By John Macone
---- — SALISBURY — In the course of a few hours, Pat Vaillancourt’s trip to Yellowstone National Park went from being a story in her local paper to a national lightning rod that had radio and television stations, newspapers and ordinary Americans from coast to coast talking about her and seeking her out.
Vaillancourt’s story, reported in Tuesday’s Daily News of Newburyport, touched a raw nerve that has been on many Americans’ minds these days — the shutdown of the federal government. It also demonstrated a dynamic change in how Americans interact — how quickly the “viral” world of social media and the Internet can catapult one person’s story into the eyes of millions.
The Salisbury resident was on a tour bus trip last week with about four dozen other senior citizens, visiting national parks and Western sites. Among the stops was Yellowstone, where the group arrived a few hours before the government shutdown began.
Like all national parks, Yellowstone furloughed most employees, leaving in place only essential personnel such as law enforcement rangers. The rangers were tasked with shutting down the park and making sure that visitors left.
Vaillancourt and her tour guide, Gordon Hodgson, reported intimidating encounters with armed rangers, particularly at a park hotel where the senior citizens stayed for two days. Hodgson accused the park service of “Gestapo tactics.” The park service has strongly denied that it treated visitors unprofessionally or that it stationed rangers at park hotels and required guests to remain inside. It did admit that its rangers were armed, but said they were law enforcement officers and therefore are typically armed.
For Vaillancourt, the past few days have been a whirlwind of national attention.
“I’ve been getting calls from all over the country,” she said. “I’ve gotten to the point where I can’t return them all.”
Over the course of the next few hours, Vaillancourt’s description of her Yellowstone trip was shared on Facebook and retweeted by readers. By Tuesday afternoon it was posted as the top story on the website the Drudge Report, a news aggregator site that attracts an international audience.
Instantly, thousands of people across the nation began reading it. Within the scope of 48 hours, over 500,000 people had read it. It was also re-reported and reposted on dozens of other sites nationwide, exposing it to hundreds of thousands more readers.
The Daily News received over 2,400 comments on the story. Typically, a story on the paper’s website generates 10 or fewer comments. The News posted a representative sample of comments that adhered to its policy that requires commentors to use their real names; however, most comments were anonymous and were deleted. The vast majority were critical of the park service and expressed rage over the government shutdown. Some defended the National Park Service, arguing that the anger should be directed at Congress.
Vaillancourt said she was deluged with phone calls. Radio talk shows in Los Angeles, Florida and elsewhere in the nation sought her out. She was interviewed live coast-to-coast on Fox News and on radio broadcasts. Her story has become part of a heated controversy over the closure of National Park Service sites nationwide.
Her comments have also sparked a response from the National Park Service.
Yellowstone, which has furloughed most of its communications staff, could not be reached for comment by The Daily News. However, by late Wednesday, as Vaillancourt’s story became widely disseminated, it issued a statement to the Associated Press, denying that rangers confined visitors to the lodge. Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash told the AP that rangers might have been on foot patrol nearby to prevent visitors from getting close to Old Faithful geyser and other park attractions.
“We did not have people stationed at lodging facilities for any reason,” Nash told the AP. “The immediate area at the inn, the restaurant, the adjacent stores and gift shops would have been accessible, but we did close the boardwalk and the hiking trails in the area. And they all remain closed.”
Vaillancourt acknowledged that during the day she and others were allowed to go to stores and shops that were a couple hundred yards or so from the Old Faithful Inn, but said at night an armed female ranger was outside the main lobby door. At one point, two other armed rangers, whom she described as “Hulk Hogans,” were inside the hotel lobby.
Vaillancourt’s group included senior citizens from Asia, Europe and Australia. She noted that Asians with limited English skills were particularly intimidated by the presence of armed rangers and thought they were under arrest. Vaillancourt said the seniors had already been warned by their tour guide that it was unwise to venture outside at night, and so she never intended to go outdoors.
“I never tried to leave at night,” she said. “Our tour guide told us it could be dangerous at night going outside” due to the presence of predatory animals.
A Yellowstone employee, Morgan Holtrey, who said she was “very near the action and saw how visitors were treated,” wrote an email to The Daily News disputing Vaillancourt and Hodgson’s views. She said that rangers were trying to maintain safety, not force visitors to stay locked in their rooms.
“There are not enough park personnel available during this shutdown to keep people safe. Do you have any idea how many people (specifically foreign people) ignore danger signs in thermal areas? Or how many people approach wild and extremely dangerous animals? How many people get injured in the back country and have to be rescued?,” she wrote. “People can’t be trusted to use common sense here, as sad as that is. So yes, keeping people from recreating is a necessary evil during this shutdown.
“But to compare our National Park Service members to Gestapo officers from the Holocaust is disgusting,” Holtrey wrote. “These NPS officers are dealing with this shutdown and are way more affected by it than the visitors that were ‘manhandled.’ It sucks that the vacations of so many people were ruined. But for the NPS officers, this is affecting their livelihood and their ability to do their job.”