Inside the National Park Service’s Twitter Rebellion

Usually, the NPS stays out of the political crossfire. Not this week.
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Usually, the NPS stays out of the political crossfire. Not this week.
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Badlands National Park (Photo by Lee McDowell/NPS)

Usually, America’s national parks fill their Twitter feeds with pictures of dazzling mountains, wildlife, and trail updates. But this week, a handful of parks found themselves in the crossfire of political controversy after they began what appears to be a subtle political protest against the Trump administration’s policies.

The showdown started when the official National Park Service Twitter account retweeted two posts negatively comparing the crowds at Trump’s inauguration last Friday with the scene from Obama’s eight years prior.

According to CNN, the president personally called the acting director of the NPS, Michael T. Reynolds, to express his anger over the tweets; representatives from the administration then instructed the Interior Department, including the parks, to temporarily stop its use of Twitter. Over the weekend, the National Park Service apologized for the posts.

That could have been the end of it. Then, on Tuesday, Badlands National Park began to tweet about climate change. Under normal circumstances, the tweets would have been innocuous enough: the park has tweeted about climate change in the past, and its new posts were limited to widely-accepted scientific facts. But coming just days after the inauguration of a new president who has called climate change a hoax, many interpreted it as a political protest.

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NPR reporter Nathan Rott captured many of the rogue tweets.

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A few hours later, the tweets had disappeared. According to a National Park Service official, who spoke anonymously to the Washington Post, a former employee at the park released the tweets, without the permission of the park.

“The park was not told to remove the tweets but chose to do so when they realized that their account had been compromised,” said the National Park Service official. But Twitter users had already taken notice: As of the time of writing, the park had jumped from a measly 7,000 to more than 220,000 followers.

A number of other parks quickly joined Badlands in its apparent protest. Golden Gate National Park linked to a NASA report on climate change. Redwoods National Park tweeted about how much carbon its trees remove from the atmosphere. And on Wednesday—the same day that a draft of a new executive order that would limit immigration from a list of majority-Muslim countries emerged—Death Valley National Park posted a series of tweets about Japanese-Americans who were incarcerated there during World War II. So far, all of those messages are still up.

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At the same time, a number of unofficial National Parks Twitter accounts have sprung up. The biggest, @AltNatParkSer, began on the 24th by reposting Badlands’ deleted tweets. The account, which dubbed itself the “unofficial resistance team” of the NPS and purported to be run by three active rangers, boasts more than 1.11 million followers, far more than the NPS’s official account with its 385,000 fans. Another, @BadHombreNPS, had 115,000 followers at the time of writing. Unlike the parks' official accounts, both are openly political, advocating, among other things, against EPA nominee Scott Pruitt and the Dakota Access Pipeline.

In a message, the user behind @BadHombreNPS said the response to the account "has been tremendous."

"It's not a partisan issue in our eyes," the user said. "Teddy Roosevelt was a Republican. Many a conservative has a deep love for America's wilderness. Conservation of these lands is inherently rooted in science."

While public and media reaction to the tweets has been enormous, the official response has been minimal. The National Park Service has not addressed Golden Gate, Redwoods, or Death Valley’s tweets, and has not commented on the unofficial accounts. Badlands National Park's account has been silent since Monday. On Thursday, the @AltNatParkSer team tweeted that they would be handing over control of the account to a new team composed of activists and journalists, all of whom are former scientists. They cited the pressure the account brought on colleagues as the reason for stepping down. In signing off, they had one more message for readers: visit the parks.