Read an Excerpt from “National Parks Forever” by Jonathan B. Jarvis and T. Destry Jarvis
The US National Parks, what Wallace Stegner called America’s “best idea,” are under siege. Written by the Jarvis brothers—Jonathan, a former ranger, biologist, and National Park Service (NPS) director appointed by the Obama administration, and Destry, an advocate, policy analyst, and conservationist—National Parks Forever is both a unique, first-person history of the NPS and a stirring argument for its future. It reveals how politics often prevent science from being applied in park management; how fighting for resources between peer institutions, such as the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, harms all; how the parks are not allowed to manage their own commercial endeavors to optimize conservation, protection, and profit; and how political appointees and congressional interference can even threaten the parks’ existence. Looking across decades of partisan infighting with a clear gaze, the Jarvis brothers make a compelling proposal: that it is time for NPS to be removed from the Department of the Interior, giving NPS leaders the independence to manage park resources and plan our parks’ priorities for the future.
Read on for an excerpt from the introduction of National Parks Forever: Fifty Years of Fighting and a Case for Independence.
Over its first half-century, 1916–1972, and under ten presidents, the NPS was managed under seven successive professional directors who ably guided the growth and management of the national park system, largely free from day-by-day political micromanagement. Their management did not diverge from the statutory mission of the agency, to preserve the parks “unimpaired for enjoyment of future generations.” In those decades, it was a relatively rare thing for the Secretary of the Interior to overrule or intervene in NPS management. Nor were these directors expected to resign whenever a new administration took office. Certainly, there were far fewer political appointees throughout the department than there are today, and the NPS director had a direct path to the Secretary. By 2020, however, there were at least nine successive layers for review and approval by political appointees who stood between the NPS director’s proposed policy actions, staffing needs, and budget priorities and their implementation.
Much of the time and creative energy of those seven directors in the National Park Service’s first fifty years were devoted to appropriately enlarging and diversifying the composition of the system. In contrast, the service’s second half-century, the period of our active engagement, has included wide and divergent policy swings, sharply contrasting between Republican and Democratic administrations. Budget and staffing levels, the role of science to inform decisions, the composition of the system to better reflect the face of America, fights over inappropriate forms of recreation use, wildlife preservation versus hunting, and many more issues have been casualties of these swings. The energy we spent internally and externally during these “hostile” administrations was used defending the basic premise of the agency, its mission, its employees, and its budget.
President Nixon personally fired the career NPS Director George Hartzog on December 31, 1972, and appointed Ron Walker, an advance man from his reelection campaign, who became the first purely political appointee to be NPS director. From that point forward, the job of NPS director became more of a revolving door and far more politically charged. Each succeeding president chose the director to fit that administration’s policy priorities and/or to stifle any dissent from within the NPS. The ability of the NPS director to speak to Congress on his/her professional views ended with George Hartzog’s firing.
Over its second half-century, since 1972, the NPS has had eleven directors, five of whom did not come from within the NPS career service. In 1998 (while Destry was serving as assistant director of the NPS for Legislative Affairs), Congress enacted a new law requiring Senate confirmation of the NPS director, including a requirement that any nominee have prior qualifying park management experience. We hoped this would assure adherence to the NPS mission by future directors. Even this attempt at having professional leadership has been thwarted, most recently, and likely illegally, by President Trump, who did not appoint a director for four years. He said he liked “acting directors” because they were easier to fire.
Ever since the 1970s, with one or two notable exceptions such as President Nixon’s first four years and George W. Bush’s Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne, Republican presidents and Republican-majority Congresses have consistently fostered public land laws and administrative actions that have been the antithesis of sound conservation policies. They have sought federal land disposal through transfers to states or privatization through approving private mining claims to public lands; awarded long-term mineral leases at below-market prices; opposed federal land acquisitions; sold underpriced grazing permits and timber sales contracts; and have regularly opposed new natural area parks, wildlife refuges, and wilderness designations on federal lands. They have sought (but failed to achieve) authorization of a “park closing commission” to eliminate less-visited units of the system. They have wielded sharp budget cuts in presidents’ annual budget requests to Congress for the NPS, which are often approved by Republican-majority Congresses. Such budget cuts, accompanied by staff reductions mandated by the White House Office of Management and Budget, then allow them to argue that the agencies cannot “take care of what they have” as further justification for opposing new additions to the system, no matter how deserving.
Over the same fifty years, however, Democratic presidents and Democrat-majority Congresses have routinely supported significant expansion of the national park system through both designation of new units and land acquisition to expand existing units; have sought new laws and policies that have improved air and water quality; and have taken numerous site-specific actions at the behest of the NPS to improve the parks. These include stopping mining in numerous parks, reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone, supporting restoration of the Everglades, seeking and winning ecological/watershed boundaries for Alaskan parks, and broadening the system to more fully represent the diversity of America.
The Democrats have not, however, been willing to fully fund the NPS at the level necessary to sustain these most important natural and cultural places in perpetuity for the enjoyment of future generations. As just one bureau within the Department of the Interior, the NPS must compete for budget against all DOI agencies, such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and must stay within limits imposed by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). OMB gives the department a firm maximum on the amount that it can request in the budget each year, even before the department can calculate its needs. All DOI agency budget requests must fit under the OMB cap. The NPS director is on the horns of a dilemma, advocating for increases in park budgets knowing it will mean less for Native American schools or the protection of endangered species.
One of the most egregious examples of overly politicizing the NPS occurred during the four years under President Trump. His DOI appointees feared the agency’s popularity and influence, and rejected the NPS preservation mission. As a means to circumvent the Senate requirements, and to tightly control NPS policy, the president and DOI Secretaries Ryan Zinke and David Bernhardt caused the NPS to function (poorly) without a Senate-confirmed director for the only time in its history. Two of the four “acting” directors, both long-time political appointees who could not meet the statutory qualification requirements, controlled the agency at different times in Trump’s four-year term. The Trump appointees knew that the NPS had too much public support for them to outright dismantle the agency, but they could keep it leaderless and adrift.
The places and stories of America in the care of the National Park Service are too important to the nation, to our high ideals, and to future generations to be subject to the whipsaw of Washington’s politics. We’ve chosen to make our case using a unique approach that combines our personal experiences with policy analysis. The book is both a double memoir, which (we hope) gives the story life, but also a serious proposal for reform, which we believe is absolutely necessary if the national park system is to thrive in an uncertain future.
Jonathan B. Jarvis was the eighteenth director of the National Park Service, serving from 2009 to 2017. He served for forty years with the NPS as a ranger, biologist, and park superintendent in eight national parks. He is coauthor of The Future of Conservation in America, also published by the University of Chicago Press. T. Destry Jarvis has had leadership roles at the National Parks Conservation Association, Student Conservation Association, National Park Service, and National Recreation & Parks Association. Currently, he is vice president of US/ICOMOS, the US National Committee for the International Council on Monuments and Sites, better known as the World Heritage Program.