National Park Service centennial shares limelight with scandals

Chief Jon Jarvis faces ethical challenges and questions about the agency’s approach to sexual harassment.

 

Just weeks before the 2012 elections, National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis settled into a cabin on Grand Canyon’s North Rim to write a speech for a conference for businesses that serve national parks. In contrast to politicians’ divisive rhetoric, he highlighted dozens of parks and explained how each was preserved because it embodied a value Americans share — such as freedom, courage, honesty, the pioneer spirit and conservation. The speech was a hit, so he kept giving it over the years. The more than 400 units in the National Park System, he said in a recent version, are a “mosaic of the things we value most about ourselves, where our principles forged in the hottest fires are preserved so that future generations understand from where we came.”

Jarvis decided to turn the speech into a book to sell during 2016, the national parks’ centennial, believing his positive message could help the parks better resonate with increasingly diverse future generations. But that’s where his trouble started. He assumed the book wouldn’t be approved through official channels in time, so he quietly found his own publisher, a Park Service concessioner. His boss, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, learned about the unauthorized book only when he sent her a copy of Guidebook to American Values and our National Parks.

That kicked off an investigation by Interior’s Office of Inspector General, or OIG. In February, Jarvis was reprimanded for unacceptable behavior and ethics violations relating to the publication. The incident has resurrected earlier criticism of Jarvis’ leadership of the agency he has headed for nearly seven years.

National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis.
Evan Vucci/AP

Another, unrelated OIG investigation, released in January, revealed a long-term pattern of sexual harassment and misconduct at the Grand Canyon, the very park where Jarvis wrote the original speech that inspired his book. The scandals have tarnished both the message that Jarvis wants to highlight for the parks’ 100th birthday and the conclusion to his own 40-year career at the agency. (Jarvis plans to retire at the end of the Obama administration.)

“These incidents have cast the agency in a negative light at a time when we should be celebrating what Wallace Stegner told us was the best idea we ever had,” says Mark Squillace, a professor at University of Colorado Law School, who twice worked in the Interior Department’s solicitor’s office.

During a recent interview in Washington, D.C., Jarvis said he was unaware of persistent sexual harassment by Colorado River boatmen until 2014, when 13 women employees sent a letter to Jewell detailing numerous incidents and supervisors’ failure to respond. At the urging of Congress, Jarvis now plans to survey his entire staff about whether other parks have similar problems; he’s also asked the agency’s more than 20,000 employees to report any harassment. Rep. Nikki Tsongas, D-Mass., gives Jarvis credit for being open to Congress’ suggestion: “These closed environments with their own internal cultures have great difficulties wrestling with these issues.”

As chief, Jarvis has championed the parks and their natural resources. He emphasized the importance of climate change science in both park management and visitor education; instituted a winter-use plan in Yellowstone after 15 years of discord over snowmobiles; and significantly increased fundraising through the National Park Foundation, the parks’ official charity arm.

But critics, including the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, charge that both OIG reports reflect a broader ethics problem during Jarvis’ tenure. For example, he promoted an agency official with past ethics violations to a top position. And in 2011, Jarvis stalled a ban on the sale of plastic water bottles at the Grand Canyon after Coca-Cola, a major parks donor, opposed it. “He’s ethically challenged. ... That’s why it’s ironic that he writes a book about American values,” says Frank Buono, a retired park manager and chairman of PEER’s board.

“I’ve gotten my ass in trouble many, many, many times in the Park Service by ... not necessarily getting permission.”

Jarvis says he takes the attacks with a “grain of salt.” “I’ve always held people accountable regardless of who they are. But I also treat people fairly,” he says. He stresses that he won’t profit from his book; all royalties go to the National Park Foundation. He says he didn’t seek prior approval because he wanted editorial control. “This is a story I wanted to tell, and I’d been telling, but anytime you put pen to paper it goes though a lot of editorial review,” Jarvis says. He told the OIG that he would probably make the same decision again: “I’ve gotten my ass in trouble many, many, many times in the Park Service by ... not necessarily getting permission,” according to the report. In addition to the reprimand, Jarvis will no longer supervise the agency’s ethics’ program, and must attend monthly ethics training.

Jarvis’ apparent disregard for the rules is particularly troubling given his position as an agency head, say government ethics experts. “It’s these types of incidences that give people the feeling of distrust in government and senior leaders — when they act inappropriately, and act as if laws and rules that apply to other public servants don’t apply to them,” says Scott Amey, general counsel of the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group.

Jarvis admits that his book “caused some consternation,” adding, “I regret the results of the investigation and apologized for it to the leadership of the department.”

But he believes it was worth the risk because its message that the parks embody the values that Americans share “could be a very, very powerful tool to not only connect to the next generation but to resonate across political spectrums” and inspire people to preserve the parks for the future.

The people who manage the national parks may “mess up,” as Jarvis says. But the parks themselves are no less invaluable for those human failings.

Correspondent Elizabeth Shogren writes HCN’s DC Dispatches from Washington.

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