Despite issues involving wildlife, employee morale, competing user demands, and insufficient funds, Jon Jarvis thinks the timing of his arrival in Washington, D.C. as director of the National Park Service couldn't be much better.
And he probably has a point. The image of the national parks has been burnished courtesy of Ken Burns' documentary, The National Parks: America's Best Idea, there's a president who wants to invest in the park system, and, if recent head counts are any indication, Americans are more interested in visiting national parks than they have been in recent years.
"I think that this moment in time is an extraordinary opportunity for the National Park System, that kind of convergence of good things, and challenges, and I've always been one to step up to challenges and take on the next one that I think I can actually have some kind of impact on," the new director told me while packing up his West Coast office for his new digs on the East Coast.
"So the combination of the Burns film and [the Park Service centennial in] 2016, the Second Century of the National Parks Commission, and an administration that is supportive of the National Park System, our goals and our responsibility, and so you converge all of that and I think it's a great time to be director of the Park Service."
Still, Director Jarvis' inbox was overflowing by the time he reached Washington. There's the ongoing snowmobile issue in Yellowstone National Park (www.nps.gov/yell). Security issues are a concern at iconic park units, as evidenced by the successful Greenpeace global warming demonstration at Mount Rushmore National Memorial (www.nps.gov/moru) back in July.
The fact that there are too many deer at Valley Forge National Historical Park (www.nps.gov/vafo)and other Eastern parks and battlefields and too many elk at places like Theodore Roosevelt, Wind Cave, and Rocky Mountain national parks demonstrates the problems of no apex predators, other than humans, in settled and tightly squeezed landscapes. Climate change is impacting parks in ways difficult, if not impossible, to reverse. Yosemite National Park (www.nps.gov/yose) officials have agreed to sort out a plan to confront the growing human imprint in the Yosemite Valley.
What will be interesting to watch in the months to come is the measure of Director Jarvis' backbone. If there was a central shortcoming of the past two Park Service directors, Mary Bomar and Fran Mainella, it was that oftentimes they were not acting in the best interests of the National Park System but rather the political interests of the Bush administration.
Understandably, the Park Service director is a political appointee, and as such it can be tough to buck the political winds that swirl out of the White House. But at times that's what the National Park System requires if indeed the parks are to be managed "unimpaired for future generations." Director Jarvis, who was schooled as a biologist, says he has the mettle, and the scientific background, to separate the politics from the best interests of the parks. At the same time, he arrives in Washington with no blinders to the process.
"I bring to the position a scientific background. I have always been an advocate for the procurement and application of excellent science to our decision-making process, that all of our decisions should be informed by and guided by good science, and I think that that is one reason that they asked me to serve," he said. "And as the Burns film demonstrated, there's no avoidance of politics in the National Park System, even when we look back historically at the designation and protection of major areas. As John Muir said, nothing that is 'dollarable' is safe. So I think there is always going to be some challenges to the National Park System. But I think that my approach to this is to bring the very best science, the very best minds, the very best scholarly work to it, and hope to influence those politics in a positive direction."
Regarding snowmobiles in Yellowstone, Director Jarvis says he hopes to achieve a "situation that isn't whip-sawn by either the politics or the courts as some sort of long-term sustainability for the park."
And while there are many who argue -- whether it's over snowmobiles in Yellowstone, more services in the Yosemite Valley, or elk hunting in Rocky Mountain or Theodore Roosevelt -- that these activities are good for the surrounding economies, the new director hopes to impress on politicians, gateway communities, concessionaires, and all others who look to the parks for their livelihoods that sometimes the best return can be delivered by clean air and water, healthy forests and wildlife, and trails to explore.
Only time will tell how successful he will be.
Kurt Repanshek is the author of several national park guidebooks, including National Parks With Kids. You can get a daily dose of national park news, trivia, and commentary by visiting www.nationalparkstraveler.com, which tracks "Commentary, News, and Life in America's Parks." Follow National Parks Traveler on Twitter at www.twitter.com/parkstraveler.