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Former NPS chief wants separation of ‘political football’ from interior

Jonathan Jarvis got an enthusiastic response at the White House in 2011. Barack at the time is when he saw President Obama sign a proclamation creating Fort He Monroe National Monument to preserve the Virginia historic site where the first enslaved Africans arrived in 1619 .

“Do you have more of them?” Obama asked Jarvis, shaking hands at the end of the ceremony.

“Yes, I have a long list.

Jarvis helped create 23 new park sites during the Obama era, but running an agency is easy, according to a new book that offers a rare behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of park services. It was not an easy job.

Jarvis used the book not only to tout his success in growing the agency, but also to chronicle his decades of infighting at the Home Office. His final conclusion was that the Park Service should be allowed to operate independently.

Under the control of the Department of the Interior, Jarvis argued that the NPS had become a “political football” subject to the ever-changing whims of the incoming presidential administration. And he said it’s hurting the country’s prized national parks.

“Every four to eight years, we hand over the keys to our parks and public lands to political appointees in the Home Office who see the world through the lens of commodities,” said the current president of the Parks Institute. Jarvis writes. People and Biodiversity at the University of California, Berkeley.

Jarvis, who began working as a park ranger in 1976, collaborated with his brother Destry on the book National Parks Forever: Fifty Years of War and a Case for Independence.

They will ask Congress to free the Park Service from being part of endless politics by approving a new administrative structure similar to the Smithsonian Institution, and the agency will be overseen by a separate board.

“Instead of allowing the NPS to remain the overworked and undervalued Cinderella of the DOI, a better and more independent future for the NPS is essential if these places of national importance are to be preserved intact. I think it is necessary,” wrote the brother.

Together, the Jarvises drew on their combined 90 years of experience to make their case.

Jonathan Jarvis, now 69, spent 40 years with the Parks Service as a ranger, biologist and manager at eight national parks before becoming director of the agency in 2009. Destry, who is six years older than his Jarvis, began his work as a national park. In the early 1970s he advocated and held leadership positions at the National Park Conservation Society, the National Recreation and Parks Association, the NPS, and under former President Bill Clinton he served as Assistant Director.

Jonathan Jarvis, who pitched the book last month at the “Green Bag Lecture” at the University of Utah’s SJ Queenie College of Law, offered a grim assessment of how work at the Department of the Interior has changed over the past half-century. . Most park ideas die.

He denounced the complex structure that forces the Park Service Director to deal with a series of political appointees, including an assistant secretary, undersecretary, budget and communications officer. They say they come from lobbying companies and the private sector. Unlike park commissioners, many are not subject to the Senate approval process but still exercise authority over the park service.

“It took at least nine layers of challenge to get to the top to put the basic policy questions to the Secretary of State,” Jarvis said. “And most ideas … died along that challenging line.”

Two former interior secretaries who have served under Republican presidents have said they oppose the idea of ​​removing the Parks Service from the department.

David Bernhardt, who held the position for part of the Trump administration, said Jarvis “was operating in Fantasyland.”

And Gail Norton, who served as Secretary of the Interior under former President George W. Bush, said the Park Service would face budget constraints “wherever it is housed.” She added that there are “advantages to having a cabinet-level resource management body” in charge of federal land.

“Yes, the NPS has to compete with other Home Office agencies for funding, but so does the Smithsonian,” said Norton, noting that the Smithsonian’s budget goes through the same Appropriations Board as the Home Office agencies. Did. “That means NPS will be competing for the same amount, even if they are independent agencies.”

Jarvis acknowledged that removing the Park Service from the Department of the Interior would not remove all politics, but said it would go a long way in reducing layers of bureaucracy.

“We will never be free from politics in Washington, but this will slim it down,” he said.

“I had to walk on a fine line”

El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, California.
El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, California. | | Ben Margot/AP Photo

Jarvis, who resigned from the board in January 2017 when the Obama administration ended, learned how to deal with the public when he took a job as director of Wrangell St. in Alaska.Elias National Parks and Preserves.

“Living in the bush, I’ve had to walk a fine line,” Jarvis wrote, while a Republican on the state’s congressional delegation said the Park Service had “not even the basic rules of national parks.” “I requested not to force it,” he added.

But during his five years in Alaska, he also learned how to run public meetings.

“As I have told many of my staff on future missions, public disclosure in Alaskan bars (often the only place big enough) where most of the crowd is drunk and many are armed. Unless you’re standing in front of a meeting, the message they really don’t want to hear is you’re just not having a ‘real’ public meeting,” Jarvis wrote, adding that “these pretty loud gatherings.” He added that he has come to enjoy it.

Jarvis recounts a cross-country trip with the Parks Service and uses other anecdotes to illustrate the political tensions that often accompany his job long before moving to Washington, DC.

At a forum in Utah on Oct. 20, when Norton visited Mount Rainier National Park in Washington, he recalled urging Norton to spend more on the park.

“She pointed at me and said, ‘Your problem is you’re going to cost me $17 an acre and BLM $3 an acre,'” Jarvis said. looked at her and said, ‘Respectfully, the Statue of Liberty is not three dollars an acre of land.’ She never spoke to me again.”

Jarvis said the park service was forced to compete internally for both money and attention, which he called “a collection of bureaus with essentially conflicting powers.”

“And we spend a lot of time fighting each other,” Jarvis added.

Jarvis, who served as the NPS’s regional director for seven years before President Obama named him director, said President George W. Bush has had a particularly hard time with park officials.

“I was dealing with a barrage of ideas coming out of the administration,” he said. [former President] The face of Ronald Reagan in front of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Norton then banned the park rangers from speaking to the school group. They saw education as a “mission creep.” There were members of Congress proposing a park closure committee, arguing that a park without a certain number of visitors really didn’t deserve to exist. There have also been attempts to make it a ward. “

Norton disputed some of Jarvis’ claims, saying he had never heard of anyone suggesting putting Reagan’s face on El Capitan, and that park rangers were banned from speaking to school groups. said never.

“There was no such ban,” said Norton. “As I recall, the NPS was understaffed and he at the park said one might have to stop off-site lectures to school classes. I said that formal work is a higher priority.”

She says funding debates arose among the Home Office when the BLM claimed it earned much less than the NPS.

“I don’t remember any specific conversations I had with Jon Jarvis, nor if I ever had the chance to speak with him afterwards,” Norton said. “He was one of his 77,000 employees at Interiors, so it’s not like I was avoiding him.”

“Scary, isn’t it?”

President Barack Obama signs the Fort Monroe National Monument Declaration.
President Barack Obama signs a proclamation designating Fort Monroe National Monument in Hampton, Virginia, November 1, 2011. The fort was used by Dutch settlers to bring slaves to the colony in 1619 and during the Civil War. War as a refuge for runaway slaves. | | Kevin Deitch Poole/Getty Images

As Director of Parks Services, Jarvis scored one of his greatest achievements in focusing the agency on climate change, thanks to the work done by the now dormant NPS Advisory Board.

Jarvis signed an order — Director’s Order 100 — that all park managers must consider the impact of climate change in their decision-making. Additionally, all park managers were required to demonstrate a basic level of scientific literacy before being hired.

Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke quickly scrapped the policy in 2017 before it yielded results, prompting nine members of the NPS Advisory Board to resign in protest (green wireJanuary 17, 2018).

Jarvis called Trump’s four years as president “a very dark period for the environment” and for the Parks Service, which has been forced to operate without a permanent director all the way through.

Bernhardt, who served as deputy secretary under Zinke before becoming secretary himself, countered that while Jarvis and the Obama administration allowed the parks service’s delayed maintenance backlog to worsen, the Trump administration in 2020 He had Congress pass the landmark America’s Outdoors Act, a law he called “the single greatest committed funding commitment” in generations.

“Except for the Trump administration, it hasn’t happened at any time,” Bernhardt said.

Bernhardt also said Jarvis was “unreliable,” citing a report from the Home Office Inspectorate that accused Jarvis of not consulting the ministry’s ethics office before publishing the book in 2015. by judgment. “

Under Trump, the Parks Service relied on four alternate directors, but Jarvis said the Smithsonian Institution was far superior, with Ronnie Bunch III named as its secretary. . Bunch, who previously served as director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, was elected to the position by the Smithsonian Board of Governors rather than by the president.

In the book, the Jarvises argue that things would change drastically if the Smithsonian Institution was treated like the Park Service and subjected to a “political purge of the Supreme Leader” each time a new president was elected. ing.

Near the end of the book, a long story evokes the gist of what happens.

“Directors of the Career Museum are randomly shuffled to see who will retire, and scientists are intimidated into silence if they write or talk about something the new leader doesn’t like or believe. “Exhibits in natural history museums that present information about climate change, extinction, or evolution will be covered up or removed ‘for alterations.’ At the Museum of African American History and Culture, a civil rights exhibit showing fire hoses and attack dogs being unleashed on peaceful citizens would proclaim “there were good people on both sides.” A plan will be developed and televised to hand over to the private sector, and amusement park executives will be invited to propose ways to monetize the facility, including admission fees, private rentals, sale of relics, and naming rights. And the Air and Space Museum will have a new exhibit showing “alternative facts” about the 1969 moon landing. “

“Scary, isn’t it?” Jarvis asks. “This is the situation the National Park Service faces every four to eight years of his life.”

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