The great dismantling of America's national parks is under way

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Under this administration, nothing is sacred as we watch the nation’s crown jewels being recut for the rings of robber barons.

For more than 100 years, professional management of our national parks has been respected under both Democratic and Republican administrations. Yes, they have different priorities, the Democrats often expanding the system and the Republicans historically focused on building facilities in the parks for expanding visitation. But the career public servants of the National Park Service (NPS), charged with stewarding America’s most important places, such as the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and the Statue of Liberty, were left to do their jobs.

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Even in the dark days of interior secretaries James Watt and Gail Norton, both former attorneys with the anti-environmental Mountain States Legal Foundation, the National Park Service (NPS) was generally left untouched, perhaps because they recognized that some institutions have too much public support or their mission too patriotic to be tossed under the proverbial bus.

This time is different and we should know, as Jon, one of this story’s authors, worked for the last 10 interior secretaries as a career NPS manager, and ultimately led the agency under Barack Obama, and Destry, Jon’s brother and co-author, has worked with the past 12 NPS directors as a conservation advocate. The change began within 24 hours of the inauguration when Donald Trump complained that the NPS was reporting smaller crowds on the National Mall than Obama had drawn. Perhaps this is when the NPS wound up on the list of transgressors. Soon the interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, attempted to double the entrance fees, rescinded climate policies and moved seasoned senior national park superintendents around to force their retirements.

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After Zinke’s abrupt resignation, secretary David Bernhardt populated too much of the department’s political leadership with unconfirmed, anti-public land sycophants, and announced a reorganization to install his own lieutenants to oversee super regions, realigning NPS from seven regions to twelve in the name of greater efficiency.

Next came the proclamation that career staff in Washington would be sent to the field to be closer to the people they serve, but in reality, to be out of the way and no longer an impediment to his agenda.

Then came the decisions to leave the parks open to impacts during the unfortunate government shutdown, illegally misuse entrance fees, open park trails to e-bikes, suppress climate science, kill wolf pups and bear cubs in their dens to enhance “sport hunting”, privatize campgrounds, and issue muzzle memos to park managers. With a waiver of environmental laws, bulldozers are plowing ancient cacti in national parks along the southern border in order to build a wall. Senior career park managers are likely to be replaced with unqualified political hacks.

These are not random actions. This is a systematic dismantling of a beloved institution, like pulling blocks from a Jenga tower, until it collapses. You ask, why on earth would someone want to do that to the popular National Park Service, the subject of one of Ken Burns’ acclaimed documentaries and often called “America’s best idea”?

Because if you want to drill, mine and exploit the public estate for the benefit of the industry, the last thing you want is a popular and respected agency’s voice raising alarms on behalf of conservation and historic preservation.

Because if you want the public to ignore the science of climate change, the last thing you want are trusted park rangers speaking the truth to park visitors.

Because if you want to get the federal government small enough (in the words of Grover Norquist) to “drown it in a bathtub”, the last thing you want is a government agency with high popular appeal that needs to grow rather than shrink.

It is clear that this administration cannot be trusted with the keys to the vault of our most precious places that define us as a nation, such as Mount Rushmore or Yosemite national park.

When this nightmare ends, and we begin to rebuild, we suggest it is time for Congress to consider making the National Park Service an independent institution, more akin to the Smithsonian, and no longer subject to the vicissitudes of a hostile political agenda in a Department of the Interior dominated by extractive industries and anti-public land crusaders.

  • Brothers Jonathan and Destry Jarvis have spent a combined 87 years in the conservation of parks and public lands. Jonathan was the 18th director of the NPS and served in the agency for 40 years. Destry has spent 47 years as an advocate for national parks working for several non-governmental organizations and in the private sector.

  • The opinions expressed here are those of the authors. For more information about how this project is supported, click here.