly angry at the American people for allowing [these shutdowns] to be a regular occurrence.”
People who do not live paycheck-to-paycheck likely cannot understand the financial burdens these rangers and other federal employees are facing. “While I have some savings,” one noted, “I have a student loan payment, mortgage, car payment, [and] utilities.” Another added, “It is a very helpless feeling when I'm watching my bank account run dry with bills… and no way to replenish those funds.” One ranger explained that these “dark times” are “especially compounded by having two kids and two mortgages. I can't just go and get another job, since this [shutdown] could end at any moment. My credit rating is going to go into the toilet, bills will not be paid, and my kids are going without.” While the government is “guaranteeing back pay for all federal employees when the shutdown ends,” another historian remarked, “I have bills to pay [now] and a dwindling back account. I don't want to take out any bank loans, ask my family for help, or file for unemployment, but each day the shutdown passes the more likely I will have to do one of the three to make ends meet.” Some rangers have taken odd jobs or sold personal items, one told me, while many others are “asking creditors to extend payments, getting help from family and friends, and not eating three meals a day.” Asking for help has a ripple effect, one ranger explained, “My family is now strapped, as they help with [my] bills.”
It is also easy for people who do not love their jobs to think these employees should just enjoy their “vacation,” as Trump’s economic advisor, Kevin Hassett suggested. However, when people say that, one park historian told me, “I want to strangle them—a vacation is planned for… and is restorative to your soul. This is the opposite.”
“Being told that I can't do the job I’m good at is especially depressing and leaves you in a strange sort of limbo,” the ranger confided. “You don't like to admit how much of your personality is tied to your job, but for many of the passionate public historians I know, it really informs a lot of your identity.” Further, “I was drawn to [public history] because it combines many disciplines, all of which I enjoy: research, showmanship, as well as stewardship. Plus, I get to help facilitate people's understanding of the past in a site-based and specific way. I love that. It's what I was born to do.”
Their passion stems from a conviction that the work matters. “Learning about our shared humanity is crucial to our existence,” claimed one public historian. Yet, as another noted, “many people never study history beyond high school or a basic survey course in college, so when individuals and families take time to visit historic sites and museums, it's a valuable opportunity for them to learn about the importance of history in our daily experiences.”
As things stand now, springtime field trips with school groups are being cancelled, and many “people visiting from out of town have been greeted with locked gates and signs stating we're closed, and that depresses me.” Other visitors have encountered parks available for them to drive through, but there are no historians on site to engage them about the past and how it has shaped the present.
Ordinarily, one ranger noted, “those of us working at historic sites [get to] have these conversations at the places where the past events happened.” But, during the shutdown, another pointed out, “without rangers… the discussion of the historical relevancy [of a site is] not possible. The human connection we make with the public is not there if we are not there.”
These federal employees are also worried about the impact the shutdown might have on their park’s resources. “My concern,” one park service historian explained, “is about our archeological sites throughout the NPS being looted or damaged.”
Amateur relic hunters with metal detectors are legally forbidden in the National Parks, but with few rangers onsite, another ranger said, “I'm concerned about damage to the resources if relic hunters start running wild, and I'm concerned about the historic structures we manage—one tree coming down in the wrong place might not get the attention it needs for weeks.”
Beyond long-term damage to their parks, however, almost every ranger I contacted expressed fears that the shutdown may deter the next generation of public historians away from jobs interpreting history in the National Parks. “My concern,” one ranger explained, “is that new blood that might have wanted to serve Americans [as public historians] will look at this shutdown and the previous ones and think, ‘Never mind. This isn't stable. Leaders don't seem to value the employees and the work they do.’”
Further, another explained, “the president's rhetoric lowers morale among federal employees and discourages talented people from working in the public sector. I worry that the use of a shutdown to extract concessions from the opposition party will be embraced as a legitimate political tactic and used more frequently in the future, leading to more instability with my job.” Another ranger agreed: “We should be so much better than this. A shutdown of any duration shouldn’t even be a consideration. Ever.”
In the end, all of the National Park Service public historians I contacted agreed to talk with me, because, as one of them explained, “I want people to know that I want to go back to earning my paycheck and doing my job. I love what I do and want to keep making improvements to how I do what I do.” Sadly, the shutdown’s financial and emotional toil has been psychologically damaging. “I think all of us likely need counseling, as most folks I know love what they do. It’s more than a job for us. This is what we feel called to do as believers in the mission of the National Park Service.”
Another ranger best summed up the sentiments of all the public historians I interviewed about the shutdown’s impact on their lives: “It's hard. Just really, really hard.”