Why the National Park advisory board imploded

An interview with board chairman Tony Knowles.

 

On Jan. 15, nine of 12 members of the National Park System Advisory Board sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announcing their resignation, effectively dissolving the board.

It was an act of protest against an administration with little appetite for the methodical approach the board has brought to national park management for decades. And it leaves the National Park Service without a means to establish new historic or natural landmarks, since federal law requires the advisory board to sign off on such designations. More significantly, perhaps, it’s another crack in the foundation of the Interior Department, which manages 500 million acres of public land and is already rattled by the prospect of some 4,000 job cuts.

Since 1935, the nonpartisan experts on the National Park System Advisory Board have consulted with the Park Service on its policies and recommended new park units. Lady Bird Johnson served on the board, as did Western writer Wallace Stegner and numerous anthropologists, archaeologists, biologists, architects and social scientists. In recent years, the board has taken a special interest in protecting sites that are of value to Asian-American, African-American, Latino and LGBT communities, and it’s advised the Park Service on management strategies to deal with the impacts of climate change.

Former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles, center, chaired the board that advises the U.S. Interior Department on national parks. He and nine others on the 12-member board recently resigned, saying their requests to meet, as prescribed in law, have been disregarded.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo

When Zinke took office last spring, board members hoped to talk with him about these efforts. But the secretary seemed uninterested — perhaps not surprising, given that a leaked document outlining his department’s priorities scrubbed all mentions of climate change and diversity. In May, Zinke suspended the advisory board, along with some 200 other independent committees that offered management expertise to individual parks or regions. With few options to make their voices heard, advisory board members decided to resign en masse.

Interior Department spokeswoman Heather Swift did not respond to a request for comment, but told the conservative Washington Examiner that the department “welcomes” the resignations of members who she claims ignored sexual harassment issues in the Park Service.

Former Alaska governor and advisory board chairman Tony Knowles says sexual harassment didn’t fall under the board’s purview. He also talked with NewTowncarShare News about why he quit and what the board’s dissolution means for the national park system. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

HCN: Did you get the sense that until this year, the recommendations of the board were heeded, or at least heard?

Tony Knowles: Yes, absolutely. Over the past 7 years, we really made a difference in the direction of the National Park Service. There was a great sense of collaboration. Our board members worked with more than 160 outside experts to come up with recommendations, including to approve 130 new historical landmarks. We went over recommendations carefully with former director Jon Jarvis, and often they became part of Park Service policy.

HCN: How did that change in the past year?

TK: At the beginning, we were told that all of the advisory boards were suspended and we’d be notified when it would become part of the agenda to reinstate them. So we waited one, two, three, four months. There was no contract (to allow us to continue our work), no understanding of when a Park Service director would be appointed. In early October, I wrote a letter to Secretary Zinke explaining how the board wanted to meet to inform the new administration of what we envisioned to build a better park system in the 21st century, and to hear what their vision was. We got no answer. I pestered and pestered, and in mid-November got a one-sentence email from someone saying the secretary was very busy. That’s when we realized they were just running out the clock until our terms expired in May.

HCN: Why did you decide to resign rather than try to influence the direction of the agency from within?

TK: When you’re on permanent hold, at some time you’ve gotta hang up. There’s no one to talk to but yourselves. By nine of us resigning, we felt we’d be able to get the microphone briefly to at least talk to the American people about climate change, about preserving the natural diversity of wildlife, about making sure underrepresented minorities not only come to the parks but are employees there. All these things we think are important. We may be disappointed with the Department of the Interior, but we are not discouraged. Every single one of us will continue the fight to promote and protect our public lands.

HCN: Given that your action is part of a larger pattern of resignations and layoffs at the Park Service, are you concerned about the agency’s future?

TK: Of course we’re concerned. The secretary proposed a 13 percent budget reduction, which would all come out of personnel, then claimed he’s going to rebuild infrastructure by raising park entry fees. If we’re trying to increase the number of people from lower-income groups who want to come to our parks, that’s counter-productive. I also get worried when I think about the unprecedented reduction of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah. We think those could be a preview of coming attractions for the National Park Service.

Krista Langlois is a correspondent with NewTowncarShare News. She writes from Durango, Colorado.

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) seeks a director to lead a nationwide program focused on the protection of U.S. national parks from energy development...
  • Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • Crested Butte Land Trust seeks a development director to lead its fundraising efforts. Remote and unspoiled, Crested Butte is located in one of the Rockies...
  • 5-Acre Home Site, Great Views with Spectacular Sunsets From a South Facing Home Site. Excellent for Passive Solar Design. Covenants, No HOA. Keller Williams Co....
  • 3 bed/2 bath, detached strawbale building. 11.7 acres, barn, corrals, fenced. Wells, solar panels, greenhouses. Paved access. 575-535-2568.
  • WildEarth Guardians seeks two public interest-focused staff attorneys with a minimum of 5 years experience to join our legal team. Experience with at least some...
  • The New Mexico Wildlife Federation is seeking an Executive Director, a visionary leader who is passionate about public lands, dedicated to executing an innovative strategic...
  • The Aravaipa Land Steward coordinates preserve stewardship work and general operations including maintenance and general preserve management. Implements preserve management plans, which may include species...
  • seeks a talented and dynamic development professional, with a passion for protecting our natural environment, to lead our development and fundraising team.
  • The Native American Fish and Wildlife Society seeks an Executive Director in Denver, CO to serve as the Chief Administrator of the national Native American...
  • NewTowncarShare News seeks a development assistant to assist with fundraising campaigns. HCN is an award-winning, national news magazine. Strong candidates will have experience administering...
  • Energiekontor US seeks experienced local candidate, must reside in western South Dakota. Send resume and cover letter to: [email protected]
  • Seeking passionate full-time Executive to lead the oldest non-profit organization in Idaho. Must have knowledge of environmental issues, excellent organizational, verbal presentation and written skills,...
  • Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • 4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • 5 acres, well. Abuts Carson NF; hike fish ski; deer turkey elk.
  • 9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.