National Park Service advisory board members resign after Zinke refuses to meet with them

Nine of the panel's 12 members handed in their resignations.

CREDIT: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images
CREDIT: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke refused to meet with members of the U.S. National Park Service’s advisory board over the past year. In response, three-quarters of the members of the board resigned Monday night.

The resignations occur as the the Department of the Interior, under Zinke’s leadership, continues to show more interest in weakening policies that protect the nation’s lands, including National Parks, than defending more than 600 million acres of public lands managed by the department for the greatest possible public and environmental benefit.

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Nine of the advisory panel’s 12 members, led by former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles (D), handed in their resignations. The terms of all members of the bipartisan panel, officially known as the National Park System Advisory Board, who quit were set to expire in May. The board was established in 1935 and typically has included social and natural science academics as well as former elected officials from the Republican and Democratic parties.

The ultimate driver of the board resignations was that the board members had requested meeting after meeting with Zinke and other leadership at the Interior Department, only to see their requests go unanswered.

“For the last year, we have stood by waiting for the chance to meet and continue the partnership between the [advisory board] and the DOI as prescribed by law,” Knowles and the other eight board members wrote in their resignation letter. “However, from all of the events of the past year, I have profound concern that the mission of stewardship, protection, and advancement of our National Parks has been set aside.”

The board is required to meet twice a year but has not come together since Trump took office in January 2017. Members, most of whom have worked together for seven years, were surprised to not be consulted on the Interior Department’s decision to increase visitor fees and reverse a ban on plastic water bottles in the park system, the Washington Post reported Tuesday.

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Members, appointed by the Interior secretary for terms up to four years, are selected for their relevant expertise and represent various geographic regions. The board facilitates access to networks of individuals and institutions that help the National Park Service develop collaborative relationships. The current board has enlisted the support of more than 160 outside subject matter experts.

With Zinke as its leader, the Interior Department, which oversees the National Park Service, “showed no interest in learning about or continuing to use the forward-thinking agenda of science, the effect of climate change, protections of the ecosystems, education,” Knowles told Alaska Public Radio. The former Alaska governor had served on the board since 2010.

In their resignation letter on Monday, Knowles and the eight other members who resigned said they worked closely and productively through 2016 with National Park Service employees, emphasizing scientific research and mitigation of climate change, engaging young generations, protecting the natural diversity of wildlife, and encouraging a more diverse culture of park visitors.

Under the Trump budget plan, the National Park Service would lose 1,242 full-time equivalent staff. The cuts would further hinder the National Park Service’s ability to preserve natural resources.

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The Interior Department and the National Park Service had not responded to requests for comment on the resignations at the time of the publication of this article.

The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, a nonprofit group composed of current and former National Park Service employees, said it could understand the board members’ deep frustration at the prolonged deactivation of the board under Trump and the lack of response from Zinke to numerous requests to meet with him.

“This discourteous and disrespectful treatment of the Board is inexcusable and, unfortunately, consistent with a decidedly anti-park pattern demonstrated by Secretary Zinke’s department,” Phil Francis, chair of the coalition, said Tuesday in a press statement.

Since taking office, President Donald Trump and his political appointees have been “trying to pretend that climate change is not real, and has weakened policies and regulations that protect clean air, clean water, and endangered species,” Francis said. The Interior Department also has promoted extraction of resources and development over resource protection and has recommended a dramatic reduction in the size of two national monuments, so that extractive and commercial uses can be accommodated.

“We keep waiting for a pro-park agenda to emerge,” Francis said, “but we are now convinced we are waiting in vain.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement Tuesday that Zinke’s refusal “to even meet with members of the National Park Service Advisory Board is further evidence of the Trump Administration’s disregard for our national parks.”

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Aside from Zinke’s unwillingness to meet with the bipartisan National Park Service board, Trump still has not nominated a director for the National Park Service. In 2017, Zinke also raised a furor when he proposed tripling the entry fees for some of the most popular national parks in the nation.

Cantwell encouraged Zinke to seek out the counsel of the National Park Service board members. “Whether it’s offshore drilling, wildlife protection, or managing our national parks, the Interior Secretary alone does not get to decide what activities happen on publicly owned lands that make up one-fifth of the United States,” she said.

Joining Knowles in resigning from the board were Gretchen Long, former chair of the National Parks Conservation Association; Paul Bardacke, former attorney general for the state of New Mexico; Carolyn Finney, assistant professor of geography at the University of Kentucky and a former member of the National Parks Second Century Commission; Judy Burke, former Mayor of Grand Lake, Colorado; Stephen Pitti, professor of American studies and history at Yale University; Milton Chen, senior fellow and executive director emeritus of The George Lucas Educational Foundation; Belinda Faustinos, former executive officer of the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy; and Margaret Wheatley, co-founder of The Berkana Institute, a charitable global foundation.

The Interior Department, under Zinke’s leadership, has been embroiled in scandal and controversy over the past 10 months. For example, a uranium company lobbied the Trump administration to shrink the size of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah months before Trump announced that he would be reducing the monument by more than 1 million acres, according to documents obtained by the Washington Post.

Last October, the Interior Department’s office of inspector general announced it was opening an investigation into Zinke’s use of taxpayer-funded chartered planes for both official and unofficial trips. The investigation represented one of at least three ongoing probes into Zinke’s conduct at the Interior Department.

Most recently, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) asked the inspector general to investigate reports that the department used money intended for wildfire preparedness to pay for Zinke’s helicopter travel in Nevada last summer. “Amidst the most expensive wildfire season in history, it is unequivocally intolerable that the Interior Department could be wasting scarce taxpayer resources that are meant to save lives,” Wyden said in a January 10 letter to the inspector general’s office.