Saturday, May 18, 2013

A Federal Agency Fires a Reporter for 'Approaching the Media'

One of the photos I took on Sunday of graffiti vandalism at Saguaro National Park

Here's a sad update on that awful graffiti vandalism incident last weekend at Saguaro National Park in Tucson (see previous post). Yesterday, I was fired as an unpaid volunteer National Park mounted ranger for my role in bringing this incident to the attention of local media after I saw the vandalism last Sunday while hiking a park trail. The vandalism included shocking graffiti defacement of giant saguaro cactuses.

During the five days' time between when I reported the incident on Sunday and when I was fired on Friday, Saguaro National Park rangers repeatedly tried to persuade me to admit that I was wrong in calling attention to the vandalism that I and many other hikers saw Sunday morning on the trail. In several conversations, including a bizarre disciplinary meeting on Thursday, I was asked to recant  and to agree never to "approach the media," whether on duty or off duty. Since I have been a reporter for 45 years, I informed the rangers that this was an absurd request to make of a volunteer who lives in the neighborhood of Saguaro National Park and is a frequent hiker and rider on those trails.

I repeatedly refused the weirdly Stalinist order to recant, including at the disciplinary meeting I was summoned to at the park visitor center on Thursday. That session was run by the supervisor Ranger Paul Austin and by Ranger Andy Fisher, who is the park's PR "interpretive" agent. They evidently didn't have the nerve to fire me to my face; the next day I was fired on the phone by the supervisor of the volunteers, Ranger Michelle Uhr, who told me: "We can't have you representing us as a volunteer anymore."

I resisted the inclination to inform her that I do not represent them. I represent the public, which owns the National Park and has a right to know what happens in that park.

Ranger Uhr is a decent woman, a hard-working law-enforcement ranger who was clearly acting under orders. Ranger Andy Fisher (who has been brazenly misrepresenting the facts to the media) is another story, a low-level PR employee -- a "flack," as we on the other side of the media call people like her  -- who seems not to appreciate the importance of veracity when speaking as a federal employee. She, Ranger Fisher, is an example of the insolence of office, and low office at that. If you wonder how Benghazi and the IRS and media phone-records scandals got out of control on an infinitely larger  scale, just have a look at this sorry performance by a few federal employees trying to cover their butts on the east side of Tucson.

Now, as I said, this was an unpaid, volunteer job, which I did because of my deep love for Saguaro National Park and my enjoyment at being able to meet and assist park users. The Park Rangers do not own the park. We citizens do. So my connection with Saguaro National Park remains unbroken.

Meanwhile, since the Park Service's amusingly clumsy attempt to cover its butt has bumped a weird local incident into national media streams, here is my statement for any media seeking it:

I was fired by park rangers as a volunteer mounted patrol ranger on Friday for "approaching the media" last Sunday afternoon -- hours after my shift as a volunteer ranger had ended. In other words, I was on my own time and acting as a private citizen when I notified the local media about the vandalism -- ONLY after having made numerous unsuccessful attempts to get the Park Service to respond and take my report and photos during the morning.

During my unpaid volunteer shift on foot at the Douglas Spring trailhead from 7-11 am Sunday, after other hikers informed me of the vandalism they saw, I reacted entirely appropriately. I made seven phone calls to the National Park Service and 911 to report the vandalism. In one of those calls, at 11 a.m. Sunday, I spoke directly with the park ranger on duty, Steven Bolyard, and he said that the visitors center had informed him of my earlier calls to them, and that he would "try to get out there this afternoon sometime." He exhibited no interest in the situation. This was after a county sheriff deputy had already been on the scene and spoken with me. The county sheriff's department responded quickly, professionally and correctly to my report. The Park Service did not respond, even after I spoke directly with them.

At 11 a.m. Sunday, as I went off duty, I personally informed Ranger Brolyard that I was considering taking my photos to the media, since no one at the Park Service seemed interested in the report. He raised no objection to that. Nor did Ranger Brolyard state that he himself was going to call an emergency number in Phoenix, for whatever reason.

Now the Park Service, having become defensive because of adverse local and even national media publicity over their failure to respond to the situation on Sunday, is claiming that I did not "follow procedures" in reporting the incident, in that I did not call an additional number in Phoenix that I had been previously told was only for serious emergencies, notably serious injuries or in-progress crimes.

This is what is called a "red herring."

To repeat: I made seven phones calls to the Park Service that morning, and on two occasions spoke with Park personnel, including Ranger Broylard. I also met with and personally spoke with a Deputy Iverson of the county sheriff department, who did take my report. Hence the Park Service had access to all of my phone calls, including those to the visitors center, to Ranger Brolyard and to 911 by 11 a.m. on Sunday.

It is clear to me that the Park Service is saying that I had no right to report the ugly vandalism on Sunday. It is also saying that I failed to follow "procedures," and that I have no right to "approach the media" under any circumstances. This is an absurd thing to say to a journalist.

Besides me, dozens of park visitors saw and photographed the vandalism on Sunday morning. Many of them expressed relief that I was there to make my reports. All of them were horrified.

As a journalist with wide experience for over 45 years in many different roles, including covering law enforcement, I am astonished that the Park Service in Tucson is asserting that it had had the right to try to keep this obvious public display of vandalism from the media, and to try to muzzle a private citizen. What possible explanation can the Park Service offer for foolishly hoping to cover up such an incident?

On Monday morning, when the Park Service in Tucson did finally respond, the response was to issue a report and photos of the vandalism, no different than the ones I had offered them a day earlier.

I have never been fired from any job, let alone an unpaid volunteer one.

But it had been important to me that the principle be affirmed, despite the unpleasantness that taking this stance has caused me personally. as a reporter, I have no desire to be part of the story. But it's important to reaffirm that our national parks belongs to us citizens, not to hired bureaucrats, defensive because they dropped the ball, who seek to block the public right to know.

If the Park Service at Saguaro National Park East wishes to rectify this situation, here is what they can do:

Admit they made a mistake and that they issued incorrect statements. Admit they dropped the ball on Sunday. Apologize to the public, but don't bother with me.  There are lots of honorable volunteer organizations in Tucson.


No comments: