Practically the entire membership of the National Park System Advisory Board resigned last week in protest, claiming they’d been frozen out by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. In the nine months since Zinke’s confirmation, members of the board said they were unable to secure a single meeting with the cabinet official to whom they were congressionally mandated to report.
Board chairperson and former Alaska governor Tony Knowles expressed this frustration—using a diplomatic tone void of rancor—in a letter tendered on behalf of the group. Under any other administration, the interior secretary’s office probably would have issued a boilerplate statement and let the news cycle wash the unpleasantness away. But these are different times. Before the day was over, Zinke’s deputy undersecretary, Todd Willens, released an insult-laden response via press secretary Heather Swift, calling the Knowles letter a “hollow and political stunt.”
“We welcome their resignations,” Willens wrote, “and would expect nothing less than quitting from members who found it convenient to turn a blind eye to women being sexually harassed at National Parks.”
Willens went on to accuse the former board members of unduly “taking credit for the extensive work of private companies” during the 2016 National Park centennial campaign and called it “patently false” that the Department of the Interior had not engaged with the board. “As recently as January 8, we were working with the board to renew their charter, schedule a meeting, and fill vacancies.” As if to say good riddance, Willens wrote, “We have a number of individuals who have expressed interest in joining the board and we will now fast track filling these new vacancies with people who are actually dedicated to working with the Department to better our national parks.”
“It’s outrageous,” former board member Gretchen Long tells me from her home in Wilson, Wyoming. “I knew this kind of rhetoric came from the White House, but to see it come from the DOI and the secretary—the same style of degrading and discrediting and lies, frankly dishonest information—I was appalled.”
Long, a graduate of Harvard Business School with conservation and outdoor education bona fides that include chairing the National Outdoor Leadership School and the National Parks Conservation Association, tells me that no board members had been contacted on January 8 about a future meeting. Knowles also denied receiving any correspondence from Zinke’s office on that day. As for the jibe about the centennial project, Long calls it “hogwash.”
“There were private companies, but also 200 citizen groups and nonprofits. The work was spread out with everyone’s involvement. Public, private, not-for-profit—that’s what made it so successful, and some might say too successful,” Long says, referring to back-to-back record-breaking annual visitation numbers at some parks that have stressed staff and infrastructure.
Knowles, the board’s now-former chairperson, is a Vietnam War veteran and was an oil-rig roughneck before he became governor of Alaska. He tells me the accusation of political stunting actually made him laugh. “This is the least political body I’ve ever been with. We’re just a bunch of wonks, and everyone just loves to get around and talk policy,” he says. “I’d have no idea what party these people belonged to.”
Congress established the all-volunteer, nonpartisan NPS Advisory Board in 1935 to advise the Park Service director and interior secretary…