Former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles this week led an exodus from the National Park Service advisory board, and some Alaskans were celebrating.
Welcome to the 21st Century of divisiveness on all fronts.
The Department of the Interior under Secretary Ryan Zinke “showed no interest in learning about or continuing to use the forward-thinking agenda of science, the effect of climate change, protections of the ecosystems, education,” Knowles told Alaska Public Media, the voice of the Public Broadcasting System in Alaska. “And it has rescinded NPS regulations of resource stewardship concerning those very things: biodiversity loss, pollution and climate change.”
So Knowles quit and convinced eight other board members to leave with him.
“Knowles and his ilk are pie-eyed optimists,” Rod Arno, the director of the Alaska Outdoor Council, said Wednesday. The group sent the Department of the Interior a thank you note for convincing Knowles to leave. Arno believes it a waste of time, energy and money for the Park Service to devote much time to the subjects on which Knowles had helped focus the advisory panel.
“The nation won’t preserve wildlife habitat at ecosystem levels, like we were able to do in Alaska with ANILCA 1980, by turning those postage-stamp size national parks Outside into ‘hands off’ laboratories with designs of acquiring more adjacent land jurisdiction just for the chosen scientists collecting data on climate change,” Arno said.
As for climate change itself, Arno didn’t think the Park Service needed much more data.
“We sure as hell don’t need National Park rangers to inform us that something is askew with the climate,” he said. “Look outdoors.”
The temperature in Anchorage on Wednesday was 36 degrees, and much of the state’s largest city was coated in ice after days of rain and the melting of what little snow had fallen earlier in the winter.
The Anchorage norm for the date is 17 degrees with a high of 23 and a low of 11. The National Weather Service forecast suggested the overnight low might possibly get down as low as the normal high.
The Outdoor Council – a hunting, fishing and outdoor-recreation group – has been regularly at odds with the Park Service, which took over management of a huge swath of the north after passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) in 1980. Almost 55 million acres of land, about two-thirds of the land under Park Service authority, is now in the 49th state.
Parks in the north are wild, undeveloped and of ecosystem scale. The 13.2-million-acre Wrangell St. Elias National Park in Eastern Alaska covers an area the size of Switzerland plus Yellowstone National Park, plus Yosemite Park, and it abuts Glacier Bay National Park, Canada’s Kluane National Park and Reserve, and British Columbia’s Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park as part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site that covers more than 24 million-square-miles.
The Kluane / Wrangell–St. Elias / Glacier Bay / Tatshenshini-Alsek reserve is bigger than Austria. With so much land protected in Alaska, the Outdoor council doesn’t see the park issues of importance as biodiversity, pollution or climate change, but access.
The organization has been a big supporter of moose hunter John Sturgeon in an expensive, long-running dispute with the Park Service over the use of a 10-foot-long hovercraft on the Kandik River in the seldom-visited Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve in Northeast Alaska.
The Park Service reports only 1,146 visitors to that 2.5-million-acre park in 2016, the last year for which data is available. According to the Park Service, only 122,320 people have visited the park in all the years since 1982.
Most of them never leave the Yukon. Sturgeon was the rare oddball who had for years ventured up a Yukon tributary to hunt.
He ran afoul of the Park Service not because his hovercraft was causing environmental damage (it wasn’t), or disturbing others (it wasn’t), but because the use of a hovercraft in the preserve violated an arbitrary rule that long ago banned hovercraft in all the nation’s parks.
Sturgeon went to court with the agency, arguing the state – not the Park Service – has authority over the Kandik, a navigable river. He took his case all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States and won, only to have the case sent back to the San Francisco-based Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, where he again lost. He is now appealing once more to the Supreme Court.
The Ninth Circuit is viewed by many as the nation’s most “liberal” court. Some in Alaska view Knowles as a liberal as well, and thus this story – like almost every other today – ends up tangled in politics.
San Franciscan Milton Chen, a former assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education now a fellow at the George Lucas Educational Foundation, told E&E News that he abandoned the 12-member board along with Knowles and seven others because the panel was denied the opportunity to explain its important work on education to the Trump administration.
The panel had advocated for something called the “National Park Service Director’s Order #100. A lengthy, bureaucratic game plan for the management of the country’s national parks going forward, DO #100 defined an educational role for the agency and stipulated it henceforth follow the “Precautionary Principle.”
The PP could be explained simply this way: When in doubt, keep people out.
Former Parks Director Jonathon Jarvis told E&E that recommendations from the advisory board’s science committee “became the basis of DO #100.” Gary Machlis, Jarvis’s former science adviser, added that the advisory board was “absolutely essential to DO #100” and expressed his confidence “Secretary Zinke’s determined effort to weaken the National Park Service and those that support it will ultimately fail.
“Long after he is forgotten, the innovative, smart and strong women of the NPS will be working to protect the national parks for all Americans.”
Park Service protection has not always gone down well in Alaska.
Park rangers in the fall of 2010 threatened to shoot 72-year-old Jim Wilde after he refused to stop so they could inspect his boat in the middle of the Yukon River in the Yukon-Charley Preserve. Wilde, instead, took off, and what happened next became the subject of much debate.
roads and allowable activities in our parks today would be under assault,” she wrote the Park Service. “Traditional lifestyles and tourism economies do not deserve to be put at risk due to management philosophies developed in Washington.”
No right answer
At the heart of the issue is the Organic Act of 1916 which set up the Park Service to “promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments and reservations…by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose of the said parks, monuments and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
The act has been interpreted in all sort of ways over the last 100 years. It was once used to justify predator control in Mount McKinley National Park (now Denali) to maximize the number of moose and caribou there. Predator control was eventually abandoned in favor of turning the park into a research area for studying the natural fluctations in wildlife populations in hopes of understanding what drives them.
From the start of the 20th Century until the start of the Second World War, the Park Service considered feeding Yellowstone bears garbage a way to conserve the bears and provide for the enjoyment of visitors. The latter gathered around the “Lunch Counter for Bears” to watch the show.
“During its first century, Yellowstone National Park was known as the place to see and interact with bears” is how the Park Service now describes the history. “Hundreds of people gathered nightly to watch bears feed on garbage in the park’s dumps.”
As America increasingly urbanized, however, the Park Service became more and more a nature-protection agency. Year by year, it marched steadily down a nature-first, people-second path until the arrival of President Donald Trump and Zinke, a former Congressman from Montana.
Zinke grew up hunting and fishing in Whitefish, Mont., with a normal, rural Westerners discomfort with government.
”…You should not be afraid to say, ‘The government stops at the mailbox, and if you come any further, you’re going to meet my gun,’” he told Outside Online’s Elliott D. Woods last year.
Woods described Zinke, a Prius-driving former Navy Seal, as holding a “moderate-by-Montana-standards position on guns and a handful of other issues, including climate change.”
The moderate later became what the Outside headline called “Trumps Attack Dog on the Environment.” Woods’ story is an interesting read, especially his observations on a planned Department of the Interior reorganization:
“To rectify what Zinke views as an imbalance skewed toward agency bureaucrats in D.C., he’s proposed what he’s called ‘the largest reorganization in a hundred years….Right now, all the different services report to their region, and the different agencies don’t align,” he said. “So we’re going to make them all report to their own single region, called a Joint Management Agency.’
“JMAs would be based on ecosystems, not geographic regions, and would, in theory, eliminate redundancies in staffing and allow for more streamlined decision-making. Zinke told me that the JMA idea was inspired by the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command, in which a mix of uniforms direct blended teams of elite operators. ‘That’s how we fight wars,’ Zinke told the Denali staff as they chewed on smoked caribou harvested by a ranger. ‘Anticipate about 13 of these JMAs in the U.S.'”
There might be no better way to scare the bejesus out of a bureaucracy than to propose such sweeping changes. And the heavily top-down DO #100 – with a “scientific literacy” requirement and a plan to back it up that sounds a little like something out of a Maoist manual for “re-education” – would be wholly out of step with those plans.
Zinke has come under a lot of criticism from Interior employees and environmentalists. He is sure to come under a lot more. The country is engaged in the mother of all political battles. Democrat President Barack Obama entered office promising change, but not much changed.
Outlaw Republican President Donald Trump entered office promising to “drain the swamp.” What exactly that means has never been exactly clear, and whether Trump is making any progress is hard to determine, but there is now most certainly water splashing everywhere.
That makes some people angry. It makes others happy.
The path forward would seem as confused as the Park Service’s mission to preserve resources while providing them for public enjoyment.