NPS Director Jon Jarvis on shutdown rage and funding needs for the service


National Parks Service Director Jon Jarvis had not come to Rubén Salazar Park in East Los Angeles on October 24 to talk about government shutdowns, Tea Partiers in Congress or the privatization of public lands. He had come instead to promote the park service’s American Latino Heritage initiative, a prototype of a new kind of NPS-led historical investigation, involving interpretative sites and commissioned scholarly studies. His agenda was historic, not political.

But Jarvis had also just emerged a week earlier from a scorching five-hour hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, whose members accused him of everything from intentionally torturing National Park visitors to overvaluing the bathroom needs of Occupy protestors while dishonoring America's veterans. The Committee's leader, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., even suggested it was time to push the 60-year-old park service veteran out on the ice, so damaging was he to the good of the nation.

And so when I, along with two other local reporters, sat down with him during the NPS-led Latino Legacy Forum, we all had to ask: What was it like?

National Parks Service Director Jon Jarvis recently spoke with High Country News contributing editor Judith Lewis Mernit.

"The hearing was . . . interesting," said Jarvis, who these days sports a silvery mustache, giving him the folksy look of a middle-aged Sundance Kid. "It was indicative of the polarization that's going on, unfortunately, in this country." Beyond Congress, though, the controversy was bracing, maybe even encouraging. "I'm very philosophical about these things," he said. "During the government shutdown there was a lot of civil disobedience. There was a lot of protest. And all of it was all peaceful and relatively respectful. I think we need to be proud of that.

“People were expressing their frustration with the shutdown in the places that represent the core values of the country, the history of the country,” Jarvis continued. “Where better to express that and exercise their first amendment rights than in a venue that was set aside to represent the sacrifices of our veterans, and Lincoln and Jefferson and Washington and others? That’s who we are. We provide those places so people can express that.”

Nor was Jarvis surprised by the “angst” that came from Westerners whose state legislators lobby against public lands. “We normally host 700,000 people per day in October,” he pointed out. “It’s an incredibly strong period for our guides and outfitters, our hotels and restaurants in the gateway communities.” The agreements drawn up with states like Colorado, Arizona and Utah to keep parks open at state expense drew "a very strong line," he said, about who actually runs the nation's parks. And despite mutterings about state takeovers of public lands, "the people in those states actually like national park management," Jarvis insisted. "It's part of the tourism infrastructure of the country. Part of the draw, especially in the international draw, is that these are national parks. And nobody can run the national parks except the National Park Service."

Now, Jarvis said, he's moving forward, using the furor-like wind at his back to propel the agency toward its next milestone: The National Park Service has a centennial coming up. (“I believe it’s now “1,037 days away,” Jarvis said. “But who’s counting?”) It's a birthday Jarvis intends to fully exploit — to remind the world that “we created this idea,” and to remind the country what this idea is: Not just setting aside large, beautiful parcels of land for people to come and look at, but “telling the story of this country.

“What I’m trying to do,” Jarvis said, “is break through the public perception that all the park service does is manage five big Western parks. We have more historical parks than we have big natural parks in our inventory.  We have a whole programmatic side to our house that has nothing to do with national parks themselves. We do billions of dollars of historical preservation tax credit with the IRS in this country every year.

“We do all this kind of stuff,” Jarvis said, “that nobody every knows about.”

Yet it's exactly that kind of stuff that's getting a new assault from Congress. On Tuesday, Oct. 29, Senator Tom Coburn, R.-Okla., released a 208-report called “Parked!” — an ostensible exposé of NPS waste, including, among other things, investing too much in the “the 70 national park units that attract fewer than 100 daily visitors” while “national treasures” fall into decay.

The reality, of course, is that every year Congress appropriates fewer funds for the park system; last year’s budget was $180 million less than the year before, and, as even Coburn notes, the agency needs $12 billion just to get up to date on maintenance tasks at its 400-plus park units. Though Coburn's report was still five days away, Jarvis seemed to know it was coming.

“We occasionally get criticism about parks that don’t generate enough income or have low visitation,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean they’re not of value in telling the story of this country.” He’s disappointed that, during the shutdown, “nobody called me to open the Frederick Douglass Park, or the Women’s Rights exhibit in Seneca, New York.

"Not all (park units) are economic engines," he said. "And I never want to say,  ‘If it can make money, it should be opened.’ We never want to go down that path.”

Given that House Republicans' renewed interest in the National Park Service has little do to with the actual complexities of operating a vast network of historical sites and public lands, Jarvis knows he’ll have to look for alternative funding to support that part of the NPS mission.  “We’re a perpetuity organization on an annual appropriation,” he said. “We need some large non-appropriated endowment that gets us through this whipsaw process of appropriations.” So “the future of the financial house of the NPS,” then, includes not just Congressional appropriations and user fees, but continued support from private philanthropists. Jarvis has no worries that such contributions will compromise the agency’s mission.

“The Golden Gate Conversancy raises an equivalent to the park budget every year,” he said. “And I haven’t seen anyone renaming the Golden Gate Bridge." At least not yet.

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributing editor of High Country News. She Tweets @judlew.

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