The freeze stems from a Jan. 23 executive order issued by President Donald Trump. It requires an immediate stop to the hiring of federal employees for 90 days or until the executive branch can complete “a long-term plan to reduce the size of the Federal Government’s workforce through attrition.” The freeze means that current vacancies in federal agencies, including the National Park Service and National Forest Service, can’t be filled, but locally the larger impact will come from its implications for seasonal employees.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has 190 permanent employees, but 80 seasonal employees. The Blue Ridge Parkway has 151 permanent employees across its 469-mile length, and 125 seasoned employees. The national forests in North Carolina rely less heavily on seasonal employees, employing 188 people across the four-forest system and five to 10 seasonals in a given year.
“It can potentially delay the opening of facilities, because the seasonal workforce along with the permanent staff are the ones that get the facilities open and then clean them up so they can be used,” said Kevin FitzGerald, a Waynesville resident who ended his long career with the National Park Service as deputy superintendent of the Smokies.
Unlike national parks further west, the Smokies and the Parkway both start seeing high visitation well before Memorial Day. Facilities open on a staggered schedule beginning in early March and continuing through the end of May, with seasonal employees beginning employment on a similarly staggered schedule. If the hiring freeze lasts the maximum length of 90 days, then hiring couldn’t begin until April 23, after the visitor season is well underway.
“It puts the supervisors kind of behind the eight ball to get these folks trained and geared up and ready to go,” FitzGerald said. “If you delay until March and we have a mild spring, March is pretty darn busy because that’s when spring breaks start occurring at the colleges.”
The delay could be a significant handicap to the Park Service, which has been steadily serving more and more people as the years go on. In 2015, the most recent year for which data is posted on the Park Service’s main site, the Parkway was the most visited national park system unit in the nation, with 15.1 million visits. The Smokies was the most visited national park, with 10.7 million visits. In 2016, the Smokies broke its previous visitation record, logging 11.3 million visits.
Unlike most national park units, neither the Parkway nor the Smokies are able to charge for admission, so visitation increases don’t come with a corresponding budget increase. Between 1998 and 2015, the budget has waxed and waned, with a high of $21.1 million in 2010 — all figures are in 2015 dollars — and a low of $17.7 million in 1999. In 1998, the budget was $17.9 million, and by 2015 it had risen to $18.8 million.
Fitzgerald said the Smokies increasingly relies on cheaper seasonal employees.
Also, any vacancies or job openings that existed when the executive order was given can’t be filled until the hiring freeze ends. Currently, the Smokies has five open jobs and the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests have nine. The Parkway has no open jobs. The number of actual vacancies, though may be higher and will likely continue to rise as the hiring freeze persists.
Hiring freeze not unusual for new administrations
While the hiring freeze will have a tangible impact on WNC’s federal land management agencies, it’s not unusual for a new administration to call for a hold on hiring.
“Every administration puts a freeze on hiring, because every administration has promised to reduce the size of government. That’s what they do,” said FitzGerald, whose tenure with the Park Service spanned nine presidential elections.
“It’s not necessarily a Republican thing or a Democrat thing,” agreed Christ Cooper, head of Western Carolina University’s Political Science and Public Affairs Department. “We’ve had a few targeted hiring freezes but there haven’t been this kind of large scale hiring freezes in a while.”
Some aspects of the freeze and what it might mean in practice, however, are not yet clear. The executive order does not apply to military personnel and states that the head of any executive department or agency can exempt positions that it “deems necessary to meet national security or public safety responsibilities.”
For many types of Forest Service and Park Service jobs, an argument could be made that the position is necessary for public safety. So the actual impact of the hiring freeze could vary greatly depending on how the agency head interprets the phrase “public safety.”
“That’s the great unknown here,” Cooper said. “A lot of executive orders, the devil is not only in the details, but it’s in the interpretation of the details, and that’s what we’re still trying to figure out.”
Trust lacking between Park Service and Trump administration
However, for the Park Service the hiring freeze hasn’t been the only impact from the new administration. A spirit of confrontation between Trump and the Park Service emerged on Inauguration Day when the agency retweeted a post from New York Times writer Binyamin Appelbaum showing side-by-side aerials shots of crowds at Obama’s 2009 inauguration and Trump’s 2017 inauguration, with Trump’s crowd appearing to be much smaller.
Following the inauguration, the administration asked the Department of the Interior to temporarily stop using Twitter. According to a report from CNN, the administration said this was out of a concern that the account had been hacked.
“Friday afternoon there was guidance sent out to suspend our Twitter operations,” said Dana Soehn, management assistant for the park. “Within about 30 minutes of receiving that guidance we received further guidance that instructed us we were able to go ahead and continue tweeting about safety or emergency response. Then the next morning around 10 a.m. we received guidance we could reinstate our Twitter platforms.”
According to Cooper, the reaction was “unusual and perhaps unprecedented.”
“It is setting up the perception of a fault line between federal bureaucrats who are doing the work of the federal government and the head of the executive branch,” Cooper said. “I think there’s an expectation of trust between the head of the executive branch and the people that are working under him, and it appears so far that that trust may not extend to this administration.”
An anonymous band of Park Service employees, including some from the Smokies and the Parkway, responded by founding a website and social media pages for Alt National Park Service, which calls itself “the official ‘resistance’ team of U.S. National Park Service.’”