Park Service National ArchivesAbout ten years ago, I had a drinking buddy who worked in National Park Service law enforcement at Petrified Forest National Park (a great backpacking destination, by the way). He'd head to Flagstaff on his days off to vent some steam and, incidentally, share stories good and bad about his experiences with the NPS. Among his complaints was the paramilitary turn recruiting efforts had taken since 9/11. He said the new promo materials were heavy on assault rifles and action. "I don't know what they think we do out there, but they're going to end up with a bunch of psychos." Flash forward ten years and NPS rangers are barricading tourists in their hotels, threatening them with arrest for photographing wildlife, and being accused of "Gestapo" tactics. "We’ve become a country of fear, guns and control," complains a woman on the receiving end.

Yes, we have.

The original story of the ordeal suffered by a bus full of tourists at Yellowstone National Park appeared in the Livingston Enterprise, where passengers and the tour guide spoke with local journalists who were chased from the park by rangers trying to make a point:

As Liz Kearney wrote for the Livingston Enterprise:

A 41-passenger tour group spent two nights at the Old Faithful Inn. They spent Monday touring Yellowstone National Park like such groups do, entering at the North Entrance and making their way to Old Faithful by afternoon. 

But when the federal government shut down when the House of Representatives couldn’t pass a budget resolution on the night of Sept. 30, Oct. 1 dawned to a different Yellowstone. 

The tour director, Gordon Hodgson of Utah, learned his group would not be allowed to walk on any of the boardwalks located just outside their hotel, or visit any other geyser basins in the area. 

Hodgson said the group was scheduled to spend two nights at the Inn. When they got up on Tuesday morning, they headed out to see Yellowstone for the day, planning to return to the Inn for their second night’s stay later in the day. Hodgson said they headed north out of Old Faithful and pulled over to let passengers out to take photos of bison.

Hodgson said in a phone interview Tuesday that a ranger pulled up behind the bus and told him he would have to get everyone back on the bus — recreation in Yellowstone was not allowed. 

“She told me you need to return  to your hotel and stay there,” Hodgson said. “This is just Gestapo tactics. We paid a lot to get in. All these people wanted to do was take some pictures.” 

Hodgson said the ranger told him he could be convicted of trespassing if he disobeyed.

Hodgson, who has to do business in the area, was a bit more restrained in his description than was Pat Vaillancourt, who returned home to Salisbury, Massachusetts and told her story to the local media.

From the Newburyport Daily News:

Vaillancourt took part in a nine-day tour of western parks and sites along with about four dozen senior citizen tourists. One of the highlights of the tour was to be Yellowstone, where they arrived just as the shutdown went into effect.

Rangers systematically sent visitors out of the park, though some groups that had hotel reservations — such as Vaillancourt’s — were allowed to stay for two days. Those two days started out on a sour note, she said.

The bus stopped along a road when a large herd of bison passed nearby, and seniors filed out to take photos. Almost immediately, an armed ranger came by and ordered them to get back in, saying they couldn’t “recreate.” The tour guide, who had paid a $300 fee the day before to bring the group into the park, argued that the seniors weren’t “recreating,” just taking photos.

“She responded and said, ‘Sir, you are recreating,’ and her tone became very aggressive,” Vaillancourt said.

The seniors quickly filed back onboard and the bus went to the Old Faithful Inn, the park’s premier lodge located adjacent to the park’s most famous site, Old Faithful geyser. That was as close as they could get to the famous site — barricades were erected around Old Faithful, and the seniors were locked inside the hotel, where armed rangers stayed at the door.

Vaillancourt added that, on its 2.5 hour journey out of the park, the bus was not allowed to stop at a private in-park dude ranch to use the bathroom as scheduled. "The dude ranch had been warned that its license to operate would be revoked if it allowed the bus to stop."

“We’ve become a country of fear, guns and control,” said Vaillancourt, who grew up in Lawrence. “It was like they brought out the armed forces. Nobody was saying, ‘we’re sorry,’ it was all like — ” as she clenched her fist and banged it against her forearm.

This is petty, abusive treatment of people, intended only to expand the pain felt by Americans when the government is "shutdown." You can see it in the rangers deployed to barricade the Pisgah Inn, a privately owned business on federal land along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. Perfectly able to function whatever the state of the government, the inn's owner vowed to remain open—so "shutdown" rangers were sent to cool their heels at the entrance and prevent that from happening.

You also see it in the closure order against the privately funded and managed Claude Moore Colonial Farm, also on federal property, but perfectly able to carry on without help from the government. Fortunately, the barricades there were lifted after Managing Director Anna Eberly and her staff not only defied the feds, but publicly shamed them into backing off. "Obviously, the decision would not have been reversed without the news coverage, forwarded emails, blogs, tweets, Facebook posts and personal appeals from all of you," Eberly writes.

Putting this thuggish behavior into context, a Park Service ranger told the Washington Times, "We’ve been told to make life as difficult for people as we can. It’s disgusting.”

This may seem like an NPS-specific problem, but that's only because the NPS interacts with the public so widely at the retail level—and perhaps because its leadership has been so enthusiastic in its efforts "to make life as difficult for people as we can." After all, it was NPS efforts to hire gung-ho arm-twisters that had my ranger buddy so upset a decade ago.

But these efforts to inflict as much pain as possible on the public go well beyond shutting down services, and show government apparatchiks determined to punish Americans who show any sign of being able to carry on in their absence.

We do need them, federal officials insist, and they'll be in the kitchen boiling bunnies until we admit it.

The problem for the feds is that, according to polling (PDF), 81 percent of us say that nobody in their household has felt any impact from the federal government shutdown, and 60 percent say they prefer a smaller government providing fewer services over a bigger government providing more.

As it turns out, closing the government just doesn't inconvenience most of us, and many Americans would just as soon live without much that the feds do—and easily grow accustomed to their absence.

So, if we won't feel the pain on our own when they go away, the feds will inflict the pain. They have the guns and control to make us feel fear, if that's what it takes.