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Musings, Some Political, From Around The Parks


Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke seems to be developing a habit for infusing politics into his job. Should that be ignored?/ © Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0.

The other day on Traveler's Facebook page a reader took me to task for posting a story about Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's claim that roughly one-third of all Interior Department employees are against him and President Trump.

"The politicization of so many of your posts has become tiresome," he wrote.

As an editorially independent media outlet, I replied, we cover issues pertinent to the Park Service and the National Park System. As such, Secretary Zinke's claim was certainly pertinent to our coverage, in part because of the overall ramifications to the National Park System, and because we have a high readership of National Park Service employees.

Indeed, just about anything this Interior secretary -- or any Interior secretary -- does or says is pertinent to the management and future of the national parks.

Unfortunately, politics do seem to be appearing more and more in the news of the day. They were never absent, but after the presidential campaign -- not just its outcome, but the actual campaign -- the appearance, and interference, of politics shouldn't be surprising.

What should media do? Sit back and ignore the machinations of Washington when they have impact on the country?

The political and policy swing from Secretary Sally Jewell to Secretary Ryan Zinke has been broad and deep and can't be ignored.

Secretary Zinke placed a National Rifle Association official on the National Park Foundation's board of directors, is pushing federal land managers to issue more energy exploration permits more quickly, has called for a downsizing of some national monuments and the opening of others to resource extraction, and supports a significant reduction in both the Interior Department's budget and workforce. Interior also reversed course on previous rulings and took steps to approve a dangerous groundwater mining proposal that threatens Mojave National Preserve, the third-largest national park site in the lower 48 states. 

While Secretary Jewell opposed a transmission line running through the James River near Historic Jamestowne and Colonial National Historical Park, Secretary Zinke wanted construction to begin as quickly as possible.

"That said," I continued in my Facebook reply, "we cover many other issues, such as the recent series on bison in the West, the strain of visitors on resources and park staff, the hurricane relief and recovery efforts, the comeback of eastern Hemlocks, photography columns, book reviews, as well as stories on how to enjoy the parks."

The reader came around to see my point of view.

"I jumped too quickly when I saw the post earlier today," he said. "Agreed, it is relevant, but in today's political climate due to this insane NFL issue (both sides are acting like children and fanning the flames), when I read the post about Zinke I thought, 'Oh no, not  something else for people to blow up over!' I guess my thought was, yes, it's relevant, but couldn't we just let this one go? But, that would be wrong; it does impact the morale of the NPS employees, which in turn impacts the parks."

Employee morale also might take a hit from Secretary Zinke's travel decisions. Late last week, after news broke that Mr. Zinke charted a plane to fly from Las Vegas to Montana at a cost of $12,375, the Interior secretary referred to the flap as "a little BS over travel." Compared to Tom Price's fancy for government-paid-for flights, said to cost taxpayers north of $400,000, yes, $12,375 is miniscule.

But here's the kicker: Mr. Zinke didn't need to charter the flight. He did, though, rather than fly commercial for roughly $300 so he could stick around Las Vegas to speak at a private professional hockey team affair unrelated to his role overseeing the country's public lands and resources. The team is owned, according to the Center for Western Priorities, by Bill Foley, chairman of Fidelity National Financial, the largest contributor to Mr. Zinke's political career.

At a time when the Trump administration wants to cut the federal government's budget and remove roughly 1,200 Park Service staff, at a time when there's already not enough staff in the parks to protect resources or see that visitors have a great experience, the Interior secretary thinks spending more than $12,000 of taxpayer dollars so he can give a talk to benefit his largest political benefactor passes the smell test. It doesn't, and it isn't likely to help build the morale of Park Service employees.

No Data?

The Trump administration apparently has no response to the curious title page they attached to the water bottle report showing how successful a National Park Service ban on the sale of disposable water bottles in just 23 of the more than 400 units of the park system has been. 

The report, obtained by The Washington Post via a Freedom of Information Act request, said the ban prevented upwards of 2 million 16-ounce bottles from entering the waste stream on an annual basis, cut between 73,624-111,743 pounds of PET from landfills, resulted in energy savings of 2,209-3,353 million British thermal units per year, and reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 93-141 metric tons. It also claimed the data "is presented at a 95 percent confidence."

Last Monday we asked Park Service officials in Washington how there can be a 95 percent confidence level if “the bureau lacked the data necessary to ensure the report’s findings”?

While we were told on Monday that staff was working to answer that question, by Friday night they were unable to provide one.

Hurricane Recovery Funds 

Here's a look at some of the funds that have been set up to help National Park Service personnel impacted by this year's hurricanes:

* The National Park Service Employees & Alumni Trust Fund performs disaster relief at the request of the National Park Service to support NPS and partner organization employees with immediate assistance for temporary shelter, food, damage to homes, and essential personal property. It is managed by Eastern National Park, a Park Service cooperating association.

"The National Park Service Employee & Alumni Trust Fund has collected $36,000 and received 65 requests for immediate assistance, mostly from NPS and partner organization employees in Florida and Texas," Eastern National President and CEO Kevin Kissling said Friday via email. "Communications with staff in the Caribbean remain sporadic, thus only a few requests have been submitted from employees in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. As infrastructure repairs progress, we anticipate additional requests will be submitted."

* Friends of Virgin Islands National Park has launched a recovery fund for the island of St. John, home to the national park.

On September 6, 2017 Hurricane Irma passed over St. John as a Category 5 hurricane. The results were devastating. Virgin Islands National Park, along with most of the homes and buildings on the island, were seriously damaged. The flora and the fauna of the island were decimated. It is not the St. John we know and love. We will recover, but it will be a long-haul.

Your support will be critical to the recovery process. Although nature is resilient, as humans we need to eliminate all barriers and obstacles in its way. On St. John, that now means a tremendous amount of clean-up, re-building and re-designing of our habitat. From clearing debris to rebuilding roads, trails and beach access ways.

Donations are being taken here.

* The South Florida National Park Trust is raising funds for Biscayne,Dry Tortugas, and Everglades national parks as well as Big Cypress National Preserve.

Although damage assessments are underway in each of the parks, we still don’t know where our help – and your support – is needed most. We will be working with our partner parks in coming weeks to identify the most urgent needs moving forward.

You can donate at this page.

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Thank you, Kurt.  This article is very much needed.  We are faced with what has to be the absolutely most dangerous presidential administration in the entire history of our nation.  The ONLY protection we have now are reporters and investigators from various trustworthy media outlets. 

Great article, Kurt.  It's incumbent upon such trusted resources as the Traveler to keep its readers informed about everything national park- and national monument-related.  This includes fun stuff, educational stuff, and political stuff. Whether people like it or not, the national park system is as politicized as any other entity here in the United States, and the current administration's words and actions will affect our national parks and national monuments now and for years to come ... maybe not in a good way.

Being that our national parks are our, well, national, subject to political action for their continued funding and existence, it would be fairly difficult to avoid politics in examining some issues.

Certainly most of  your readers are "biased" when it comes to national parks. That is, we care about them and what happens in and to them. Our opinions can differ in what we think is desirable, or how a goal can be achieved. As a former repoorter, I know that we all have biases. The trick is to know what they are and be able to cover a topic in a fair, balanced, thorough manner despite our personal ideas.

I've found the content here meets those standards. I think I can detect at least a little of your underlying political leanings, and this certainly isn't my only source of parks information. As long as you don't bear down too intensively on the Beltway stuff, I'm happy.

Besides, too much politics takes away from the time you have for intensive, in-person investigation of marmots in Rocky Mountain National Park, rock art in Escalante or whether autumn leaves are prettier in Michigan or New England!

Besides, too much politics takes away from the time you have for intensive, in-person investigation of marmots in Rocky Mountain National Park, rock art in Escalante or whether autumn leaves are prettier in Michigan or New England!

The problem is that if the politcs don't get paid attention to, there might well not be marmots, rock art, or autumn leaves anywahere for Americans and others to enjoy in the future.

Hey Lee, the link you provided only took me to my Gmail in-box. I could be doing something wrong but I couldn't get anything else from clicking the link, FYI.

Thanks, Paul.

Thanks for the heads up, Paul.  Computers!  Bah Humbug!

Try this.  It should work better.

Thank goodness for PEER.  We need this more than ever before.

Be sure to open and read the documents posted in green at the end of the first article especially the one dealing with Zinke's experts.

I also have a question someone may be able to answer.  What is Bison Connect?  It looks like some sort of internal DOI communication system. 

Thanks for posting, Lee.  This little episode should come as no surprise.  Secretary Zinke recently described himself as a pirate; commandeering boats and ripping people off is what pirates do, eh?

Yeah.  But let's hope that when he's finally caught he'll have to walk the plank.

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