Many people inside the National Park Service are worried, and they don’t have a way to publicly express their fears. Since President Donald Trump’s inauguration, the NPS has not been spared the upheaval affecting every other corner of the federal government, and the shockwaves have reached from the director’s office in Washington to social media accounts representing parks nationwide. The first controversy arose when, as the Washington Post reported on Thursday, Trump called NPS acting director Michael T. Reynolds to ask him to help show that the media lied in its reporting about the difference in crowd sizes between his and Barack Obama’s inaugurations.
Trump was angered that the NPS had retweeted photos unfavorably comparing his and Obama’s inauguration crowds. The service also retweeted a message about pages that were being removed from the White House website; the administration subsequently froze all NPS social media activity, and the offending tweets were labeled as "mistaken."
That’s when something of an insurrection began. The account for Badlands National Park (@BadlandsNPS) defiantly tweeted through the administration’s gag order, but its messages about climate change and conservation were later deleted. (And the person behind the lauded messages was reportedly a former employee who now no longer has access to the account.) Death Valley National Park’s Twitter account (@DeathValleyNPS) joined the fray, tweeting about the park’s historic ties to World War II–era Japanese American internment camps — a fact that has become more resonant given the Trump administration’s recent executive order on immigration.
"Rogue" accounts have since popped up, ready to tweet the things that official parks accounts cannot. (To characterize the sharing of scientific facts as "rogue" is a misnomer, as this Popular Science article points out, but here we are.) The anonymous nature of these sources is cause for skepticism: Who is behind the handles? Are they being run by former employees? Most of them have no contact information and simply link back to nps.gov. Even if they are working in support of the parks and public lands, whether they will do so in the most effective way remains to be seen. So far, it’s a mess.
Most NPS employees won’t talk about challenges presented by the Trump administration on the record. Because their Twitter accounts and social media profiles attempt to offer facts, the timing is notable — and the employees we spoke with (all of whom wished to remain anonymous) are justifiably nervous.
A Death Valley National Parks employee expressed frustration at the social media limitations. "I think everybody is just a little bit nervous because we work for public lands and it can get political," the employee said. "The park services are all there because of a mission we created, and we like to do the work and support that. So anytime there’s anything threatening, people get emotional. Social media is tough like that."
There isn’t much that parks social media managers can do about it. Death Valley National Park spokesperson Abby Wines said of tweets from the Death Valley account about Japanese American internment: "This is a part of Death Valley’s history. … It’s a part that people don’t really know about, and that’s why we bring it up occasionally, because the history of Japanese internment is very significant to our nation’s history, and that connection to Death Valley is something that most people are not aware of." Wines said she was surprised at the support that greeted the tweets.
But when we asked about @BadlandsNPS’s activity, Wines said that higher-ups in Washington had requested that tweets be about the parks and safety, and not political matters. Would tweeting scientific facts about climate change and how it would affect the parks be considered political? "It would depend on the context," she said. After explaining the Badlands’ tweets about carbon dioxide levels, Wines added, "Something like that is not related to the park."
"The National Parks Service’s public-facing role is to help people understand and care about national parks. That hasn’t changed."
These two statements — that climate change is not related to parks and that the goal of the NPS is to help people care about them — is dissonant. But government employees now have to be careful about what they say. There is a limit to what these employees can say or do, which is a paradox given that their mission is to empower, serve, and protect our parks. What’s perhaps more surprising, then, is that many of those who could speak up are not.
"Wilderness porn" is a well-defined Instagram genre. That contented feeling some people get from photos of well-manicured nails or KonMari-d closets is what many who subscribe to popular outdoor accounts get from photos of winding rivers and mountain ledges. Naturally, some of the most popular wilderness porn Instagram accounts are those run by parks themselves, or the rangers who work in them — and right now, they’re required to hold back. But many unaffiliated accounts from landscape and wilderness photographers are failing to say much at all.
A national parks employee who asked to remain anonymous out of concerns about job security talked to me about this tension. "The issue with so-called ‘wilderness porn’ is that they are posted for aesthetic fulfillment," the employee said. "Everyone loves photos of natural vistas and landscapes, but people need to understand that these views and experiences can be lost if we don’t protect our lands and environment. Posting simply to gain ‘likes’ without the substance is a missed opportunity. Imagine Glacier National Park without glaciers."
Emily Noyd, a wilderness ranger at Yosemite National Park, hasn’t been given any guidelines about posting online yet, but says that’s likely because she’s a seasonal employee May through October. "My personal social media outlets, like @rangeremily on Instagram, will remain a platform for speaking out against censorship and climate change denial," she told me via email. "Official NPS-affiliated posts will tread more carefully, but my personal accounts will reflect my responsibility to speak out when injustices are being committed. Scientific integrity and the unobstructed reporting of news and facts are at risk."
Noyd says she’s concerned about the gag order that was placed on the agency as well as the current challenges facing climate change scientists. "I need to be able to communicate to visitors why climate change threatens Yosemite, because I want them to leave with a passion for protecting the place they just fell in love with."
I follow more outdoor Instagram accounts than I’d like to admit. I’m a sucker for those overhead treeline shots. I can’t help but linger over any photo of a jagged mountaintop. I obsess over cabins that look like they’ve sprouted from the earth. These accounts, in many cases, have hundreds of thousands of followers — and yet many of them, in the wake of Trump’s recent wholesale changes inside the EPA, have remained silent. Or rather, they’ve continued posting beautiful photos that leave me slack-jawed — but in lieu of educating anyone about what’s happening to public lands and the organizations that support them, their captions are hollow and full of popular, follower-friendly hashtags. So far, some of my favorite accounts haven’t commented on what might happen to the outdoors, their medium of choice.
"I’m not interested in getting involved in anything political anytime soon. (I don’t think I have the viewpoint everyone assumes I have anyway)," Miranda Leconte, a former ranger at Desolation Wilderness, in Northern California, near Lake Tahoe, told me via Instagram DM when I asked her about using social media platforms to react to current events. Leconte, who has a massive Instagram audience (around 18,800 followers), documents her travels and outdoor pursuits. Previously, Leconte and I spoke about the need for popular outdoor Instagram accounts to educate followers about how to treat the earth and public lands. I was surprised by her ambivalence, though not by her choice to stay apolitical.
The parks employee I spoke with who has worked for NPS since 2012 uses hashtags like #ProtectOurPublicLands, #PublicLands, and #Conservation. The employee’s on-the-job and personal photos include references to appreciating and protecting land, and recently has spoken up to the extent the employee feels is allowable.
"I am a firm believer in the mission statement of the NPS: ‘The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.’ … It’s a privilege and an honor to wear the uniform to represent our country’s national parks."
The employee says people should use their platforms to encourage others to volunteer, or follow the lead of @BadlandsNPS and share scientific information that comes from credible sources. "Lastly, resist through political opposition/protest or simply have your voice heard. I contacted my congressional House representative and both U.S. senators today about HR 621," says the employee, referring to a bill that would make certain federal lands available for sale in 10 states. "People should post [the] contact info of their representatives, of what these bills would mean to our lands and environment. It is our duty as citizens to do so."
It’s inarguably becoming more difficult for government employees to advocate for the parks, and these users will now have to choose their words more carefully or risk losing their jobs and possibly hurting the park that employs them.
"I never lose sight that we are employed by the American people and … through my posts, want to share how special the sites are," the employee told me.
There are obvious limitations for any government employee. Those limitations don’t exist for accounts like @myadventurepassport (around 12,500 followers), @rei (1.5 million followers), or @theclymb (58,400 followers). And yet none of these has chosen to use its considerable online following to talk about the threats being lodged at its muses. One notable exception is Patagonia, which made a statement the week after the election about the need to protect public lands and the environment, declaring all proceeds from Black Friday sales would go to environmental causes. Patagonia’s popular Instagram account (2.4 million followers) also has not wavered, with multiple posts pointing out its position regarding climate change.
"Patagonia has a long history of speaking out for issues we care about. We have a devoted social media following that expects to hear from us about new products and important environmental issues," says Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario. "Last week, when we learned National Park Service and EPA employees weren’t permitted to share scientific facts about climate change and other environmental studies, we were happy to join the conversation and share what we have learned."
Outdoor Project, a platform for planning wilderness excursions, hasn’t posted anything political on Instagram yet, but it has long promoted conservation on its website. "Our mission is very much not just to say ‘go outside,’ but to say ‘get engaged,’" says COO and cofounder Jared Kennedy. "The whole point is we want people to know about all the things that go on behind the scenes that make these places possible." Outdoor Project works with environmental groups and government agencies, and Kennedy says the fear — for jobs, for the parks, for the environment — is palpable. Someone in the outdoor gear industry I spoke with, who also asked to remain anonymous, said that brands fear the "wrath of @realDonaldTrump." His tweets’ ability to sink company stock, and the harassment of his followers, is unprecedented and terrifying to businesses.
While this fear is hitting government employees the hardest, there is motivation for those without government ties to keep quiet as well. Kennedy noted that the Outdoor Industry Association came out in support of Trump’s pick for secretary of the interior, Ryan Zinke, who often voted against environmental measures when he was a U.S. representative from Montana. Members of the association include brands with popular social media followings like REI, Clif Bar, Keen, and Prana. These companies aren’t required to agree with every philosophy of an administration that their trade group publicly supports, but consumer outdoor gear is a massive industry that’s been well marketed via social outlets. And the connection is worth considering as the brands who purvey wilderness porn — or individuals those brands supply who do the same — stay silent.
Fortunately, this isn’t unilaterally true. Kennedy says Outdoor Project has been meeting since Election Day to talk about how to communicate its message at such a crucial time. The group plans to use its social channels more directly, too. When I told Kennedy about the lack of messaging I’d seen from popular outdoor Instagram accounts over the past few weeks, he said he’d noticed as well. "I saw something about that, about how people put up things that are like, ‘It’s a distraction. Look at this cuddly little cat,’" he says. "And I see that going on and I think, ‘Fuck that cuddly little cat.’
"The mentality has shifted [in the past eight years during the Obama presidency]," Kennedy says. "Now we need to activate people."
An earlier version of this story mistakenly presented quotes from Death Valley National Park spokesperson Abby Wines as coming from an anonymous employee.
This piece contains additional reporting by Alyssa Bereznak.