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Survey of National Park Service employees shows an agency that's 'fallen on hard times'

Ranger directing traffic at the north entrance of Yellowstone State Park on June 26, 2017, in Wyoming. A new engagement survey shows that working at a national park is no picnic.
NPS / Jacob W. Frank
Ranger directing traffic at the north entrance of Yellowstone State Park on June 26, 2017, in Wyoming. A new engagement survey shows that working at a national park is no picnic.

Working at a national park is no picnic, according to a new survey of employees.

The Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan nonprofit, recently released its annual rankings of the best places to work in the federal government. The rankings are based on surveys that ask agency employees to evaluate their job and organizational satisfaction.

“This is not a happiness index – it's an engagement index,” said Max Stier, the group's president and CEO. “This is really about whether you have an environment that is going to get the best out of employees where they're giving their discretionary energy to better serve the public. So it really matters.”

A Yellowstone National Park ranger is seen standing near a road wiped out by flooding along the Gardner River the week before, near Gardiner, Mont., June 19, 2022. A recent survey has shown that while national parks employees feel strongly about the mission and importance of their work, they don't necessarily feel supported.
Matthew Brown/AP
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AP
A Yellowstone National Park ranger is seen standing near a road wiped out by flooding along the Gardner River the week before, near Gardiner, Mont., June 19, 2022. A recent survey has shown that while national parks employees feel strongly about the mission and importance of their work, they don't necessarily feel supported.

The National Park Service ranked 371st out of 432 sub-agencies overall, placing it in the bottom 15th percentile. The NPS ranked especially poorly in the categories of work-life balance (406th), pay (400th), and senior leadership (396th).

Despite the fact that visitor satisfaction is high, many national parks remain underfunded and understaffed, which Stier said impacts the scores.

He noted that the agency's overall score has been consistently low for about the past eight years.

“You're not talking about an organization that, you know, has fallen on hard times,” he said. “It has, frankly, struggled for as long as we have really done these surveys.”

Other federal agencies with a big presence in the Mountain West are also struggling, the survey results show. The Bureau of Land Management ranked 348th out of 432, and the U.S. Forest Service ranked 406th. Meanwhile, the Mountains and Plains region of the Environmental Protection Agency ranked 52nd.

Stier said more investment is needed in these federal environmental agencies in order to allow employees to do their jobs well.

In this Sunday, Aug. 12, 2018  photo provided by the National Park Service, an interpretive ranger talks to visitors about the Howe Ridge Fire from outside Lake McDonald Lodge in Glacier National Park, Mont. Wildfires burning in the U.S. this summer have upended plans for countless outdoor adventures. Campers, hikers, rafters and other outdoor enthusiasts have had to scrap or change plans or endure awful smoke.
AP
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National Park Service
In this Sunday, Aug. 12, 2018 photo provided by the National Park Service, an interpretive ranger talks to visitors about the Howe Ridge Fire from outside Lake McDonald Lodge in Glacier National Park, Mont. Wildfires burning in the U.S. this summer have upended plans for countless outdoor adventures. Campers, hikers, rafters and other outdoor enthusiasts have had to scrap or change plans or endure awful smoke.

“If they feel like their hands are tied behind their back and they don't have the resources they need, then that's a real challenge for creating the kind of engaged environment that allows them to succeed in the way they want to,” he said.

The NPS did score higher for employees identifying with the agency’s mission (187th), which Steir said reflects an eagerness to serve that ought to translate into employee satisfaction.

“The yellow light is blinking here,” he said. “We will be benefited by it. Our national parks are great treasures and our civil servants and those that are working in the Park Service are also a great treasure. And we should be taking care of both.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Copyright 2023 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.

Emma VandenEinde

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