More than three-quarters of the members of a federally chartered board advising the National Park Service have quit out of frustration that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had refused to meet with them or convene a single meeting last year.
The resignation of 10 out of 12 National Park System Advisory Board members leaves the federal government without a functioning body to designate national historic or natural landmarks. It also underscores the extent to which federal advisory bodies have become marginalized under the Trump administration. In May 2017, Zinke suspended all outside committees while his staff reviewed their composition and work.
In a letter to the secretary on Monday, departing board chairman Tony Knowles, a former Alaska governor, wrote that he and eight other members “have stood by waiting for the chance to meet and continue the partnership . . . as prescribed by law.” All of the signatories, who serve as unpaid volunteers, had terms set to expire in May.,
“We understand the complexity of transition but our requests to engage have been ignored and the matters on which we wanted to brief the new Department team are clearly not part of its agenda,” Knowles wrote. “I wish the National Park System and Service well and will always be dedicated to their success.”
On Wednesday, Carolyn “Carrie” Hessler Radelet, the chief executive of Project Concern International, submitted a separate resignation letter. “[F]rom all of the events of this past year I have a profound concern that the mission of stewardship, protection, and advancement of our National Parks has been set aside,” wrote Radelet, whose term was not set to expire until 2021. “I hope that future actions of the Department of Interior demonstrate that this is not the case.”
In an email earlier this month inquiring about the status of the more than 200 boards that had come under review, Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said, “Boards have restarted.” She did not provide any further details and did not respond to an inquiry Tuesday.
Some advisory bodies apparently are operating. But others are still frozen because the department has yet to approve their updated charters, as is legally required under the Federal Advisory Committee Act. Other panels, such as the Cape Cod National Seashore Advisory Commission, have been reinstated but are still awaiting department approval for their agendas.
Two of the Bureau of Land Management’s 38 resource advisory councils (RACs) — Rocky Mountain and Southwest Colorado — had to postpone meetings scheduled for Thursday because their charters were out of date.
“It’s concerning that our advisory council has been unable to meet for over a year,” said Scott Braden, a member of the Rocky Mountain RAC who is a wilderness and public lands advocate at Conservation Colorado. “Secretary Zinke has said that local input is important for BLM to consider, and yet these councils, which provide just such input, have been sidelined.”
Braden added that the council planned to discuss a new management plan for BLM land in eastern Colorado, how to implement fee increases in the region and the problem of homelessness on public lands.
In at least two instances, Zinke has disbanded existing advisory bodies — the Wildlife and Hunting Heritage Conservation Council and the Advisory Committee on Climate Change and Natural Resource Science. He replaced the first one with the Hunting and Shooting Sports Conservation Council, which just started soliciting nominations Jan. 9. It will place a heavier emphasis on sport shooting while promoting hunters’ and fishermen’s access to public lands.
The National Park System Advisory Board, which was established in 1935, has typically included social and natural science academics as well as former elected officials from both parties. In recent years, it has advised Interior on how to address climate change, among other issues, and how to encourage younger visitors to frequent the parks.
The board is required to meet twice a year but has not convened since Trump took office last January, Knowles said Tuesday. Members, most of whom have worked together for seven years, were surprised to not be consulted on Interior’s recent decisions to increase visitor fees and reverse a ban on plastic water bottles in the park system. The decision to reverse climate change directives and other policies drove the decision to resign, he said.
“We were frozen out,” said Knowles, who emphasized that the group recognized Zinke would select new members this year but wanted “the momentum to continue” from what the board accomplished in 2016 during the park system’s centennial year.
Gretchen Long, a board member from Wilson, Wyo., said in an email that the nine board members resigned given the administration’s seeming attitude that the group’s work “could be so summarily dismissed. . . . And we worry greatly that the new initiatives incorporated in the [National Park System] are now being rescinded.”
The two remaining board members are Harvard University public finance professor Linda Bilmes and University of Maryland marine science professor Rita Colwell, whose terms end in May. In an email, Bilmes said she did not resign her post because she is conducting research with other colleagues that is funded by the National Park Foundation and wants to complete her project.
Since the Interior secretary cannot establish new historical and natural landmarks without the board’s approval, none has been declared since Jan. 11, 2016, when then-Secretary Sally Jewell designated 24 such landmarks.
The board members’ action comes as one of Zinke’s top deputies, Doug Domenech, assistant secretary for insular areas, plans to move into the Washington offices that the National Park Service has occupied for half a century. NPS will be relocated elsewhere in the building, according to individuals briefed on the plans.
Zinke has identified repairing the park system’s aging infrastructure as one of his top priorities, though he has yet to nominate a National Park Service director.
Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Commitee, questioned why Zinke has yet to nominate a director and urged him to solicit more outside opinion on how he manages national parks. “I call on Secretary Zinke to personally reach out to each member of the National Park Service Advisory Board and tell them their counsel is valued and that this administration respects local voices,” she said in a statement late Tuesday.
The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, which is made up of current, former and retired Park Service staff, sharply criticized the secretary’s treatment of the long-standing board.
“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,” coalition chair Phil Francis said. “We keep waiting for a pro-park agenda to emerge, but we are now convinced we are waiting in vain.”