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Long pants for most park rangers, heat or no heat

By Ed O'Keefe

A National Park Service park ranger joined President and Mrs. Obama on a boat ride during their weekend visit to Acadia National Park in Maine.

Eye Opener

Updated 10:10 a.m. ET
By Ed O'Keefe and Felicia Sonmez
If you happen to run into a National Park Service park ranger this week, you might want to buy them a cold drink. Though most Washingtonians are suffering through the summer heat, at least you don't have to do so in long wool pants.

The agency's dress code varies depending on the geography and weather, but all rangers must wear a standard gray shirt, green wool-blend pants, a flat hat and arrowhead patch on their shirt.

"The American people have entrusted the NPS with their most treasured places," according to the agency's dress code. "As a measure of their pride in that trust, employees must wear the uniform in such a way as to present a competent and confident image to the nation and to the world."

Park rangers earn a $400 clothing allowance when they start and receive $150 each year thereafter to buy new clothing and equipment. The initial sum typically covers the cost of a summer uniform and parts of a winter outfit. Any purchases exceeding the costs are covered out of pocket.

Individual park superintendents decide whether rangers wear long wool pants or shorts, depending on geography, the time of year and the location. In the District, park rangers on the Mall must wear long wool pants at all times, regardless of the climate. The pants are thinner during the summer and heavier in the winter. They wear a straw flat hat in the summer and a sturdier version in colder months.

"This is the nation’s capital, it’s a solemn place. We like to convey that very professional look here in the District of Columbia," said NPS national spokesman David Barna. Rangers at most historic sites wear the long pants as a sign of respect, including the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum and at Acadia National Park, where rangers guided the Obama Family during their weekend visit.

Scot McElveen, president of the Association of National Park Rangers, recalled wearing shorts during his work at Death Valley, and said most park superintendents make reasonable clothing decisions.

"There are superintendents that are sticklers for the way they did it when they came up so they’re not as flexible, but a good number of them are flexible and willing to keep their employees comfortable and safe," McElveen said. "Sometimes you’re talking about avoiding overheating or hypothermia."

His only concern with the policy is that NPS should allow a little more time for rangers to switch between their hot and cold-weather outfits. Currently most parks make the switch in May and October with a 30-day grace period.

"I would always argue for expanding that as much as possible, in case you had a really warm day in February or a cold streak in July," McElveen said.

So the next time you're complaining about the heat at your office just remember: Regardless of the heat and location, there's no such thing as Casual Fridays for park rangers.

Know of similarly strict government dress codes? Do you think there should be some flexibility?

Leave your thoughts in the comments section below

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By Ed O'Keefe  | July 20, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Eye Opener  
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Mr. O'Keefe: I grew up in Washington D.C., there's nothing wrong with tropical worsted weight wool for trousers in the summer, they're quite comfortable.

On the other hand, how the government expects an officer/ranger to provide same on $150 a year is rather interesting, as I recall paying $75/pair for wool trousers in 1968. One presumes the NPS offers a substantial discount on uniforms to their officers/rangers.

Posted by: rmlwj1 | July 20, 2010 7:21 AM | Report abuse

Park rangers do different things.
Some hang around the visitor's center, others take visitors off on longer walks/hikes.

Being out day after day I can imagine that longer pants might be better sun protection. Since I'm usually just there for a short time and spend most of my time indoors my idea of hot/cold and what's the best covering won't necessarily be the same.

Posted by: RedBird27 | July 20, 2010 7:33 AM | Report abuse

As we would expect, some superintendents are way out of touch with the conditions in which their employees operate. The supers are probably in heated and/or air conditioned offices so they don't care.
At least the shirts are a light color unlike some agencies that require dark shirts in the summer heat.
Some decisions are simply dumb, like the requirement that a representative of our Sheriff's Dept. wear his full uniform when conducting a RADIO interview.
The clothing allowance does seem very low even if it is supposed to represent the difference between the official uniform and what a person would "normally" wear for that type of work. The article could have cited some examples of the cost of the uniform parts to help the public understand whether the allowance is appropriate. These types of uniforms usually need professional cleaning that add to the costs for employees.

Posted by: pjohn2 | July 20, 2010 8:42 AM | Report abuse

Saturday my brothers and dad, a WW II vet, toured the WW II memorial. It had to be in the 90's and humidity had to be in the 90's. Regardless, the memorial acts as a solar reflecting oven due to its bowl-like shape and polished marble. Our ranger, Matt, who gave my dad a private tour, was in the long pants and heavy shoes. He did and excellent job and seemed ok as far as the heat. However, it was 10 am and we can only assume that the afternoon was even more demanding on him. A tropical weight worsted wool would probably be fine, as long as it's a light color, say khaki.

Rmlyj1 is correct: these pants are not cheap, and the clothing allowance should reflect that. Perhaps Patagonia or a corporate sponsor may help matters. BTW, a tropical weight poly-wool is what I was wearing on Friday, but I could leave whatever venue and go in the shade or the air-conditioning.

Posted by: brianmccann | July 20, 2010 8:50 AM | Report abuse

Hats and socks are also covered under the uniform allowance. There is a mandatory source for these uniform items that DOI/NPS has established a contract with. Maintenance workers and law enforcement rangers are also included in the uniform standards policies. Some superintendents also forces the administrative workers to wear uniforms.

Posted by: blackforestcherry | July 20, 2010 8:56 AM | Report abuse

Correction: Permanent, full time, uniform staff receive a $320 replacement allowance, not $150. $150 is the replacement allowance for lifeguard uniforms at some National Seashores. While shorts are fine there are folks who do not present a very professional appearance in shorts. Many do not measure before purchasing their uniform components and do not buy the proper sized clothing to fit their unique bodies.

Posted by: Muffin3 | July 20, 2010 9:40 AM | Report abuse

I am a federal employee and I often wish there was a better dress code for all employees. People show up looking like they are going to the beach sometimes. Hooray for the Park Service -- and by the way tropical weight wool can be quite comfortable in the summer.

Posted by: postreader118 | July 20, 2010 10:19 AM | Report abuse

I work for the federal government and wear a uniform. I wish more employees would wear a uniform; I think it displays a certain pride in and connection with the agency we work for. It also lets the public know who they can come to for information or help. The uniforms aren't always comfortable, don't always fit right, don't look great on every body type, but we should each wear it and serve with pride (or find a different job).

Posted by: pjjohnston | July 20, 2010 11:23 AM | Report abuse

Park rangers know that long pants are great protection against mosquitoes-of which there are many in DC, especially at dusk, great sun protection and that they cut a much more authoritative and as noted respectful figure than shorts.

All due respect to the Capitol Police, but in the summer I respect them more because I know they are armed and they can arrest me- than for their shorts.

Posted by: Hmmh | July 20, 2010 2:43 PM | Report abuse

It's not like mosquitos and ticks are a problem in the hinterlands.

Posted by: jiji1 | July 20, 2010 4:39 PM | Report abuse

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