The lead-up to January’s three-day government shutdown highlighted once again the cavalier way in which Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has chosen to manage the National Park System. In an effort to avoid the bad publicity that plagued previous shutdowns, Zinke opted to keep the park gates open. You couldn’t tour interpretive centers, or go to the bathroom. But hey, look, an eagle!
Zinke’s decision left visitors wandering aimlessly in search of information last weekend and, according to NPR, made some furloughed staffers feel more than a little underappreciated by their agency’s leader. Rangers have long been viewed as the backbone of the park experience, offering guidance and protecting vulnerable resources. Zinke, however, seemed confident in his ability to muddle on without them.
That’s probably because when it comes to America’s most iconic tracts of public land, Zinke doesn’t really need anyone. He’s managed to hack it for nearly a year without the administration nominating a candidate for National Park Service director. Rather than draw too much attention to that vacancy, Zinke has pushed ahead with an agenda that includes doubling entrance fees at 17 parks, and he continues to flirt with the idea of privatizing park functions.
Zinke just lost the bulk of his National Park System Advisory Board, too. Ten of the board’s 12 members, including Chairman Tony Knowles, resigned Jan. 15 and pinned their exodus on Zinke’s refusal to convene or consult with the board on agency decisions during his first year in office. The board has for years been a guiding force for the park system on matters of stewardship and public education. In a joint resignation letter, Knowles noted the board’s emphasis on scientific research of climate change over the past seven years, and lamented Interior’s disregard for board engagement under Zinke’s reign.
“I have a profound concern that the mission of stewardship, protection, and advancement of our National Parks has been set aside,” Knowles wrote. “I hope that future actions of the Department of Interior demonstrate that this is not the case.”
So do we. Park rangers were concerned the shutdown might result in a literal shitstorm in the open-but-for-facilities parks. Those fears have abated for now, but if Zinke doesn’t curb his tendency to go it alone, we may still face a figurative one.