An Interior Department official called the resignation of 10 members of the National Park Service Advisory Board a “hollow and dishonest political stunt” and vowed they would be soon replaced by more dedicated appointees.
“We welcome their resignations 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 and praise a man as ‘inspiring’ who had been blasted by the inspector general for ethics and management failures, all while taking credit for the extensive work of private companies during the NPS centennial celebration,” Associate Deputy Secretary of the Interior Todd Willens wrote in an email to the Missoulian on Wednesday.
“The Department is happy to report that 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. We expect to have a full board meeting soon.”
The advisory board members, who quit earlier this week, had questioned why Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had not scheduled any meetings for them during 2017 and why he appeared to be abandoning the board’s counsel.
“For the last year we have stood by waiting for the chance to meet and continue the partnership between the NPSAB and the DOI as prescribed by law,” wrote board member Carrie Hessler Radelet, president of Project Concern International and former director of the Peace Corps.
“(O)ur 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,” Hessler Radelet continued. “I wish the National Park System and Service well and will always be dedicated to their success. However, from 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. I hope that future actions of the Department of Interior demonstrate that this is not the case.”
Willens said it was “patently false” to claim the Interior Department was ignoring the board. He wrote he was working on Jan. 8 to renew the board’s charter, fill vacancies and hold a meeting in a few weeks. He also accused two members of claiming to resign after their terms had already expired.
“Their hollow and dishonest political stunt should be a clear indicator of the intention of this group,” Willens wrote. The department has published a notice in the Federal Register seeking nominations for three open positions on the 12-member board. Its current charter expired on Dec. 30.
The other resignees included Grand Lake, Colorado, Mayor Judy Burke; former director of the George Lucas Educational Foundation Milton Chen; conservation lands executive Belinda Faustinos; University of Kentucky assistant professor Carolyn Finney; former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles; Land Trust Alliance National Council chairwoman and former National Parks Conservation Association chairwoman Gretchen Long; former Berkana Institute president Margaret Wheatley; former New Mexico Attorney General Paul Bardacke, and Yale University professor Stephen Pitti. Bardacke and Pitti apparently were the signatories whose terms had already expired.
Members who didn’t sign the letter were Harvard Kennedy School professor Linda Bilmes, a former Commerce Department assistant secretary; and Johns Hopkins professor and former director of the National Science Foundation Rita Colwell.
Resigning board member Faustinos said that her fellow volunteers on the board were taken aback when neither of their usual two meetings a year were convened in 2017. She also disputed Willen’s comments.
“It’s typical for this administration to defend itself with half-truths,” Faustinos said on Wednesday. “We were never asked to work on sexual harassment. Our job was to advise the director on his call to action.”
In Faustinos’ case, that involved finding ways to highlight Latino heritage in NPS history and to encourage urban residents to venture into the backcountry of the park system.
Willens’ reference to the “inspiring” man apparently referred to former NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis, who was investigated for ethical violations regarding a book on marketing to national parks he wrote while in office. An Inspector General report found Jarvis did not profit from the book, but had failed to consult with the agency’s ethics department or keep his superiors advised about the project.
Former Montana Congressman Zinke pledged to eliminate sexual harassment in the Interior Department after numerous female National Park Service workers reported abusive or criminal behavior by colleagues. A NPS survey released in October found one in 10 NPS employees had experienced sexual harassment in the past year, and Zinke released a plan to fix the problem.
According to its own website, the National Park System Advisory Board was founded in 1935. Its mission is to advise the director of the National Park Service and the Interior Secretary on “matters relating to the National Park Service, the National Park System, and programs administered by the National Park Service, including the administration of the Historic Sites, Buildings, and Antiquities Act; the designation of national historic landmarks and national natural landmarks; and the national historic significance of proposed national historic trails.”
It’s supposed to have no more than 12 members, chosen to represent the nation’s geographic regions as well as technical fields like archaeology and landscape architecture, land management and various professional or scientific disciplines. At least one had to be a locally elected official adjacent to a national park. The Interior Secretary appointed all members for terms not to exceed four years.
“The board advises on so many issue concerning the parks, many of which aren’t political or controversial,” said Kristen Brengel, vice president for governmental affairs at the National Parks Conservation Association. “This administration continues to disregard what the public expects and wants. That’s part of a larger story about dismissing public comment and public engagement. I hope they change their tune on this.”