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 High Country 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 High Country News. She writes from Durango, Colorado.

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES DIRECTOR
    Solar Energy International (SEI) is a 501(c)3 non-profit education organization with a mission to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy to empower...
  • TRAINING MANAGER
    This is a full-time position based out of our Paonia office. This position is responsible for organizing all of Solar Energy International's renewable energy trainings....
  • RANCH HAND & HOUSING OPPORTUNITY IN DURANGO, CO
    Remodeled home with the opportunity to work off part of rent. Renter(s) must be available to help with lifting, irrigation & outdoor chores, 15-40 hrs...
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....