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Time For New Uniforms For The National Park Service?


Columbia Sportswear earlier this year entered into a five-year agreement to provide Great Britain's national park staff with clothing. Some U.S. National Park Service staff wish a similar deal could be reached for them/Columbia Sportswear

Earlier this year Columbia Sportswear made some news when it became the "official outfitter" of the United Kingdom's national parks workforce. And after releasing a YouTube video that shows off some of the clothing and promotes that deal -- and, of course, promotes Columbia -- the questions arises of whether the U.S. National Park Service should work out a similar deal with one of the large outdoor clothing manufacturers?

Park Service employees look somewhat longingly at the fleece jackets and outwear Columbia produced for their English brethren and wish they had better uniforms and weather-beating gear.

"I'd love to be on a committee to help open up these conversations on gear that can enhance efficiency and safety in each of our unique job duties. There are so many better options out there than polyester blends," one Park Service employee said in a Facebook post.

"Just watching this ad for Columbia Sportswear..... wishing the NPS could partner with a decent Activewear/Sportwear outfitter for our uniforms," wrote another.

The UK deal runs for five years, and provides clothing for about 2,000 park staff.

“Columbia Sportswear is showing a strong commitment to the UK’s National Parks with this partnership. Providing clothing for more than 2,000 staff is a very significant contribution, supporting the very heart of our work," said Jacquie Burgess, chair of National Parks UK. "Columbia will take a leading role in helping to increase public understanding of our wonderful National Parks by sharing the stories of our people and our Parks over the coming five years.”


Perhaps better choices are already available, but during my career, the polyester NPS uniform seemed scientifically designed to admit all environmental moisture while simultaneously retaining perspiration.  Trail crews were required to wear uniforms, but they were usually left in the truck at the trailhead after the morning costume party at Hindquarters.   Pacific Northwest weather can be challenging and many folks chose to be comfortable, if not necessarily dry, in rubber boots, wool pants, and 'full tuna'  heavy-duty  raingear.

This reminds me of the fortunately ill-fated attempt to replace the arrowhead with a new age modernistic patch, back in the 1970s.  

It also seems an attempt at an end-run by Columbia (I wear their stuff, it's ok but now platinum in quality) to get the uniform contract away from North Face.  I would oppose this, especially for front-line Rangers and maintenance. 

There is a reason that the NPS uniform looks like it does - it reflects our heritage, and also symbolizes, in the era of the military state which we now inhabitat, that there is "a moral equivalent to war," reflected in the use of a military uniform for peaceful preservation of Earth.

In the conclusion of his stirring letter, Albright specifically makes this point:  "...

We have been compared to the military forces because of our dedication and esprit de corps. In a sense this is true. We do act as guardians of our country's land. Our National Park Service uniform which we wear with pride does command the respect of our fellow citizens. We have the spirit of fighters, not as a destructive force but as a power for good. With this spirit each of us is an integral part of the preservation of the magnificent heritage we have been given, so that centuries from now people of our world, or perhaps of other worlds, may see and understand what is unique to our earth, never changing, eternal.”

 Lee Dalton wrote, in this very newsletter, "In the final chapter we find Horace Albright’s farewell letter to the Park Service.  We all need to read it.  It’s as true and poignant now as it was then.  And it points out the need for eternal vigilance by those who love our parks as new threats rise against them.  Thank goodness there have been more men and women like Mather and Albright ready to stand up to people like Paul Hoffman and Dick Cheney." (And Trump and the Clintons and Obama and the Bushes, none of whom did much for the national parks.)  Albright's letter also points out the power of the NPS uniform.

It's a powerful symbol of the Service and what it stands for.  I once shared an English university's breakfast table with a distinguished looking couple who were attending the same conference.  She asked what I did.  I said, "I'm a National Park Service Ranger."  He said, "I say.  May I shake your hand?"  "Sure," I said.  "Do you get to wear one of those hats?" "Yes."  "I'd give anything for one of those hats.  And I think that if there's a true American aristocracy it is in the National Park Service Ranger.  It's an honor to meet you."  He went back to his breakfast.  His wife asked, "Do you know who he is?"  "No."  "He's the ArchBishop of Canterbury."   Sadly, I failed to send him a hat; but that is the power of the uniform.

The NPS has been under major attack from within and without.  After decades of management by the Peter Principle, by those who should never have been hired, let alone promoted, it  is weakened.  After decades of fund starvation, by the Democrats as much as the alt right, it has been severely weakened.  Putting guns on rangers has made the image, and the job, more reflective of violence.  Now, they want to change the uniform - the one in the image looks like the bunny suit worn in clean rooms - or on contractors to keep dust off their clothing.  The ArchBishop of Canterbury won't have much to say about it.

I wore that uniform for several years - in Montana winters, in Alcatraz Island summers (much more uncomfortable than Montana) and never had a problem with it.  The only part of the uniform that felt inferior were the boots.   But good managers winked if we wore real boots.

I'd suggest that if those who love the national parks want to protect them, they avoid such nonsense as new age patches and Mickey Mouse uniforms (to benefit Columbia), and put their energy behind proper qualifications for hiring and promotion, adequate funding, and a return to the ideals of Mather and Albright. 


Donald Scott, Bravo!  An absolutely excellent posting. 

Next thing y'know, Ivanka will be designing new uniforms with the Trump brand on them. 

Lee - sacrilege! Say it ain't so!


And I agree with your comments on Mr Scott's posting.

I personally like the formal dress uniform with the campaign hat for every day use.  I have seen some specialty uniforms, such as a shorts for summer, stocking caps, and Gore-Tex jackets for winter.

It might make sense for NPS to get specialty uniforms that are a less formal than the current designs, but I don't know about an exclusive deal.  The semi-formal look has served NPS well, although changing the materials would be a good idea.  There are high polyester shirts that look just like traditional dress shirts.  If they need winter or wet weather gear, why not procure suitable gear (in the right color) similar to what visitors bring?

Anybody else remember the short-lived Fashion World uniform contract experiment in the late '70's?  NPS uniforms could use some fine-tuning, but for the most part I agree that the uniform is iconic and should continue that way.  The National Park Service has other, more serious issues to which the agency should address its resources.

Today's monthly message to employees from David Bernhardt, Deputy Secretary of the Interior, led off with "time for uniforms to be updated" as his first example of what he's learned from Dept. employees.  Not sure if that is NPS, or BLM, FWS, BoR, etc.

Hello Kurt. Just to point out that UK National Parks are not confined to England but are also found in Wales and Scotland, (None in N.Ireland as yet). Your reference to "English brethren" is therefore inaccurate; "British" wouldv'e been correct however ;)

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