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

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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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