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Traveler's View: National Park Service Needs To Improve Its Transparency


Why won't National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis agree to an interview? NPS photo.

It's not often that the Interior Department calls, and so when caller ID indicated it was someone in the department calling, I answered the phone. The funny thing about that call, though, was it was going on six years late in coming.

The caller worked in the Office of Inspector General's Freedom of Information Office. Back in November 2009, you see, the Traveler had filed a Freedom of Information Act request into how the National Park Service handled an investigation into alleged embezzlement from the Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site.

Ten days after we submitted that request, a letter arrived announcing that the request had been received and assigned a case number.

Ten MONTHS later we received another letter, this one apologizing for the long delay in meeting that request. Did we, it went on, still want to pursue the matter? 

Yes, we dutifully replied. And then the years of silence ensued.

This despite President Barack Obama's Inauguaral-day pledge that his administration would be the most transparent in history, and that the FOIA process in particular was vitally important.

"The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails," the president wrote in a proclamation endorsing FOIA. "The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by the disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative of abstract fears. Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of Government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve."

Well, the years of silence were finally broken the other week when that caller from the Office of Inspector General asked whether we were still interested pursuing the request for the Hubbell investigation. "No," I replied, "but I do wonder why it took six years to hear from you?"

The answer, she said, was a staffing shortage that created a tremendous backlog of FOIA requests to handle.

Now, it's worth noting that most of the information we were seeking was long ago secured pursuant to a FOIA lawsuit filed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, who thankfully shared it with us. It should be noted, too, that PEER only sued after its FOIA request for the information was ignored. It seems like it's become almost de-facto that normal FOIA requests are ignored, a strategy that leaves the average citizen with little hope of seeing the requested documents, unless they have the wherewithal to sue.

Even more details - most extremely troubling in nature - were subsequently provided in Paul Berkowitz's 2011 book, The Case of the Indian Trader. (As a relevant side-note, Indian Trader Billy Malone's lawsuit is still making its way through the courts, and scheduled for oral arguments in the 9th Circuit on March 14 of this year.)

Nevertheless, this long-overdue response to our FOIA request into the Hubbell Trading Post scandal brought to mind a long list of other requests the Traveler has made for information from the National Park Service -- both in the form of documents as well as basic requests for interviews with the Obama administration's Park Service director, Jon Jarvis.

While most of our requests have been met, we're still hoping for an interview with Director Jarvis. Among the questions we'd like to ask:

* What, if anything, did he do to help Rob Danno in his whistleblower case at Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park that derailed his Park Service career for nearly 10 years? Why is the superintendent that Danno's case revolved around still a superintendent?

* Does Director Jarvis support the proposed management plan for the Yosemite Valley that critics have said doesn't get to the core of the valley's human problem?

* Did he read Sen. Tom Coburn's report, Parked! How Congress' Misplaced Priorities Are Trashing Our National Treasures and what is his opinion of it?

* As secretary of the National Park Foundation, did Director Jarvis support that group's licensing of its name to a company that sells after-market off-road equipment for pickup trucks and SUVs, and to another that makes air fresheners? More specifically, does he believe trucks designed for off-road travel promote environmental consciousness in the parks, and do chemically created wafts of park scents entice visitors to the parks?

* What does Director Jarvis think of congressional efforts to permit logging in areas of Yosemite National Park that were burned last year by the Rim Fire? 

* What, if anything, can the director do to help the plight of seasonal rangers, as outlined in a recent Traveler column by PJ Ryan?

These are just an easily grabbed handful of topics that we'd like to discuss with the director. Unfortunately, we're presented with a directorship that is all but silent, publicly at least, on a range of issues that go to the heart of how the National Park System is managed.

Traveler has had a standing request in to the director's office for an interview, and been rebuffed time and again for reasons we can't pinpoint. Director Jarvis's most recent predecessors, Mary Bomar and Fran Mainella, weren't as hard to pin down.

True, politics of the day, and legal impediments, can require a measure of restraint from the Park Service director. But as manager of the world's greatest National Park System, with oversight of a neaerly $3 billion annual budget, and with a workforce of roughly 20,000, his stance/thoughts on a range of topics that are of interest to both the general public and the National Park Service staff deserves transparency and response.

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In the time you've been posting here "your issues" have gone far beyond the "motherhood", "world peace", and "feeding the poor" that you now claim. I believe that is what Rick Smith may have been more generally been referring to. You didn't address his central point of your actually getting involved in a group doing work on this rather than sitting around the cracker barrel with the rest of us here.

"an organization that would make my issues a priority?"

Rick, my issues are integrity in the agency and respect for the rule of law in the agency. It is a shame that those issues aren't priorities for those groups. If I am under a misimpression and those organizations do care about those things here is what I would propose:

This past week we had the conclusion of the lawsuit by the parents of Tommy Botell. The judge in the case concluded that Lassen Superintendent Darlene Koontz destroyed evidence in the case as part of a cover up. And the judged concluded that Koontz knew the wall that crushed Tommy Botell was a hazard but did nothing to protect the public from that hazard.

Would you or any other ANPR members here support an effort to expel Darleen Koontz from the Association of National Park Rangers? Wouldn't that at lest be some kind of symbolic gesture in favor of cleaning up the agency?

PS--Maybe if you say something often enough, it will change, but you are absolutely tone deaf. You don't solicit support for change by insulting people and accusing them of fraud.

I have to laugh when you call Jarvis "our good buddy". He started work much later than we did and I would guess most retirees have never even met him. I consider him a casual acquaintance and would never say he was my "good buddy".

I suggest you and people who feel as you do join ANPR or form another organization that would make your issues high priority. Posting on NPT isn't going to accomplish what you want to change. Like Mackie, I am sympathetic to seasonals who cannot find a permanent position. But your constant insulting of ANPR or the Coalition of Retirees for not doing what you should be doing is tiresome and ineffective.


Rmackie, I believe that the NPS leadership intentionally refused to mitigate the impact of the shutdown for political reasons. I think most intelligent people know that is true. The difference is that those who support the actions taken during shutdown are OK with it because they believe it furthers an end they support. The means to that end are not important to them. And even though they know George Wills words on that video are true they cannot admit they are true without, they believe, harming the ends they support. I would say whenever you are in a position where you think you are advancing a cause by not acknowledging things you know to be true you are, by default, in the wrong position.

I do believe that my getting into those issues will only turn off the true believers. So I should probably try to stick more to the issue of the abuse of temporary appointments in the service. But Mackie I don't see how you can agree with me on the seasonal/temporary issue without acknowledging that as an attack on the leadership in the service. They are the ones who are knowingly and systemically breaking the personnel laws on an epidemic scale.

Jarvis can either do something about it now or he can wait until a situation comes up like the Granite Mt. Hotshots, where the Phoenix Fire Dept. officials lied about how many seasonal firefighters were on the crew in order to keep certification. Remember how when those nineteen men were killed the flags were at half staff,? People were posting memorials to the ANPR and the NPS retirees FB pages but for some reason when the news broke about how the crew should not have even been accredited as hotshots that news didn't get posted on those sites. Why? Probably because the folks who control those organizations know that NPS is riddled with the same kind of fraud committed by the Phoenix Fire Dept. and they don't want to rock the boat with their good buddy and life time membership holder Jon Jarvis in the directorship.

I am not inclined to give much creditability to it

Because you don't want to not because you have any facts to dispute it.

If George Will were to add a charge to the indictment by "Ghost of Mather" above this would be it.

Maybe it's time to resurrect Occupy Wall Steet

You mean the embodiment of the entitlement mentality. No thanks.

Until we find a way to eliminate things like Citizens United and unlimited political dollars, not much will change.

Yet you haven't shown how either of those have led to any of the issues identified in Ghost's post above

BTW Lee, you might not like what eliminating Citizens United would do to your favorite party's finances;

The Park Police actually tried to remove at least part of the OccupyDC encampment in early December(2 months into the protest) as they had built a wooden structure. They had to arrest some 30 people in the process. The OccupyDC group filed a lawsuit for a TRO against NPS the next day(the arrests took place on a Sunday).

This is how WTOP summarized the judge's ruling:

"Boasberg's ruling requires the Park Service to provide one day's notice if it intends to enforce its regulations prohibiting camping or sleeping in McPherson Square.
Boasberg ruled barring an emergency, the government should not restrict access to McPherson Square or tamper with the protesters' tent city."

There is a collection of OccupyDC documents on the NPS FOIA website. There are dozens of pages, including emails that provide some insight to that 4 month period.

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