Following a pattern of senior-level officials abandoning their posts at the Interior Department due to clashes with Secretary Ryan Zinke, nearly every member of the federally appointed National Park Service Advisory Board quit in protest last week, expressing frustration with the Whitefish native’s management style.
In a Jan. 15 resignation letter, former Alaska governor Tony Knowles, chair of the bipartisan advisory board, said the exodus was due to Zinke’s refusal to meet with panel members or consult with them on Interior decisions, including a proposal to increase visitor fees at 17 parks, including Glacier National Park.
“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,” according to the letter, signed by eight other members. “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. We wish the Department well and will always be dedicated to their success. However, from all of the events of this past year I have 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.”
In a separate letter on Jan. 17, a 10th member of the 12-member panel, Carolyn Finney, an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky, also submitted her resignation, stating that long-running projects spearheaded by the board fell flat upon Zinke’s appointment.
Heather Swift, a spokeswoman for the Interior Department, told the Beacon in an emailed response, “we welcome their resignations and would expect nothing less from members who found it convenient to turn a blind eye to women being sexually harassed at National Parks,” referring to reports of widespread misconduct among National Park Service employees.
“It is patently false to say the Department had not engaged the board when as recently as January 8, we were working with the board to renew their charter, schedule a meeting, and fill vacancies,” Swift wrote.
According to Swift, the board traditionally meets at the end of each year and the secretary rarely attends. Since the board’s charter expired in late December, Swift said the department was working with the advisory board to renew its charter and “hold a meeting in the coming weeks.”
Established in 1935, the board of academics and former elected officials was created to advise the National Park Service director and interior secretary on national park administration, management and programs. The board’s members are appointed to four-year terms by the interior secretary. All of the resigning members were appointed during the Obama administration.
Among the frustrations members articulated in the letter is the Trump administration’s decision last summer to repeal a 2016 order by the Obama administration that emphasized a focus on climate change in managing the natural resources of National Park Service units.
In addition to leaving the federal government without a functioning body to designate national historic or natural landmarks, the insurgency also underscores the marginalization of advisory bodies under Zinke’s tenure.
Last May, Zinke suspended all outside committees while Interior staff reviewed their work.
In a statement, ranking member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat, was highly critical of Zinke and the Trump administration.
“Secretary Zinke’s refusal to even meet with members of the National Park System Advisory Board is further evidence of the Trump administration’s disregard for our national parks,” she stated. “His disregard of the advisory board is just another example of why he has earned an F in stewardship.”
Associate Secretary of the Interior Todd Willens dismissed the resignations as nothing more than political gamesmanship.
“Their hollow and dishonest political stunt should be a clear indicator of the intention of this group,” Willens said.
Chris Saeger, executive director of the Whitefish-based environmental watchdog group the Western Values Project, said the board serves a key role in advising the Interior Department and lambasted Zinke for snubbing its members.
“The board is tasked with advising Interior on everything from approving new natural landmarks to encouraging young people to visit national parks,” Saeger said, urging people to sign a petition condemning Zinke. “It’s work that needs to be done, and they had to speak up. So rather than sit by and be ignored while Zinke decimates our public lands, they’re making their concerns heard.”