New park service chief sees ‘convergence’

It used to be that to run the National Park Service, the director in Washington would simply open the front gates on a system that was intended to protect treasured landscapes, preserve history, and serve as a refuge for wildlife and a salve for visitors seeking the peace of wild places.

In contemporary times, however, the job of overseeing John Muir’s “cathedrals of nature” requires presiding over fights of partisanship, science, religion and the appropriate telling of the American story.

For Jon Jarvis, the newly named director of the National Park Service, the future of the 391-unit system promises similar controversy.

Jarvis will have to implement a new law that allows loaded guns in parks and resolve the ongoing debate about snowmobiles in Yellowstone. He will need to reconcile the conflicting park missions of preservation and recreation, while trying to protect parks from the damaging effects of climate change. And he faces a battered workforce demoralized by neglect and a crushing maintenance backlog.

So why does Jarvis, a biologist who’s spent more than 30 years in the agency -- the last seven as the park service’s Oakland-based regional director -- tap his toes with excitement about the job he begins today?


“It’s a convergence, an incredibly great moment in time,” Jarvis said in his first interview since being confirmed by the Senate. Sitting at a picnic table in a grove of pecan trees at the John Muir National Historic Site, he laid out why he believes the parks are on the brink of a rejuvenation, beginning with the six-part Ken Burns documentary that just aired on PBS.

Called “America’s Best Idea,” the series fleshes out the personalities and titanic clashes that created the park service, and offers a majestic tour of the parks. The agency, which has been looking forward to the series for 10 years, hopes Burns’ documentary will make parks irresistible to Americans.

“Burns gives us the history,” Jarvis said. “This is the legacy that has been provided to the American people, to the world. It begs the question: So what now?”

Jarvis also cited the park service’s centennial celebration in 2016, and the accompanying array of fundraising and private-sector partnerships, as an opportunity for the parks -- famously stodgy and slow to embrace technology -- to turn a corner.

As director of the service’s Pacific West Region, Jarvis, 56, sought diversity in park staff and visitors, established programs to make parks relevant to young people, and provided materials in Spanish and on teaching inner-city families how to camp.

Bob Barbee, former superintendent of Yellowstone National Park and Jarvis’ boss as regional director in Alaska, said that kind of nontraditional thinking is what’s required if the parks are to capitalize on the moment. He called Jarvis “no shrinking violet.”

“The ingredients are there for a new Camelot, and I know that may sound flowery,” Barbee said. “A lot of things are coming together and a lot is going to be resting on his shoulders to pull this together. We’ve got the guy who can pull it off.”

Burns, who was recently made an honorary ranger and presented with the famous park service “flat hat,” said he feels a change coming from the new administration, after what he calls the Bush administration’s “benign neglect” of the park service.

“It will take them time to recover,” Burns said. “It’s possible that with new and active leadership that we can begin almost instantaneously to reverse this. Just talking to folks in the park service, they are so happy. It’s like -- suddenly, the dawn.”

Citing climate change as one of the top challenges in parks, Jarvis echoed the Obama administration’s pledge to reemphasize the role of science in federal land management decisions. Even though the park service is charged with a mission to educate, problems arise at places such as the Grand Canyon, where some visitors prefer a biblical interpretation of the canyon’s age.

“I’m not the least bit afraid of controversy in the work that we do,” Jarvis said. “We’re pretty good at this. It’s our job to tell the story and without embellishment, to tell it as truthfully as possible. Based on the historical side, scholarly work; and on the natural side, scientific work. That’s going to be the basis for our interpretation and we shouldn’t shy away from it.”

One change Jarvis says he’ll institute is to put park rangers back in classrooms. When Gale Norton was Interior secretary, she stopped that long tradition, saying it represented “mission creep.”

Rangers’ storytelling -- called “interpretation” in the park service -- will also shift. Jarvis said that rangers at Civil War battlefields now spend less time telling visitors where the Confederate and Union armies lined up for Pickett’s charge and more time discussing slavery and civil rights. Those issues are more relevant to today’s society, he said.

The role of the parks, Jarvis said, is to continue to tell the American story. He said that a group of military lawyers recently toured historic Japanese internment camps, to try to get a look at “how the current internment of American citizens will appear in history,” he said.

“This country’s history is being made every day,” Jarvis said. “The country always turns to us whenever there is a seminal moment in the American experience. We tell the Vietnam story at the Vietnam Memorial. We are going to be telling the story of the war in Iraq. We are going to be telling Afghanistan. Those stories are going to come to the service because that’s our job, that’s our responsibility, to tell the stories of the American experience. It’s pretty exciting.”