Guardian of the Parks: Jonathan Jarvis on the NPS Centennial

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Jonathan Jarvis can say one thing most of us can’t: He has his dream job.

As director of the National Park Service (NPS), Jarvis oversees more than 84 million acres of public land in the United States—from its largest unit, Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, to its smallest, Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial, which occupies less than a fifth of an acre in downtown Philadelphia.

As the National Park Service celebrates the centennial of its founding—the agency was created by an act of Congress signed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916, more than 44 years after Yellowstone became America’s first national park—Director Jarvis shares his favorite park units, the ups and downs of the job, his hopes for the next 100 years, and more.

Leslie Trew Magraw: At this point you’ve worked for the National Park Service in one capacity or another for close to four decades. What inspired you to be a career civil servant? 

Jonathan Jarvis: I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Our house backed up against the George Washington National Forest and that was my playground. I was always off somewhere by myself or with my dogs. At one point we had 15 dogs, so I was just the 16th one most of the time.

As a kid I read a lot—Jack LondonSigurd F. Olson, all of the “outdoor” writers. I was also really good at science. So working for the Park Service just sort of made sense.

As park director, you’re based in Washington, D.C. What are the biggest misconceptions about the nation’s capital? 

I think most people don’t realize that there’s a lot of nature right here—Rock Creek Park, the Billy Goat TrailGreat Falls, the Shenandoah Valley, the Chesapeake Bay, even the Potomac River—that’s easily accessible and really pretty wild. They think of D.C. as a teeming metropolis, but in reality there’s quite a bit of great green spaces.

Where would you live if you could live anywhere in the world?

Washington State or Oregon. I’ve spent most of my career in the Pacific Northwest, [and that’s] where I feel most at home.

Why do you think that is?

There’s something about the quality of the air—the crispness you get from the maritime influence of the Pacific. You have the mountains and the ocean very close together, beautiful big rivers and forests—all the elements that I really love.

When the sun is shining, I don’t think there’s a more beautiful place in the continental United States.

I love the American West. You still get lots of interplay between species that you can observe.

If you just take the time—and I think a lot of people won’t take the time—but if you just sit down in a natural space, in about 20 minutes the wildlife will ignore you, become accustomed to you being there, and just carry out their lives. It can be incredibly fascinating.

You and your family lived in Alaska for five years while you were superintendent of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Tell me about your time in the Last Frontier.

[The park encompasses more than] 13 million acres, or 21,000 square miles. That’s the same size as West Virginia, or Switzerland.

Working in the bush of Alaska, from a biological standpoint, is sort of like living in the Pleistocene. The glaciers have only recently retreated, and you still have these large aggregates of wildlife—bears and caribou and moose.

Human impact on that landscape is pretty minimal, if not almost irrelevant. We built the roads and we’ve got the pipeline, but the rivers are still free-flowing and weather—the environment—is still the dominant force.

What’s winter like there?

Once you go into an Alaskan winter, the visitation by the public pretty much drops to zero, and you’re pretty much there with the community.

The place that [my wife and two kids] lived, the village of Copper Center, is one of the coldest places in the state. At one time, the high for the month was 40 below zero. That’s as warm as it got. It could be 50, sometimes 55 below zero. That’s not wind-chill; that’s on the thermometer on your porch.

In those temperatures, often the Northern Lights would be out. My wife and I would walk every night, [despite the cold]. It would be totally still, completely silent—just wonderful.

America’s national parks may be the of superstars of the NPS, but they represent only 59 of a total of 409 units overseen by the Park Service. I know you can’t play favorites, but…what are your favorite park units?

I can’t play favorites, but every one of the places where I’ve worked has a special story.

I spent my first winter as a seasonal interpreter in Washington, D.C., with Mr. Jefferson in his marble rotunda. When the wind is blowing off the Tidal Basin, there are not many people over at the Jefferson Memorial. It’s still one of my favorite spots.

Prince William Forest Park, right outside of D.C., is really where I got my start [in the Park Service]. It’s a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) recreation demonstration project created during FDR’s presidency to show the capacity of the CCC. They built these five cabin camps, and what was interesting about that is the cabin camps were designed to bring children and expose them to nature.

They were segregated camps; there were white camps and camps for black children. But, in many ways they were doing what we are currently attempting to do, and that’s to introduce children to nature—obviously not in a segregated way. We’re trying to bring children out from inner city locations and get them into parks.

It’s as if we were inventing this today, but they were doing it in the ‘30s.

I was the park biologist at Crater Lake. The lake itself is really special, an extraordinary resource, [and] very complicated biologically. It’s 2,000 feet deep, so it’s like working on the ocean. It’s also crystal clear. You could put a dinner plate down 125 feet and still see it. And there’s sound-booth quality quiet.

Craters of the Moon National Monument, where I was superintendent, is a fascinating place. Craters has these basalt lava flows that have hardened, so it’s this big black landscape. But there’s a lot of really extraordinary wildlife, too. My wife and I were there three years, when our kids were young. We saw bat hibernacula and rattlesnakes in our yard, all kinds of great stuff.

In North Cascades, one of the lesser known parks, there are valleys where you’d think you were in Alaska, in terms of the beauty and remote wildness. In the spring, you half expect Julie Andrews to come running over the hills, the hills are so alive [with] lupin and beargrass.

And in Guadalupe Mountains, where I was a district ranger, there are deep canyons that are dry at the bottom, but once you get to the top there are these springs, and wildflowers, and travertine pools, and salamanders and frogs—in the middle of the Texas desert.

What’s the best thing about your job?

I think we all want to have jobs that have meaning. And I think this job has an extraordinary amount of meaning to it.

I get to steward these resources and fight for their protection; make decisions about our activities or activities that potentially threaten the parks; choose what new parks we might support being added, either by the president or by the Congress; and share these places with the American people.

And then I get up to work with an extraordinary team. The park service employees and our army of volunteers are an incredibly dedicated and mission-oriented group of people. They work really, really hard and they’re willing to go the extra mile to protect these places. So you can’t beat that.

And the worst?

The downside of the job is that there is a segment of the public out there that doesn’t really buy into the national parks concept. They don’t value the public stewardship of [these lands] and would rather see them utilized for extractive uses—you know, for timber, mining, or for commercial development.

That element is always there and they’re working 24 hours a day to achieve their goals, so that’s kind of a downer.

You’re the 18th director of the National Park Service. Do you look to any of your predecessors for inspiration?

Obviously the first two, Stephen Mather and Horace Albright. Horace was Mather’s deputy, then went on to become director.

Those two individuals created the culture of the organization. They were instrumental in establishing the laws and policies by which we manage [the parks], built the relationship with the American people, and created the abiding ranger persona—the uniform and all of that.

If you fast-forward to more recent times, I’d say George Hartzog ranks as one of the greatest modern directors. He oversaw the NPS during Mission 66, one of the biggest expansions of the park system, and saw the need for us to connect to urban populations.

It was through George that we added places like Golden Gate and Gateway and Cape Cod and Point Reyes and Cape Hatteras—that we [brought] the parks to the people.

Where are your favorite national parks outside the United States? Are you inspired by anything you’ve seen another country try?

They’re all fascinating. They’re all different. One of the areas I’ve become interested in lately is Australia and how they are working with the Aboriginal people in [a kind] of co-management stewardship. Canada has done a very good job of that as well, with its First Nations communities.

[Working with indigenous populations is] an area that I don’t think [the U.S.] has done a particularly great job with in the past. [It’s important] for us to figure out how to better work directly with Native Americans, and I think we can take ideas and inspiration from places like Australia.

Speaking of Australia, you attended the World Parks Congress in Sydney in 2014. What was the most encouraging trend that emerged? 

I think the primary assertion that came out of Sydney is that parks can be an antidote to climate change—that they can provide natural solutions to mitigating the impacts of sea level rise and [enable] species migration by creating connectivity on the landscape.

Is there something the U.S. is doing that you’re particularly proud of?

Australia pioneered the “healthy parks, healthy people” concept and has done a very good job with it, but the United States is now the leader internationally in this field.

We have about 150 pilot projects across the nation where we have doctors and medical clinics prescribing parks as a part of their normal regimen for heart disease, obesity, cancer, depression, and plenty of other ailments.

What do you think is the biggest upside to these once-a-decade gatherings?

It’s always good for the U.S. to go because we are the most wealthy, most supported park system in the world. So it makes us a little bit more humble when we find out how poor many of our brethren are out there in their park systems, and the challenges they’re facing—poaching in Kenya and South Africa and how little funding some of the European and Asian parks have.

What’s the National Park Service doing to mark its centenary? 

On the one hand it’s a celebration of a hundred years of stewardship and public engagement. We need to be proud of that—we need to recognize the contributions that helped establish the system and helped to maintain and support it.

But at its core, [the centennial] is about our second century. It’s about building the next generation of stewards so they will take on the mantle of responsibility of these incredible places and [tell] their stories.

That’s why we’ve crafted the “Find Your Park” campaign in partnership with the National Park Foundation, which is an invitation to the American people—and the millennial generation [especially]—to engage, to visit, to volunteer, to become active, to make deep and lifelong connections with the parks.

What do you hope will be your legacy at the Park Service?  

I’ll leave that up to the historians, but I hope people will look back on this period at some point in the future and say, “They didn’t waste the opportunity of the centennial”—that the NPS used it smartly to build a relationship with the American people that then translated into the kind of political, monetary, volunteerism, and visitation support the parks will need for decades to come.

If I can pull that off, I’ll be happy.

You maintain quite a busy schedule. Where do you like to go on vacation?

I go to parks [laughs].

I’m not averse to cities. I like museums and art, but if I have a couple days of that, then I gotta get back outside. I’ve gotta get to wild places.

Leslie Trew Magraw is editor/producer for the Intelligent Travel blog network at National Geographic. Follow her story on Twitter @leslietrew and on Instagram @leslietrew.

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