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National Parks 'At Risk,' Former Interior Secretary Says Amid Advisory Board Resignations

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell speaks April 19, 2016, at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell speaks April 19, 2016, at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The majority of the National Park Service advisory board has resigned in protest over Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s unwillingness to meet with them. They were appointed by former President Obama, and their terms were supposed to conclude in May.

Among the nine members resigning was former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles, who wrote in his resignation letter to Zinke that he has “profound concern” that the mission of the national parks “has been set aside.” The Interior Department responded to the resignations Wednesday.

Sally Jewell, who served as interior secretary under Obama from 2013 to 2017, says the resigning board members are “making a very important statement.”

“They did really good work to highlight the value of the national parks to all Americans, and to talk about what they needed to do in this next century — we began the next century of the national parks in 2017,” Jewell (@sallyjewell) tells Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson. “And to not have any meetings, to not have their phone calls returned, to not have any opportunity to have an audience with the officials at the Interior Department, is really a slap in the face.”

Interview Highlights

On the resigning board members

“I think sometimes you have to make a statement, which is, ‘Hey, this work matters, and if you’re not gonna pay attention to us, perhaps a mass resignation is going to draw attention to this very important work that the federal government does on behalf of all Americans.’ ”

On the advisory board’s function

“It’s varied under different administrations. It’s a congressionally mandated advisory board, and what they did for the last five years, or at least the prior four years where I was involved, is they took the work of the National Park Second Century Commission — of which I was a member as a private citizen, as were many members of the advisory board — and worked closely with the park service to put it into action. So highlighting the value of the parks in education, helping people understand the value of ecosystems not just within the park, but outside, and the work that needs to be done in order for them to be healthy ecosystems and unimpaired for future generations, as is the the requirement under the Organic Act of the National Park Service, making sure that they’re there to tell the history and the story of all Americans, which has not traditionally been the case.

“And so you’ve seen with advice from the National Parks System advisory board, many more places that tell the story of African-Americans, Latino-Americans, Asian-Americans, Pacific Islanders, LGBT Americans. And all of that comes from work done by the advisory committee over the last half dozen years or so, or even more, that has really shaped what the National Park System needs to do in its next century in order to fulfill its mission.”

On whether national parks are at risk under the Trump administration

“Absolutely the parks are at risk. Everybody knows that the infrastructure is crumbling, and that’s something that the Trump administration likes to talk about, and Secretary Zinke talks about as well. And that is that there is now close to a $12 billion backlog, and they’ve talked about putting money into infrastructure and the national parks being a place to do it. But they have not taken any actions that support that, or prioritize that.

“Our parks are in jeopardy. When you have an advisory board like this that has worked closely with career staff at the park service, who have done really good work — including working for example with professor [Linda] Bilmes at Harvard on a book that helps identify the economic value of the National Parks. When you run the risk of devaluing that work, it demoralizes the people that are working there, and I think that we have seen that, and I’ve certainly heard from a number of people within the organization that they don’t feel the kind of support that they did before. So if we lose the people with the knowledge and the ability to educate the next generation of young people to appreciate our history, our culture, our natural world, then we lose the value of the national parks that were set out in 1916 when a National Park Service was identified, or, before that by Teddy Roosevelt with his designation of Yellowstone as a national park. So it’s in jeopardy, there’s no question.”

On the administration’s proposal to expand offshore energy leases, move to shrink two national monuments and other efforts

“It’s an all-out attack on public lands, and I don’t know behind the scenes why the extractive industries appear to be driving everything about this agenda. I don’t understand it. Because when Secretary Zinke and I talked when he was still a congressman and he’d been nominated for the job, he said all the right things. But when it comes down to it, he’s been doing all the wrong things, including opening up all of the Outer Continental Shelf to oil and gas drilling as his proposal for the five-year plan. I mean, are you kidding me? Places where people don’t want it, as we now know about Florida. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, I have been there, I have flown over it, it is unique in the world in that it is an undisturbed area, that if oil and gas development goes forward, will be destroyed in a way that is … just makes me sick for future generations. And I don’t understand why at this time of really very significantly changing economics in the energy sector and the technological innovations that allow us to develop oil and gas in areas that are already disturbed, why, why the administration would have gone forward with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and frankly why members of Congress on the Republican side that approved this tax bill would allow something so egregious to be in a completely unrelated piece of legislation. It is an attack on our public lands for the benefit of a few. And I don’t know what’s motivating them, but I suspect history will be the judge, and it will not be kind.”

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