What Really Happened When a National Park's Twitter Account Went Rogue

A former employee feared a "gag order" on climate data.

A citizen's thank-you note to Badlands National Park after a former employee in January inappropriately posted facts about climate change.

National Park Service

A former seasonal employee at the Badlands National Park hijacked the facility's Twitter account on Jan. 24 and published several facts about climate change. As the story began to spread, he confessed to the South Dakota park's superintendent. "Fearing a gag order on climate science I willfully sent out a series of tweets on the subject," he wrote.

The employee's name was redacted from agency documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by Bloomberg News.

Just five hours after President Donald Trump was sworn into office, Department of the Interior officials circulated word that "all bureaus and the department have been directed by incoming administration to shut down twitter platforms immediately until further notice," according to an email from the account of a public affairs official that was obtained via the FOIA request. The order came in response to an incident in which a different National Parks Service employee used an official account to share a New York Times reporter's side-by-side comparison of the crowds at the 2009 and 2017 inaugurations. That post went viral.

The agency went on to delete the offending tweets, and a NPS communications officer reached out to" White House press secretary Sean Spicer to "see if I can assist in any corrective messaging," according to an email (PDF) released in March and obtained through FOIA by E&E News.

The president himself weighed into the battle over the size of his inauguration crowd several times, including during a visit to the CIA on Jan. 21.

Behind the scenes, Interior and NPS officials investigated the crowd-size tweets, By the morning after Trump's inauguration, they restarted policy-compliant social media use. 

But a mere four days later, on Tuesday, Jan. 24, the Badlands National Park Twitter account began publishing anomalous though factual statements about climate change, such as:

A Badlands National Park Twitter post that was published and deleted on Jan. 24.
National Park Service; Twitter

The tweets were deleted several hours after they appeared—but the damage had been done. The rogue tweeter sent a note to Park Superintendent Mike Pflaum as the story was blowing up.

National Park Service

Since the person responsible was a former employee and is now a private citizen, NPS wasn't in a position to discipline him. "There was nothing we could do," said Thomas Crosson, a NPS spokesperson. 

Most of the FOIA documents are supportive notes sent to a public NPS email. Admirers applaud the Badlands climate tweets for speaking out against the new administration, which came into office promising to reverse many of the previous administration's pollution-cutting policies. Some of the notes mention donations that supporters sent to either the NPS or to Badlands National Park.

Not everyone admired the rogue employee: "How about you follow the orders of your Commander In Chief. What a disgrace," said one released email. "I worked under Obama and respectfully did everything he asked, especially when I didn't believe in it. Find some honor."

The most cheerful documents amid the reams of black-on-white text are postcards and letters Americans sent in support of the tweets. 

A thank-you note sent to Badlands National Park after a former employee inappropriately posted facts about climate change.
National Park Service
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