Jon Jarvis, the director of the National Park Service, spoke at Boise State on Tuesday evening for this year’s Andrus Lecture.
Jarvis spent much of his time recapping the political and financial battles won to create a National Park Service that turned 100 years old in August and now has more than 400 sites that generated 307 million visits last year.
And he left his audience with a message. The parks’ biggest proponents are aging, he said, and it’s important that they pass their passion to the next generation.
Jarvis, appointed in 2009, is retiring in January. He expects about 10 percent of the NPS staff to retire, too, as those who held on for the centennial move on.
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“The Park Service knows how to protect these places, we know how to fight, we know how to win and we will carry on this mantle of responsibility,” Jarvis said. “But putting up a fight for these places requires strong public support. ... My challenge to all of you here, to all of you who have fought many conservation battles and spent a lifetime loving these places, grab one of these young millennials and mentor them into a handoff of leadership. If we do that, then I believe we’ll have a very, very successful second century of stewardship.”
I spoke to Jarvis for a few minutes after his speech. You can watch that interview above.
One of my questions was about the longstanding wish for Idaho to have a national park (other than a sliver of Yellowstone). Some have proposed converting Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve into a national park, but there’s question of whether it fits the criteria. The National Park Service looks for sites that are “large and complex with multiple resources” when recommending national parks, Jarvis said.
He danced around the topic of Craters of the Moon, where he worked earlier in his career. Idaho’s best shot might have been the Sawtooth Mountains, which were placed in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area run by the U.S. Forest Service instead. (Learn about that history here.)
“Certainly there was a big movement at one point for the Sawtooths but I think that’s come and gone,” Jarvis said of an Idaho national park. “That certainly would qualify. But establishing a national park is up to Congress, and I’ll leave it at that.”
A few highlights from the speech and the Q&A that followed:
— Jarvis highlighted the National Park Service’s push to add more sites that tell stories of women and minorities and broaden the employee and visitor pool. “Through telling a more comprehensive story, we build relevancy,” he said.
— The NPS has partnered with the public health community “to literally prescribe the outdoors” for obesity, depression and other illnesses. He joked: “Some day I was to see this commercial come on: ‘Ask your doctor if parks are right for you. If you find that you’ve been in a park for more than four hours, it’s OK.’ ”
— He said two sections of Wyoming schools land could be sold and developed inside the Grand Teton National Park footprint. “This would be a permanent scar,” he said. The government has committed $23 million to purchase the first half of the property, appraised at $46 million. Another $18 million has been raised, leaving the effort $5 million short with a Dec. 31 deadline looming.
— Some parks have complained about the number of visitors. “We’re a little overwhelmed,” Jarvis said. “To be blunt about it, that’s a little intentional. We needed to reconnect with the American people. We wanted to broaden our base, too — not just with our traditional supporters but, again, more representative of America. And Congress has been saying for many years, ‘Why do you need more money when visitation has been flat?’ We needed to show that the public cares. There’s a direct correlation between public support and visitation. When they come, they want to help. The Park Service is pretty good at managing visitors.”
— Jarvis was asked about the reports of sexual harassment within the Park Service, a topic that led him to be chastised by Congress: “I was hoping someone would ask that so I could talk about it. Last year, a group of employees at Grand Canyon wrote a letter to (Interior Secretary Sally Jewell) outlining a large pattern of sexual harassment on the river district by male rangers. As a result, we launched an investigation by the inspector general, who corroborated all of those and other terrible, terrible conditions for women working within the river district. That is absolutely unacceptable at any place and, for me, particularly within the National Park Service.” Among other actions, the NPS has consulted with the Department of Defense on how to change the culture, Jarvis said, and encouraged employees to come forward with other complaints. An upcoming employee survey is expected to give better definition to the scope of the problem. “We frankly don’t know if it’s prevalent throughout the organization or if these are anomalies,” he said.
— On pet bans: “Wildlife view dogs as predators and will respond appropriately. If we allow dogs to be on leash in the parks, you’re not going to see wildlife. They will retreat.”
— On NPS units that tell stories about Japanese internment camps and other dark topics: “We’ve always been very, very proud of the National Park Service’s willingness to tell the darker side. The Park Service is the keeper of those stories and the teller of those stories and we tell those stories through place. I have great respect for the Smithsonian. They tell the stories through stuff. We have the places.”
— Jarvis previously worked at Craters of the Moon. One of his favorite questions from a visitor: “Did that nuclear place cause all of this?”
• • •
National Park Service sites in Idaho include:
▪ City of Rocks National Reserve (Almo)
▪ Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve (Arco)
▪ Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument (Hagerman)
▪ Minidoka National Historic Site (Hagerman)
▪ Nez Perce National Historical Park (a string of 38 sites
across Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Montana; Idaho
sites are in North Idaho)
Some national parks in the region and their distance from Downtown Boise (via Google Maps):
▪ Grand Teton (Wyoming): 372 miles
▪ Crater Lake (Oregon): 400
▪ Mount Rainier (Washington): 430
▪ Yellowstone (Wyoming/Montana/Idaho): 437
▪ Great Basin (Nevada): 455
▪ Lassen Volcanic (California): 502
▪ Glacier (Montana): 503
▪ Arches/Bryce Canyon/Capitol Reef/Canyonlands/Zion
▪ North Cascades National Park (Washington): 553