NATIONAL PARKS: PAST PROGRESS, NEW CHALLENGES

The 40th Anniversary of the State of the Parks Report by Jon Jarvis, National Parks Director 2009−2017

Forty years ago, in May of 1980, the National Park Service (NPS) released a report to Congress that, for the first time, quantified the threats to the 326 units of the National Park System. The findings identified significant threats both internal and external, and categorized them as follows:

  • Aesthetic Degradation (land development, timbering)
  • Air Pollution (acid rain, hydrocarbon pollutants)
  • Physical Removal of Resources (mineral extraction, poaching)
  • Exotic Encroachment (animals, plants)
  • Visitor Physical Impacts (campfires, trampling)
  • Water Quality Pollution and Water Quantity Changes (oil spills, toxic chemicals)
  • Park Operations (trails, misuse of biocides)

The report was the result of a survey of park superintendents, resource managers, scientists, and planners and noted “the perception of threats may be affected by the professional training and experience of these observers.” (1) I point this out because I was a park resource manager who filled out the survey. At the time, I was stationed at Prince William Forest Park, a National Park area of 19,000 acres just south of Washington, DC. My assessment was that the park was besieged with threats and consequently it ranked third on the list with fifty-seven threats, just above Glacier National Park. The report was a wake-up call for the NPS, and of particular note, it indicated that while the threats were real, our understanding of them was significantly lacking.

Over the following forty years, the National Park Service heeded some of the report’s recommendations. They have built a stronger natural resources staff, created scientific relationships with researchers at colleges and universities, developed resource management plans for all the parks, and built a robust inventory and monitoring system. Congress even gave the National Park Service a scientific mandate in 1998, stating “The Secretary shall undertake a program of inventory and monitoring of National Park System resources to establish baseline information and provide information on the long-term trends in the condition of National Park System resources,” and “The Secretary shall take such measures as are necessary to assure the full and proper utilization of the results of scientific study for park management decisions.” (2) During that same period, I worked for the National Park Service in a variety of national parks as ranger, biologist, superintendent, regional director, and finally as the 18th Director from 2009 to 2017. My career took me from the deserts of Texas, to the snows of the Cascades, into the wilds of Alaska, and to the halls of Congress. My perception of threats to the parks is now guided, and perhaps better honed by those forty years. Many of the threats identified in the 1980 State of the Parks report are still valid such as air and water pollution, adjacent land development, and visitor impacts. Now there are new threats, new stressors to the stewardship of our national parks, not identified in 1980. For my entire career, I have been fighting to protect the integrity of our national parks against these threats and I have won some and lost some. I present these below in priority, with my perspective on their status and challenges.

  1. Anthropogenic Climate Change/Global Warming: In 2009, in testifying before Congress, I stated “I believe climate change is fundamentally the greatest threat to the integrity of our national parks that we have ever experienced.” Nearly every issue raised in 1980 is exacerbated by a human-caused warming of the planet. Research by scientists (3) have shown that our national parks are warming faster than other areas, in part because they are often already in extreme environments, such as high elevation or deserts. Our coastal parks will be impacted by sea level rise and increased storm intensity. Mountain parks will lose their glaciers and snow pack, forests will become drier and burn more easily, the warming of streams will impact all aquatic life, and species will be forced to move higher, or to new habitats to survive. While I was Director, the NPS began to address these issues with science, adaptation, education, monitoring, and even reducing its own carbon footprint. All of that has stopped under the current administration, which leads to the next threat.
  2. Anti-Environmental Politics: The United States can rightfully claim to be the originator of national park idea, that special places would be set aside “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” The national park idea has spread around the world and enjoys broad and deep public support but not always political support. If you asked the general public if the national parks are protected from the whipsaw of politics, they would likely say “of course” but they would be wrong. There are elements within our political leadership (exemplified by the current administration) who see the national parks as a waste of taxpayer’s funds, as valued only for their economics, and as a storehouse for future plunder. More times than I like to admit, I have had to brief members of Congress and political appointees of new administrations on why they should not sell the parks to the highest bidder, close the ones that have low visitation, turn them over to the private sector, open them up to hunting, crisscross them with power and pipelines, build new hotels, install zip lines, or host rock concerts. These are but a sample of the destructive ideas that emerge when the acolytes of Milton Friedman take the reins of the nation’s parks and public lands. Inside the Department of the Interior, the daily routine was more like internecine warfare with sister bureaus that would log, mine, drill, excavate, dump, pollute, or sell public lands right up to the park boundary. When there is an administration such as the one currently in office, everyone inside the NPS is afraid to fight back.
  3. Non-Cooperation at the Ecosystem Scale: In 1990, the NPS issued a draft “Vision Statement” recommending that the lands around Yellowstone National Park be managed as an ecosystem. The National Park Service and US Forest Service authors of that report were punished and forcibly reassigned by Jon Sununu, then Chief of Staff to President George H.W. Bush. (4) Today, the concept of working cooperatively at the landscape scale in the Yellowstone ecosystem is generally accepted. Ecosystem scale cooperation is at play in the California Deserts with the expansion of renewable energy projects and the need to protect desert tortoise. It is relatively functional in the northern Rocky Mountains around Glacier National Park and the Flathead region, incorporating private lands, working ranches, and forests and grizzly bear habitat. This is all good, but I identify this as a threat because we now understand that national parks are interconnected to a much larger ecosystem upon which the park’s integrity depends. We are just now learning how to function, cooperate and share common goals at the landscape scale. Figuring this out and handling the political resistance will be the key to the future stewardship of our national parks.
  4. Lack of Relevancy, Diversity and Inclusion: National park visitation, staffing, volunteers, leadership, guides and outfitters, “friends’ groups”, tourism businesses, and environmental advocacy organizations are all predominantly filled by white people. There are many factors that contribute to the lack of diversity in our parks and public lands, and I would suggest that some of the reason is systemic and institutional racism. The agency and its support network “self-replicates” its existing workforce, hiring young people who have the economic capacity to spend years working as seasonal employees with low wages. The NPS and its affiliates prefer new hires who come with a range of outdoor skills such as hiking, river rafting, mountain climbing and camping, all of which come from white privilege. In light of the awakening of the US population to the history of racism and white privilege, the lack of diversity in the National Park Service is a threat to its future. The good news is that the NPS is working hard to address this with new recruitment and retention strategies and new parks that tell a more complete story of the civil rights struggles and our national history of racial inequality. There is much more work to be done.
  5. : In 1980, there were 326 national park units and visitation was 220 million. In 2019, there were 417 park units and visitation was 327 million, roughly equal to the population of the entire United States. If there was one phrase in the National Park vocabulary that I could purge it would be “loving the parks to death.” I truly believe that visitation to the national parks is key to their future stewardship. Survey after survey of visitors indicate their deep appreciation of the national parks, which translates into political support, funding, volunteerism, and advocacy. But in some places and at some times, too much of a good thing can have impacts: trampled vegetation, bare ground, erosion, wildlife disturbance, even intentional vandalism. Crowds also impact the experience as well, with traffic jams, long lines, and noise. These are operational issues that take enormous staffing time and funding to manage well. The very crowded parks will have to address carrying capacities at some point, which leads back to Threat Number 2. Politics often play a strong hand when the NPS suggests it might have to limit the number of visitors. But, I will also take over-crowding over apathy anytime. The day that visitors no longer come to the parks because they don’t care will be the end of the national park system as we now know it.

Conclusion: While there have been many positive accomplishments in the last forty years to address the threats to our national parks and public lands, new challenges have emerged: anthropogenic climate changes, social and economic inequality, and a global disease pandemic. During the months of self-isolation, a deep desire to connect to nature was rekindled in our nation’s population, and parks of all kinds struggled to accommodate the demand. The inequity of access and availability to parks, particularly for communities of color, was revealed as well.

In 2009, in my nomination hearing before the Senate I stated: I do not need to tell you of the challenges before us: the economy, climate change, connecting urban kids to nature, the concerns over obesity, and a concern about a loss of cultural literacy. I believe that the National Park Service has a role and a responsibility in each of these. Never in its 200 years has this nation needed the National Park System more. It stands as a collective memory of where we have been, what sacrifices we have made to get here and who we mean to be. By investing in the preservation, interpretation, and restoration of these symbolic places, we offer hope and optimism to each generation of Americans. (5)

I believe that even more today.

Jonathan B. Jarvis was the 18th Director of the National Park Service.

(1) State of the Parks Report, 1980, Executive Summary

(2)  Title IV of the National Parks Omnibus Management Act of 1998, Public Law 105-391

(3) Dr. Patrick Gonzales, Human caused climate changes in the United States national parks and solutions for the future, Park Stewardship Forum, https://parks.berkeley.edu/psf/?p=2010

(4) The Directed Reassignments of John Mumma and L. Lorraine Mintzmyer: Hearing …

By United States, United States. Congress. House. Committee on Post Office and Civil Service. Subcommittee on Civil Service, Hearing, September 24, 1991

(5) Statement of Jonathan B. Jarvis, Nominee for Director, National Park Service Before the U. S. Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources, July 2009