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National Parks Forever: Fifty Years of Fighting and a Case for Independence

National Parks Forever: Fifty Years of Fighting and a case for Independence (book cover)

Jonathan B. Jarvis and T. Destry Jarvis, National Parks Forever: Fifty Years of Fighting and a Case for Independence. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2022.

Reviewed by John Miles

Advice to writers is to write what you know, and few know more about America’s recent national park history than the brothers Jarvis. Jon enjoyed a forty-year career with the National Park Service, rising through posts as ranger, biologist and resource management specialist, superintendent of eight national parks, regional director, and Director of the National Park Service from 2009 to 2017. Destry’s career involved leadership roles at the National Parks Conservation Association, Student Conservation Association, National Park Service, and National Parks and Recreation Association. Jon brings the perspective of a veteran National Park Service insider, and Destry’s decades of lobbying and political work on park issues from outside the park agency complements Jon’s and makes for a most insightful combination of perspectives.

Both men describe how, in its first fifty years, national parks were managed by the Park Service with relatively little political meddling and interference. There were politics, of course, but NPS leaders were professionals, and their expertise was rarely challenged by politicians. This ended when Director George Hartzog was fired during the Nixon administration, political appointees became agency directors, the Office of Management and Budget in 1970 began to govern park allocations and thus initiatives and programs, and bureaucracy in the Department of Interior metastasized. The authors write:

Today, based on the Nixon administration’s decision to increase the power of assistant secretaries, and thus political control, every major agency decision, including selecting park superintendents, must be reviewed and signed off on the assistant secretary level, prior to any contact with the Secretary. In fact, any NPS initiative or decision must now also be approved by ten people above the NPS director …. The NPS cannot possibly preserve, unimpaired, the varied natural, cultural, and recreation areas of the national park system for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations while being overruled, second-guessed, threatened, and/or ignored by purely partisan political appointees who control its every decision, personnel change, and budget request.

The solution to this mess, they advocate, is to take the National Park Service out of the Department of Interior and make it an independent agency like the Smithsonian Institution. This is the core argument of National Parks Forever.

The authors, both politically experienced and astute, make this recommendation knowing it is radical and faces many obstacles, but they think that, as Destry writes, every major initiative like the effort to protect park lands in Alaska takes long, sustained effort, “there will come a time when this idea works.” Both make compelling arguments for their proposal. When administrations change, they point out, as many as 100 political appointments are made in Interior, many, even most of whom, have little knowledge of national parks, their purposes, and management challenges. The Trump administration cleaned out the Senior Executive Service personnel, appointed only “acting” NPS directors who left the parks open during government shutdowns, much to the parks’ detriment, and regularly called park superintendents on the carpet for saying anything with which they disagreed. They cite the era of Secretary Watt, and attacks on management policies by political appointees Bill Horn during the Reagan administration and Paul Hoffman during the George W. Bush administration. Both men set out to essentially rewrite Management Policies, a set of policy guidelines used by all national park managers, especially superintendents, to deal with issues they face. They thought they knew what was best for the parks, discarding the expertise of generations of NPS leaders and injecting their ideologies into their revisions. Stories of how these political appointees damaging initiatives were squelched and the toll of doing so took on agency people are compelling and infuriating. As an independent agency, the Jarvis brothers argue, the political road would be smoother. There would be more continuity with less turnover above the agency as happens in Interior with every new administration, and fewer levels of oversight by political appointees.

Another point they emphasize is that national park management should be guided by science. They explain that most of the national park system was established primarily to protect scenery and provide recreational opportunity. Most park boundaries excepting the Everglades, the Alaska national parks established or enlarged by ANILCA, and a few others, were set with no scientific rationales. Science only weakly guided park management over national park history. Today parks are threatened by many forces beyond their boundaries, and a powerful set of scientific tools are available to guide decision-making. Yet, political forces have thwarted most efforts to increase the influence of science on management policy.

Jon Jarvis offers an example, only one of many instances of this in national park history. During his tenure as Director, recognizing the critical challenges to the parks of climate change among others, he mounted a campaign to insert more science into National Park Service practice. He recognized the need for new policy and asked the National Park System Advisory Board, assisted by a former director of the National Science Foundation, to answer three questions: “(1) What should be the goals of natural resource management in the national park system?  (2) What general policies for resource management are necessary to achieve these goals? And (3) what actions are required to implement these policies?” The Board’s twenty-three-page report, constrained to the same length as the original 1963 Leopold Report that had long guided NPS natural resource management policy, concluded that:

The overarching goal of NPS resource management policy should be to steward NPS resources for continuous change that is not yet fully understood, in order to preserve ecological integrity and cultural and historical authenticity, provide visitors with transformative experiences, and form the core of a national conservation land-and-seascape.

The report recommended the precautionary principle be applied to new policy, writing that “The precautionary principle requires that stewardship decisions reflect science-informed prudence and restraint.” This was, according to Jon, a new concept for the NPS.

Jon next had to translate the Board’s recommendations into a Director’s Order, and an NPS team came together to draft Director’s Order 100 which, as drafted, “required that all park superintendents possess scientific literacy appropriate to their positions and resource management decision-making responsibilities,” among other recommendations. The Director’s Order emphasized science and recognized the threats to the parks from climate change. Jon describes what happened next.

But of course, Director’s Order 100 was signed in the window between election and inauguration, with Donald J. Trump to become president in January of 2017. He soon populated the department with developers, government haters, public land privatizers, lobbyists for the oil and gas industry, and appointees returning from the Bush years who were wise to the NPS and its frequent resistance to political pressure.

Upon taking office as Secretary of Interior, Ryan Zinke promptly rescinded Director’s Order 100. After vainly trying to meet with Zinke, ten of the twelve members of the National Park System Advisory Board resigned.

National Parks Forever is chock full such examples of the political difficulties the NPS has faced in the past fifty years and continues to face as part of the Department of Interior. The two authors use the unusual approach of each of them writing a section of each chapter from their different wells of experience, then joining to meld their thinking at the end of each chapter. Destry has an encyclopedic knowledge of national park politics, especially from his years leading lobbying efforts for the National Parks Conservation Association. He describes how Bill Horn was appointed Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks in Ronald Reagan’s second term as president and set out to “fundamentally alter the NPS interpretation of the 1916 Organic Act which had stood for nearly seventy-five years at that point.” Horn sent a memo in December 1985 that asserted that “’a fundamental consideration’ for park natural resources management was that ‘natural features are conserved chiefly for the benefit, use and enjoyment of the general public. . . .Given that public recreational benefit is the principal reason for conserving natural features we must be very judicious in considering a feature of national significance solely on the basis of its import to the scientific community’ (emphasis added).” Destry tells the story in detail of how he and other park advocates fought Horn’s initiative for years, eventually prevailing. Destry was in the middle of this and many other battles over park policy and other important issues.

While Destry’s contributions detail political battles, Jon’s accounts give insight into the many roles he served in his career. His style is lighter, with touches of humor throughout – he is more of a storyteller and his knowledge and experience provide him with many insights and tales to tell. Here’s an example:

I once had to travel with Secretary Norton as she promoted the public land policies of the Bush administration. Wherever we went, we heard strong support for the NPS – even on the radio show of conservative Kirby Wilbur, who turned out to be a Civil War buff and had high praise for the park rangers at the battlefields. Sitting with Secretary Norton in the back of her car, driven by her Park Police protection detail, I suggested that I put together a platform of positive support for the National Parks for President Bush. Her response is burned into my memory. She turned her icy gaze on me, pointed a finger that reminded me of Cruella de Vil, and said that the NPS costs seventeen dollars an acre while the BLM costs only three dollars an acre. I said, “In all due respect, the Statue of Liberty is not a three dollar an acre property.” She never spoke to me again.

No doubt the multitude of Americans who love the national parks will be shocked by reading anecdotes like this one. Almost by itself, it makes the case for moving the NPS out from under the thumb of people like Gale Norton, James Watt, Ryan Zinke, and David Bernhardt, who succeeded Zinke in the Trump administration.

In their recent book American Covenant: National Parks, Their Promise, and Our Nation’s Future (Yale University Press, 2021), Gary Machlis, Jon Jarvis’ Science Advisor during his tenure as NPS Director, and former Chief Scientist for the NPS Michael Soukup, mention the idea of making the NPS an independent agency and write “This is an idea that has been around for some time but without a champion willing to take it forward through the arduous gauntlet that any change in Washington must pass.” Jon and Destry Jarvis have amplified the arguments for this, and champion the idea in more detail than Soukup and Mathis. In yet another recent book by this group, The Future of Conservation in America (University of Chicago Press, 2018), Gary Machlis and Jon Jarvis call for “a new and unified vision of conservation.” They advocate for conservationists of all stripes coming together to collaborate for common causes, the independent national park system among them. They write that “Compromise in support of first principles, combined with a sense of service and strategic intention, is a potent strategy that should be seen as honorable by the unified conservation movement.” Taken together, these three recent books make a very strong case that the time has come to take a hard look at how the NPS functions or doesn’t function as an important conservation agency in the political environment it has inhabited for over a century. Diverse members of the conservation movement must undergo self-examination too and unify around strategic ideas presented in National Parks Forever. The world has certainly changed in that hundred years, revealing challenges unimaginable in that earlier time. I recommend that thoughtful people who believe the future of America’s national parks should be a priority for many good reasons read all three of these books. This may be an inflection point in America’s national park history because of climate change, biodiversity loss, awakening of conscience regarding whose heritage should be commemorated in the national park system, and the imperatives that come from scientific understanding of what is at stake. National Parks Forever is a serious work full of good analysis and ideas as are these other two books, voices which begin the necessary championing of new approaches to conservation and to our national park system.

Order your own copy of the book here:
National Parks Forever: Fifty Years of Fighting and a Case for Independence. 

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