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Traveler's View: National Park Service Needs To Improve Its Transparency


Why won't National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis agree to an interview? NPS photo.

It's not often that the Interior Department calls, and so when caller ID indicated it was someone in the department calling, I answered the phone. The funny thing about that call, though, was it was going on six years late in coming.

The caller worked in the Office of Inspector General's Freedom of Information Office. Back in November 2009, you see, the Traveler had filed a Freedom of Information Act request into how the National Park Service handled an investigation into alleged embezzlement from the Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site.

Ten days after we submitted that request, a letter arrived announcing that the request had been received and assigned a case number.

Ten MONTHS later we received another letter, this one apologizing for the long delay in meeting that request. Did we, it went on, still want to pursue the matter? 

Yes, we dutifully replied. And then the years of silence ensued.

This despite President Barack Obama's Inauguaral-day pledge that his administration would be the most transparent in history, and that the FOIA process in particular was vitally important.

"The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails," the president wrote in a proclamation endorsing FOIA. "The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by the disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative of abstract fears. Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of Government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve."

Well, the years of silence were finally broken the other week when that caller from the Office of Inspector General asked whether we were still interested pursuing the request for the Hubbell investigation. "No," I replied, "but I do wonder why it took six years to hear from you?"

The answer, she said, was a staffing shortage that created a tremendous backlog of FOIA requests to handle.

Now, it's worth noting that most of the information we were seeking was long ago secured pursuant to a FOIA lawsuit filed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, who thankfully shared it with us. It should be noted, too, that PEER only sued after its FOIA request for the information was ignored. It seems like it's become almost de-facto that normal FOIA requests are ignored, a strategy that leaves the average citizen with little hope of seeing the requested documents, unless they have the wherewithal to sue.

Even more details - most extremely troubling in nature - were subsequently provided in Paul Berkowitz's 2011 book, The Case of the Indian Trader. (As a relevant side-note, Indian Trader Billy Malone's lawsuit is still making its way through the courts, and scheduled for oral arguments in the 9th Circuit on March 14 of this year.)

Nevertheless, this long-overdue response to our FOIA request into the Hubbell Trading Post scandal brought to mind a long list of other requests the Traveler has made for information from the National Park Service -- both in the form of documents as well as basic requests for interviews with the Obama administration's Park Service director, Jon Jarvis.

While most of our requests have been met, we're still hoping for an interview with Director Jarvis. Among the questions we'd like to ask:

* What, if anything, did he do to help Rob Danno in his whistleblower case at Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park that derailed his Park Service career for nearly 10 years? Why is the superintendent that Danno's case revolved around still a superintendent?

* Does Director Jarvis support the proposed management plan for the Yosemite Valley that critics have said doesn't get to the core of the valley's human problem?

* Did he read Sen. Tom Coburn's report, Parked! How Congress' Misplaced Priorities Are Trashing Our National Treasures and what is his opinion of it?

* As secretary of the National Park Foundation, did Director Jarvis support that group's licensing of its name to a company that sells after-market off-road equipment for pickup trucks and SUVs, and to another that makes air fresheners? More specifically, does he believe trucks designed for off-road travel promote environmental consciousness in the parks, and do chemically created wafts of park scents entice visitors to the parks?

* What does Director Jarvis think of congressional efforts to permit logging in areas of Yosemite National Park that were burned last year by the Rim Fire? 

* What, if anything, can the director do to help the plight of seasonal rangers, as outlined in a recent Traveler column by PJ Ryan?

These are just an easily grabbed handful of topics that we'd like to discuss with the director. Unfortunately, we're presented with a directorship that is all but silent, publicly at least, on a range of issues that go to the heart of how the National Park System is managed.

Traveler has had a standing request in to the director's office for an interview, and been rebuffed time and again for reasons we can't pinpoint. Director Jarvis's most recent predecessors, Mary Bomar and Fran Mainella, weren't as hard to pin down.

True, politics of the day, and legal impediments, can require a measure of restraint from the Park Service director. But as manager of the world's greatest National Park System, with oversight of a neaerly $3 billion annual budget, and with a workforce of roughly 20,000, his stance/thoughts on a range of topics that are of interest to both the general public and the National Park Service staff deserves transparency and response.

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Thanks for this important article, Kurt. As someone who was ignored after repeatedly requesting a simple budget summary and organization chart at my local park, it's hard not to come away with an impression of arrogant NPS management that appears to have something to hide. They love to play the budget card, but prefer it remains face-down to the taxpayers.


I have one more important question to add to your list for Director Jarvis, should he ever get in touch: How can he justify promoting a park superintendent who was referred to a federal District Attorney for prosecution, when the appearance of serious conflict of interest was so strong?


"[DOI Office of Inspector General] Investigators eventually concluded that Uberuaga 'made false statements or concealed material facts' about the transaction. In late 2008, they referred the case to federal prosecutors in Seattle, who declined to prosecute."


The author of the above news story told me DOJ declined because of a heavy backlog of Homeland Security cases.

Why is NPT left out there alone as the only entity asking these questions? Where is ANPR? Where is the NPS retirees group? Why do they
care more about preserving the NPS's Dudley Do-Right image instead of insisting that image be reality?

I guess it is the psychology of the enabler. Although the sins committed here are lesser evils, the mindset of those who control these groups isn't that different than the University of Pennsylvania officials in the Sandusky case or of the Catholic church looking out for its predatory priests. Their loyalty to the group is so strong they defend it, and deflect blame, even when its actions are repugnant.

Kurt, I am with you on the "Traveler View". It was right on. It is simply unacceptable for issues like "The Case of the Indian Trader", to be allowed to drag on. All the issues you cite are important, it is disconcerting to think public service officials feel they are not obligated to share important decisions with their employers, the American taxpayer. I do think there maybe some legal restraints and some real budgetary issues, however, I think it is used more often, than not, as an excuse. Thank you for this very important "Travelers View".

It's not just the director's office that is silent. The decisions and decision-making process are kept secret all the way down to the park level. All topics on hiring, management, budget priorities, and a host of others are kept closed to a select few people who have all known each other for decades. Employees who have some stake in these areas, either because the decisions affect them personally or affect their work, are not allowed to know how or why a decision is made, or sometimes even who made it. Employees are warned that if they want to get ahead, they should not ask questions. A sad state of affairs for a public agency.

The problem is widespread. A friend tried to get a FOI request from Big Bend NP and was told it would take a lot of money besides a lot of time.

I just sent this to the NPS retirees list serve which addresses some of the NPT comments.
Re: [PLW Update] Re: diversity priorities in NPS hiring, more from"AView from the Overlook", a very sensitive issue

" conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife 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 above statement has an inherent contradiction that managers and the public have wrestled with since 1916. How do you preserve the resources unimpaired and at the same time provide for their enjoyment and use? But despite the contradiction it is at the same time the savior of the national parks themselves. Without balance between the two we would have few national parks and none would have survived for long because without use and enjoyment the parks would have few supporters. At the same time if users destroy the purposes for which they were created they would no longer have any value and had just as well be turned over to the recreation industry for management.
As we all know the pendulum between use and preservation has swung back and forth, but for most of my career preservation has been supported by congress and the public. Currently I fear the pendulum is swinging towards use versus preservation. Commercial organizations seem to have increasing political clout. The internet has enabled user groups to organize and weaken or oppose park protections. I am sure park management feels those pressures everyday and it seems the NPS is losing more and more control over the parks as we see in the news on a regular basis. I have been a mountain climber and as a group they have often shown little respect for preservation values. Mountain bikers are flouting park protection rules in many local and regional parks by building illegal trails and daring manager to do anything about it. And now the NPS is embracing single track mountain biking in many areas. In sufficient numbers they drive other user groups away from popular trails. Lately the boating community is challenging the NPS restrictions on rivers important for wildlife and the opportunity to see a river without a constant stream of river runners. Unfortunately I don't see much resistance from traditional park supporters like the Wilderness Society, National Parks and Recreation Association, and the Sierra Club. The NPS cannot do it's job of preserving national park resources without their help. Incidentally when was the last time you heard anyone say "the parks are being loved to death".

Kevin Fitzgerald, former asst superintendent of GRSM, told a member of the Southern Forest Watch that it would be illegal to produce copies of public comments on the backcountry fee proposal. That person was supposed to disappear but retained a lawyer and filed a FOIA. Then they told that person the comments would cost $1200. Reason being, it didn't suit their crooked agenda. What was the result? The public comments were 18-1 against the unpopular fee. This is YOUR NPS doing what it does best. Manipulating data and bullying people. And it comes from the top of the moustache club.

Excellent post by Roger Siglin.

"Nothing is safe that is dollarable . . . " - John Muir

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