You are here

Interior Secretary Zinke: Read These Books Before Choosing A National Park Service Director


Dear Interior Secretary Zinke, before you and President Trump settle on a nominee for National Park Service director, please read these books.

They're relatively short reads, but as summer for all intents and purposes is here and your travel schedule has been full recently, let me summarize them for you.

The Case of the Indian Trader: Billy Malone and the National Park Service Investigation at Hubbell Trading Post

Author Paul Berkowitz packs three stories into this title: One that details what seems to be a grave injustice done to a man many describe as the last, and one of the best, of the country's true-to-life Indian traders; a second on mismanagement within one of the National Park Service's largest cooperating associations, and; a third that reveals an incredibly dark side of the National Park Service.

It is that final piece of the triangle that you need to focus on. After all, many in the general public see the National Park Service as their favorite government agency. But within The Case of the Indian Trader, Mr. Berkowitz peels back the luminous outer skin of the Park Service to reveal a dysfunctional culture, one that by his accounts has more than a few times placed itself above the law. It is a culture that at times seems to struggle with the question of whether the ends justify the means. One that, despite findings and warnings from the Interior Department's inspector general, outwardly seems to have resisted change.

Legacy of the Yosemite Mafia: The Ranger Image and Noble Cause Corruption in the National Park Service

This is the latest work by Mr. Berkowitz -- who, by the way, was a special agent for the National Park Service -- and is so new that we at the Traveler haven't quite finished it for a review. But you could view it as a sequel of sorts to The Case of the Indian Trader, for once again the author digs into the culture of the Park Service in an attempt to understand its struggles at times with law enforcement and proper management. As Andrea Lankford, herself a former ranger and author of Ranger Confidential: Living, Working, and Dying in the National Parks, told me, "In short, it is an extremely accurate and insightful perspective on an ongoing problem within NPS culture and the dysfunctional way the agency has viewed park (law enforcement) and other first response needs."

National Parks: The American Experience

Finally, Secretary Zinke, you should read, if you haven't already, National Parks: The American Experience, by Dr. Alfred Runte. This is a foundational primer every National Park Service employee should be required to read. Dr. Runte (a Traveler contributor) lays down the history of national parks and the National Park Service, and examines the nation's movement to preserve nature in the park system. Naturally, if you're talking preservation, you have to discuss the threats to it, and this book does it in the context of the National Park System.

There are many more books you should add to your reading list, Mr. Secretary. Certainly Worth Fighting For, Robert Danno's account of how he was railroaded for blowing the whistle on superiors who ignored well-established federal laws and agency policies and procedures in allowing a billionaire to chop down trees in a scenic easement along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park. Then there's Desert Solitare by Ed Abbey, Wilderness and the American Mind by Roderick Nash; Ms. Lankford's aforementioned Ranger Confidential: Living, Working, and Dying in the National Parks, and; Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History, by Richard West Sellars.

But we're guessing you're short on time, so stick to the first three, and expand with the others in the months to come.

We settled on the first three as must-reads because there's a cancer of sorts eating away at the National Park Service, one that is a key source of the relatively low morale within the rank-and-file. If you've glanced recently at the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings, you know that the Park Service in the most recent survey landed 262 out of 305 agencies surveyed for workplace bliss. Out of the federal agencies that work in the energy and environmental sectors, the Park Service ranked 15th...out of 15.

Sure, Park Service pay scales probably have something to do with low morale, and the staffing situation that leaves many employees with collateral duties. But if you spend a few minutes looking at this survey, you'll see that the agency's workforce doesn't think very highly of its leaders. In the category of "Effective Leadership," the Park Service ranked 278 out of 303 agencies. In terms of "Effective Leadership: Empowerment," it stood 265 out of 303. In terms of "Fairness," the Park Service leaders ranked 249 out of 303. Worse, yet, "Senior Leaders" ranked 284 out of 303 when it came to "Effective Leadership," and in terms of "Strategic Management," the agency scored 289 out of 304.

Notice the trend, Mr. Secretary?

Recent events in the agency aren't likely to help these scores. Former Park Service Director John Jarvis ignored the Interior Department's ethics rules, saying it would take too long to follow them to publish a book on "American Values and Our National Parks." Northeast Regional Director Mike Caldwell recently was found to have run up nearly $18,000 in travel reimbursements that he wasn't entitled to claim. And most recently, the superintendent of Gettysburg National Military Park has been reassigned pending the outcome of an Office of Inspector General investigation. What that investigation is all about has been a very well-kept secret, but if you have to reassign a superintendent, well, it can't be too good.

And, of course, there's the whole chapter written on sexual harassment in the National Park System, from Grand Canyon and Yellowstone to Canaveral National Seashore, Chatahoochee River National Recreation Area, and DeSoto National Memorial

Those first two books by Mr. Berkowitz portray the culture of the Park Service, and provide insights that can help explain some of the managerial foibles as well as the low morale. The third title, by Dr. Runte, provides a grounding in the history of the national parks and the National Park Service, and their evolution. 

All three are vital titles for guiding the Park Service in the years to come, and helping the agency improve on its disturbing rankings when it comes to a place to work.

Oh, and when you interview candidates for the job, Secretary Zinke? Ask them if they've read these books.

Please Support Independent National Park Journalism

Use the links below to make your donation to National Parks Traveler via PayPal, or send your check to National Parks Traveler, P.O. Box 980452, Park City, Utah, 84098. The Traveler is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit media organization. For U.S. residents, 100 percent of your contributions may be eligible for a tax deduction in accordance with applicable law. 


Thanks for this timely and appropriate article, Kurt.  The National Park Service has many fine employees, but the total agency is far less than the sum of its parts due to widespread mismanagement. I hope he reads your recommended books, but I doubt Secretary Zinke will be impressed with your travel fraud example, since he's been reported to be guilty of the same offense:

Also Read:

In this absorbing and equally inspiring companion volume to his classic trilogy--The Road Less Traveled, Further Along the Road Less Traveled, and The Road Less Traveled and Beyond--Dr. M. Scott Peck brilliantly probes into the essence of human evil.

People who are evil attack others instead of facing their own failures. Peck demonstrates the havoc these people of the lie work in the lives of those around them. He presents, from vivid incidents encountered in his psychiatric practice, examples of evil in everyday life.

This book is by turns disturbing, fascinating, and altogether impossible to put down as it offers a strikingly original approach to the age-old problem of human evil.

I am glad you are making these suggestions. I will also add that there is clear evidence that performing hit jobs on people who run counter to the NPS line seems to be the shortest route to advancement in the agency.  But I have zero hope that Zinke will reflect upon the NPS misdeeds in light of his own travel expenditure malfeasance.  There is a cultural problem at the NPS and he isn't the one to right the ship.  Now expect the NPS glee club to chime in defense of the NPS. 

In response to m13's post above, I read "People of the Lie - The Hope for Healing Human Evil", by M. Scott Peck, while working at my last National Park.  The insights contained in this book helped me understand how the Park's management team operated, thereby helping me survive a difficult period of my career.  The NPS has all too many managers who fit Mr. Peck's profiles, degrading what should be the best agency in the federal government.  My decision to leave the NPS was the best career move I ever made.

Thank you for writing this wonderful article with its excellent suggestions. I can only hope Secretary Zinke follows your advice and reads all of these books. He should also have his staff read them as well. Many more books of this type can be found on the web site at 

"People of the Lie" is one of the most important books ever written.  Everyone needs to read it.  And my experiences with NPS brass fit right in there.

Let's hope people who are in position to make a difference will grab the opportunity to do that. 

The thousands of honest, excellent, hardworking people who are really the NPS deserve nothing less. 

m13 - took your advice and read the book.  No sure how it applies to NPS management.  Must say I had some issues with Pecks conclusions.   In general, I didn't think any of his examples were truely "evil".  Hitler was evil, Stalan was evil, ISIS is evil.  Being a narcissist or not wanting to let go of your childred is not "evil".  I also object to his characterization of evil as an illness.  I don't see it as an illness any more than kindness, generosity or shyness is an "illness".  Calling it an illness takes away the personal responsibility.  

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide