Jon Jarvis is swapping emergency sirens outside his West Coast office for emergency sirens outside the Interior Department building in downtown Washington, D.C. And no doubt he'll be picking up the sounds of quite a few figurative sirens from a National Park System struggling with wildlife issues, climate change, morale woes, and competing user demands.
And yet, the new director of the National Park Service thinks the timing of his arrival in Washington couldn't be much better. And he probably has a point. The image of the national parks has been well-polished courtesy of the Ken Burns' documentary, The National Parks: America's Best Idea, there's a White House occupant who wants to invest in the park system, and, if recent head counts are any indication, Americans are more interested in visiting national parks than they have been in recent years.
“I think that this moment in time is an extraordinary opportunity for the National Park System, that kind of convergence of good things, and challenges, and I’ve always been one to step up to challenges and take on the next one that I think I can actually have some kind of impact on," the new director said the other day over the din of sirens outside his Oakland, California, office. "So the combination of the Burns film and [the Park Service centennial in] 2016, the Second Century of the National Parks Commission, and an administration that is supportive of the National Park System, our goals and our responsibility, and so you converge all of that and I think it’s a great time to be director of the Park Service.”
At the same time, though, Director Jarvis will find a plate overflowing with contentious issues when he unpacks his bags and boxes in Washington. There's the ongoing snowmobile issue in Yellowstone National Park. Security issues are a concern at iconic park units, as evidenced by the successful Greenpeace global warming demonstration at Mount Rushmore National Memorial back in July.
Too many deer at Valley Forge National Historical Park and other Eastern parks and battlefields and too many elk at places like Theodore Roosevelt, Wind Cave, and Rocky Mountain national parks demonstrate the problems of no apex predators, other than humans, in settled and tightly squeezed landscapes. Climate change is impacting parks in ways difficult, if not impossible, to reverse. Yosemite National Park officials have agreed to sort out a plan to confront the growing human imprint in the Yosemite Valley.
If there was a central shortcoming of the past two Park Service directors, Mary Bomar and Fran Mainella, it was that oftentimes they were not acting in the best interests of the National Park System but rather the political interests of the Bush administration. While Ms. Bomar said often that science would dictate on-the-ground decisions, the Park Service time and again looked past the environmental alternative that called for phasing recreational snowmobiles out of Yellowstone and sought ways to justify their presence. Ms. Mainella, after retiring, acknowledged that her bosses in the Interior Department were calling the shots on the snowmobile issue.
Understandably, the Park Service director is a political appointee, and as such it can be tough to buck the political winds that swirl out of the White House. But at times that's what the National Park System requires if indeed the parks are to be managed "unimpaired for future generations." Director Jarvis, who was schooled as a biologist, says he has the mettle, and the scientific background, to separate the politics from the best interests of the parks. At the same time, he arrives in Washington with no blinders to the process.
"I bring to the position a scientific background. I have always been an advocate for the procurement and application of excellent science to our decision-making process, that all of our decisions should be informed by and guided by good science, and I think that that is one reason that they asked me to serve," he said. "And as the Burns film demonstrated, there’s no avoidance of politics in the National Park System, even when we look back historically at the designation and protection of major areas. As John Muir said, nothing that is 'dollarable' is safe. So I think there is always going to be some challenges to the National Park System. But I think that my approach to this is to bring the very best science, the very best minds, the very best scholarly work to it, and hope to influence those politics in a positive direction.”
That could be difficult, extremely difficult, to achieve. Evidence of that can be seen in the Yellowstone snowmobile saga, in the congressional interference that led to Theodore Roosevelt officials deciding to back a public elk hunt, and in the concealed carry mandate that takes hold on the park system in February.
Regarding snowmobiles in Yellowstone, Director Jarvis says he hopes to achieve a "situation that isn’t whip-sawn by either the politics or the courts as some sort of long-term sustainability for the park.”
And while there are many who argue -- whether it's over snowmobiles in Yellowstone, more services in the Yosemite Valley, or elk hunting in Rocky Mountain or Theodore Roosevelt -- that these activities are good for the surrounding economies, the new director hopes to impress on politicians, gateway communities, concessionaires, and all others who look to the parks for their livelihoods that sometimes the best return can be delivered by clean air and water, healthy forests and wildlife, and trails to explore.
“I think that Luther Probst, (executive director) of the Sonoran Desert Institute, used to say, 'Whoever makes the economic argument first wins,'" noted Director Jarvis. "We’re a country that puts high value on the economy. But I think the National Park Service has not been particularly articulate about the economic benefits of parks in their preservation state. That there are all kinds of positive benefits, ecosystem services like water and air that are cleansed by our parks, wildlife that contribute to local economies, lifestyle in gateway communities, that are contributed to by the presence of the park, all those kinds of things.
“I think we have been over time not as articulate and as convincing of the economic values to sort of counter the desires of those that might have kind of short-term economic benefit desires for some form of development or recreational use or whatever," he added. "And I think that’s what we need to be better at, is to be in a position to argue that there are other benefits that are equal to or much better than some of these short-term proposals for some sort of short-term economic gain.”
While Director Jarvis is moving to implement some of the recommendations of the Second Century Commission -- he plans to appoint a science advisor as well as an associate director for education -- he also realizes that some work needs to be done to make the public proud of not just the National Park System, but also the National Park Service, which, with such past decisions as those involving Yellowstone snowmobiles and Yosemite Valley development, might at times be guilty of overlooking public sentiment.
“I think that the public has been concerned about the National Park System in general, and that there are incremental decisions being made that have some long-term effects on the system and we haven’t been thinking about the system in general and approaching it holistically in terms of protecting its overall integrity," said the director. "There have been individual pieces of litigation at the park level that have driven some changes. We are in a litigious society, and people get polarized over park issues, whether it’s snowmachines or the future of the Yosemite Valley or guns or those kinds of issues.
"I think that I’m a big transparency person, I’m a big public process person, I like to engage the public early and often as we face these kinds of issues, to roll up our sleeves and at least get everybody understanding the challenges in front of us, and the range of options there are for resolving them, but without giving up the core values of the system," he continued. "And I think in many ways the Burns film gives us a great reminder of what the system is all about, and what it is intended to be, and how valuable it is to society. I think we can use that to rebuild public confidence in the system and public support.”
Time will tell.