Ever since the National Park Service’s main Twitter account appeared to “go rogue” on President Donald Trump’s inauguration day, people have been using the department and its various park-specific social media accounts as a rallying point in the anti-Trump resistance.
However, according to emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, that’s not the full story.
The emails show that staff at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area were actually coloring inside the lines of their guidance from the Trump administration when the park’s official Twitter account tweeted climate change facts on Jan. 23, three days after the inauguration.
Based on a review of Park Service emails concerning social media policies during the presidential transition, at the time the tweets were sent, there didn’t appear to be specific guidance directing the park not to tweet about this subject.
“As far as I know, there hasn’t been any guidance related to avoiding that subject sent out from us or NRSS [the Natural Resource Stewardship and Science Directorate],” National Park Service public affairs specialist Amber Smigiel wrote in an email sent on Jan. 23.
Users on Twitter didn’t know that at the time, however. The tweets came amid news of a social media gag order imposed at the Environmental Protection Agency and rumors of similar communication bans at other agencies as the Trump team moved in.
In addition, the Trump administration’s new White House website had omitted climate change from its list of priorities, which made the Park Service tweets stand out even more.
Thanks to its tweets on climate change, Golden Gate was hailed as a beacon of resistance shining from within the federal government itself alongside Badlands National Park’s Twitter account.
Rallying around the Park Service makes sense, too, considering other concurrent events.
The service itself was on-edge after the department’s main Twitter account retweeted two seemingly anti-Trump posts related to the size of the crowd attending the inauguration.
Those tweets sparked a full investigation into the matter and a sweeping order to stop tweeting from official accounts across the agency. The Park Service’s crowd size estimate of the inauguration even prompted a highly unusual call from Trump himself to the agency’s acting director the morning after the inauguration.
But things didn’t quite calm down for the service after those initial retweets were deleted and the Twitter moratorium was lifted on Jan 21.
Effectively, the floodgates opened and Twitter users across the social network started reading intent into tweets that would have been relatively innocuous if not for Trump’s inauguration. Twitter users were also primed for this kind of reaction thanks to the reported gag orders at other government agencies.
Using tweets to peek inside government
While the tweets sent by Golden Gate do appear to be in line with other posts sent out from the account before the inauguration, under the current administration, they appeared to troll a new president who has famously claimed that climate change is a hoax.
Plus, to make matters worse, the Badlands National Park Twitter account also tweeted out information about climate change, yet its tweets were deleted on Jan. 24.
It’s unclear exactly what separated the tweets from Badlands from Golden Gate and why the Badlands tweets were removed. We might get more clarity on that in the coming weeks when a set of Badlands-specific emails are expected to be released.
But emails released this week make it clear that even people in the agency weren’t exactly sure what to expect of the new administration.
One exchange between National Park Service employee Matt Holly and Smigiel is indicative of the fraught transition between administrations.
In an email sent on Jan. 23, Holly, who works in the NRSS, explained that going forward, Park Service staff would need to be even more diligent about shying away from advocacy on topics like climate change.
“There were a couple times I knew I was pushing it but felt like we had that support for wiggle room in the past,” Holly wrote. “Now we know we just have to play it slightly safer.”
A drastic change in the political climate
Holly was right to expect a shift on climate change with the new administration.
Trump’s proposed budget guts climate research across the federal government and reduces the Park Service’s budget as well, including the agency’s climate change programs.
In fact, when the budget was rolled out on March 16, Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, told reporters that the administration won’t spend money on climate anymore.
“Regarding the question as to climate change, I think the president was fairly straightforward,” Mulvaney told reporters on March 16. “We’re not spending money on that anymore. We consider that to be a waste of your money.”
Our national parks represent some of the places in the United States that are most vulnerable to the worst effects of human-caused climate change.
As glaciers retreat and sea levels rise, they threaten the national parks and other areas maintained by the National Park Service. For example, Glacier National Park in Montana is not expected to contain actual glaciers by the middle to end of this century, due to increasing temperatures.