Interview: Former National Park Service director on the destructive decision to keep parks open during shutdown

Jan 14, 2019

By Center for Western Priorities

Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s “agenda is about energy and development and essentially a transfer of the public estate to private hands.”

Joshua Tree National Park | National Parks Conservation Association

Former National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis recently spoke with Aaron Weiss on the Center for Western Priorities’ Go West, Young Podcast. In the interview, Jarvis dives into the attempts by this administration to “take the park service apart,” provides his take on Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, and offers a long term perspective of the mission of our national parks.

The following has been edited for clarity:

Aaron Weiss, Center for Western Priorities: What’s your take on the shutdown, and what’s happening at the park service right now?

Jonathan Jarvis, Former National Park Service Director: Well, without attribution, I’ve heard from good sources inside the park service that they’re calling this the “shitdown,” rather than the shutdown. It’s such a mess with the parks being still open, but no staff. It’s a significant departure from what we did in 2013 with the closure of the parks when Congress did not pass appropriations.

Aaron: Was there talk back then of keeping the parks open, and what could that have looked like?

Jon: We looked back at when the shutdown was looming in the late summer of 2013, and it began to look like we were going into a shutdown. Historically, there was a shutdown in 1995 when President Clinton and Newt Gingrich were fighting it out and the government shutdown. The parks at that time also closed across the system, so there was already a significant precedent.

In 2013, I had a team at the Department of Interior. We were working with Secretary Sally Jewell, who had recently come on as the new secretary for the second term of the Obama administration. And we did sit around the table and have lots of deliberations about what to do. We made the decision that the right thing to do, the legal thing to do, the thing that would ensure that we were meeting our mandate of protecting our national parks unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations and providing for public safety in that the vast majority of our employees were going to be furloughed, was to close the parks. Now, we recognized there would be a significant impact to gateway communities and to our business partnerships and to the visitors that were coming to experience the parks. This was October— fall colors in New England and it was Columbus day weekend and it was a very high visitation period. A little different situation than now. We knew there were going to be consequences, but we felt that the absolute right thing to do for the resources and for the visitors was to close the parks down entirely for the shutdown and deal with that until Congress would finally pass an appropriations bill.

Aaron: Was that a political decision? Was there pressure from the White House or anywhere else to make the shutdown more painful in order to make the Republicans own it?

Jon: Absolutely not. The politics of it did not enter into the discussion whatsoever. And frankly, the White House wasn’t involved in the decisions. They were informed. This was a decision that we made at the Department of Interior in consultation with our solicitors, but there were no political overtones to this. There were political consequences of course, but it was not designed in any way shape or form to assert a political agenda. It was done for the protection of the parks and the protection of the public.

Aaron: When you look at that decision versus where the parks are now, were the worst case scenarios that you’d laid out then coming to fruition now?

Jon: Yes, absolutely. We certainly worried that if we had left the parks open, that there would be these kinds of consequences. The thing that a lot of people don’t really understand about national parks, is that first of all, the park service is an operational agency. The money that Congress appropriates goes directly out to the field, and it’s a fairly small overhead organization‚ there are small regional offices and a small office in Washington. The vast majority of the appropriation goes to the field. And that pays the salaries of rangers, maintenance employees, interpreters, the utility bills, and it hauls the trash, cleans the toilets, pays for rescues, and the equipment necessary so that the public‚ the 300 million plus visitors that come each year can have a safe and memorable and enjoyable experience and do so in such a manner so the resources are not harmed. That is the mission of the park service. And these are not just open air resources. They are highly sensitive. They are the best places in the nation, and they require a professional staff in order to ensure they are protected and the public is also protected.

When you go to a national park, the first person you see is the person at the gate. That person greets you and hands you a packet of information that tells you where the trails are open, and where there are hazardous conditions, and where there may be bear activity, and what the weather is going to be like that day, and what you should be prepared for. That’s not happening right now. You take away all of that, all of that staffing, and you get exactly what we are seeing today. Trash piling up, people hiking off the trail, off-road vehicle use, metal detecting in civil war battlefields, people taking their dogs, and using drones. This is not everybody. I would suggest the vast majority of the public are respectful and well behaved. There’s always going to be a percentage that’s going to take advantage of this situation or do it out of sheer lack of knowledge. And that’s going to have some long term consequences to the parks.

Aaron: We will get back to the consequences and the cleanup. But since we are talking about funding and this notion of using entrance fees, only 117 of the more than 400 park units collect entrance fees. How big are these entrance fee funds? What difference could they potentially make? Do you agree with Betty McCollum’s assessment that this is probably an illegal move by Acting Secretary Bernhardt?

Jon: Let me explain a little of the basics of the fee programs. As you said, about 117 parks collect fees. There are also camping fees and there are special use fees that are collected. Roughly $220 million a year are collected across the system. Under the current law that allows the park service to collect fees, 80 percent of the collected fees are retained at the collecting park. And 20 percent of the collected fees are pooled and brought back to Washington and used in the non-collecting parks‚ the parks that don’t collect fees for a variety of reasons. Some parks have too many entrances or visitation is so low that it’s not worth it to staff people to collect the fees. And the funds are what we call “know your funds,” so they are non-appropriated funds that reside in a treasury fund that are available until expended. And under the law that was passed, they can only be used for certain things. Our legal opinion that we have always operated under was that they are for enhancement of the visitor experience or the resource or the facilities, not for operations. The regular annual appropriation was for basic operations, and the fee program is to improve the facility and experience for the public. Part of it is to ensure that the public feels good about paying a fee on top of paying their taxes for the national parks. We demonstrate through signage and information that say “ your fee dollars at work,” and it has improved this trail or fixed this exhibit or helped some area get re-vegetated. We made it a priority that 60 percent of the fee revenue was being used on our maintenance backlog.

Let me put this all into perspective. The operating budget of the National Park Service annually is right around $3 billion. And so you’re talking about roughly $200 million in entrance fees. I don’t know what’s in the current account because some of it is obligated. That money is supposed to be used, and I’m sure it’s scheduled and planned for projects. It’s not like it’s a slush fund account. It is planned out years in advance for projects like creating accessibility to a trail for folks that have disabilities or putting in braille under exhibits or fixing a roof on an older building. And now what they’ve told the parks to do is to spend that money down to zero.

Here’s the important point. It’s a double hit because during this period we are also not collecting entrance fees. If the parks were open, we would be collecting somewhere around $400,000 a day. So you’re not only not collecting into the fee account, you’re eating your seed corn. You’re burning through a fiscal capacity that should be utilized to fix the parks after they reopen. They will be needing these funds, and yet, they will wind up using them up. And they will also be used disproportionately because 80 percent will remain at the fee collecting park and only 20 percent is available for the non-fee collecting parks. So it’s going to be even more chaos about which parks have reopened with fee money and which ones have not.

Aaron: Robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Jon: In terms of the legality, I’m not a lawyer so I’m not going to comment on if it’s legal or not. I would say that when we were doing it, we looked at fees, and we said that’s not appropriate and it’s not really legal either. Essentially, in our view, it was a violation of both the intent of the fee legislation and appropriation law.

Aaron: From your understanding talking to folks‚ and obviously I’m not expecting you to name names here‚ what will the cleanup process look like in some of these parks, and do we even have a sense of how bad the damage is going to be? Is this going to be weeks of clean up, or is it going to be months or years worth of damage?

Jon: Well it depends on what we’re talking about. In terms of trash and toilets, we are talking a couple of weeks to gather it all up. This is not a municipal clean up, this is a park. Wildlife will have gotten into it and spread it around, there is a concern about creating habituated wildlife like bears that have now suddenly have access to trash and human food. That can have all kinds of cascading effects that could take a significant amount of time. If there are people driving off the road or trampling resources‚ letting their dogs run free or exposing wildlife to potential diseases‚ those could have potential long term effects that could take a long time to resolve.

Aaron: This is our first show since David Bernhardt became acting secretary. Since you were a park superintendent and a regional director prior to becoming park service director, you were a civil servant the last time David Bernhardt was at Interior that time as the solicitor. Did you ever cross paths with him during your time there?

Jon: Yes. a couple times.

Aaron: What was your take?

Jon: Mr. Bernhardt is a very smart, accomplished, and intentional individual whose agenda is about energy and development and essentially a transfer of the public estate to private hands. He believes that very very deeply, and that’s the mission he carries into the Department of Interior.

Aaron: So you’ve served under Republican and Democratic administrations. One of the things I keep trying to figure out under the Trump administration, and previously with Ryan Zinke as secretary, is are things really that different this time around compared to the George W. Bush administration or the Reagan administration going as far back as James Watt? Are things actually different this time around?

Jon: I think they are different. And there has definitely been a trend. What’s really interesting to me, like you said, I’ve served for 40 years in the National Park Service. I’ve served under a lot of presidents and a lot of secretaries and a lot of directors. There has definitely been a change in the Republican party in terms of their view of conservation, of parks, and of public lands. There were many really wonderful members of Congress in the Republican party‚ committee chairmen in the Senate and the House and in the political appointments in the Department of Interior‚ that have been great supporters of conservation. They always take a different tact about it. We used to say that when the Republicans came in it was more about bricks and mortar‚ more focused on facilities‚ and then when the Democrats would come in, it was more about conservation and about public access. But there was never really the huge pendulum swings we are seeing now. I think you saw it briefly with Jim Watt, who flamed out fairly quickly.

But in the George W. Bush administration, there was a new group that came in who really saw the public lands as something that should be privatized something that should be converted into development. They saw the park service as a bit of a thorn in their side. Here was a popular agency with a conservation mission that could rally a constituency around an issue, and they learned fairly quickly that you couldn’t really dismantle the national park service. You could sort of ignore them and push them aside and not invite them to the meetings, but they didn’t really go after the service. And I think in this crowd that has come in, some of them came from that past administration, like Bernhardt. I think they decided they are going to take the park service apart.And clearly, they are already doing that with the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service. And they’d already sort of done that with the Forest Service, which is extraordinarily sad and disconcerting. Our sister agencies do not have those core constituencies that the park service has or the high visibility. They are easier to manipulate. They’ve rescinded our Director’s Order 100. Now you see them forcing the parks to use fees to operate. I think it’s all part of a larger strategy that’s deeply concerning.

Aaron: That Director’s Order 100 was the climate change order, correct?

Jon: Correct.

Aaron: So Elizabeth Shogren with Reveal and the Center for Investigative Reporting has done some stellar reporting on attempts by this administration to interfere with studies on climate change affecting national parks. Do you think government scientists need more protection from political interference? Is that something you’d like to see the incoming Congress take on?

Jon: Absolutely, yes. Our government scientists and not just in the park service provide really really vital work that often is not very flashy. They are out there every day helping us understand the environment, our water year, the drought index, what’s going on with wildlife diseases, and how the parks are faring in terms of its overall environment. The future of these places has got to be based on good science and not science that’s driven by some sort of political agenda. And clearly, this particular administration is an anti-science organization‚ they are suppressing science. They are demanding that scientific reports be edited and rewritten to take out words like “anthropogenic.” Elizabeth brought out a lot of that in her really great reporting. They’re forcing good scientists to not publish or not participate in conferences where they would be sharing this information. And I think it’s going to have long term consequences. It causes the young scientist to not want to work for the government, and I think that’s tragic as well.

Aaron: You mentioned that park service employees are referring to this as the “shitdown.” You’re obviously still in touch with folks in the service. What’s morale like these days, and for folks inside the park service who are listening to this looking to you perhaps for guidance or a message, do you have a message to them right now?

Jon: Well, I think that they need to remember that the American people do deeply appreciate their public service. I think that’s why you’re seeing this kind of coverage that you’re’ providing‚ from The Washington Post and The Guardian and The London Times. There are millions and millions of people out there that know me. At the University, I just had lunch with a group of folks, and we spent the whole lunch talking about this situation. They deeply, deeply love the national parks. I even got a note from a ranger in Scotland that I know that was deeply concerned with what’s going on over here. So I think that our employees need to know that there are still a lot of people that are rooting for them and are concerned about them and worried about them, and hope that this somehow will shake itself out soon, and the parks can get back to doing their good work.

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