"The protection of these places is a constant battle"

National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis on the perilous future of America's parks -- and why they're so essential

By Jason Mark

Published September 11, 2014 11:45AM (EDT)

Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park

Jon Jarvis, Director of the National Park Service, had a childhood seemingly tailor-made for a career in public lands conservation. His family’s farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley backed up to the Washington National Forest, and as a boy the woods were his playground. He was an avid angler and hunter, and by the time he was 12 had climbed every mountain he could see from his house. “I grew up in the outdoors,” he says.

After earning a college degree in biology, Jarvis bummed around the West visiting as many of the national parks as he could. He returned back East “penniless,” and happened to land a seasonal job as an historical interpreter at the national park sites in the capital. He has worked for the Park Service ever since. His 38-year career has included stints as the superintendent of Craters of the Moon, North Cascades, Wrangell-St. Elias, and Mount Rainier. As the head of the park service, Jarvis oversees the management of 84 million acres of public land spread across more than 400 parks, monuments, and historic sites.

I recently spoke to Director Jarvis to ask him about his ideas of wilderness and his views on the challenges facing “America’s best idea”: global climate change, nature deficit disorder among younger people, and the distractions of information technology. “Wilderness taps into something very deep in the American psyche,” Jarvis told me. It’s a “way of saving something that makes Americans feel good about who we are, about us as a country.”

These days we hear a lot about “nature deficit disorder.” What is the Parks Service doing to ensure that we’ve got a new generation of wilderness enthusiasts?

Well, in many ways, that is the intent of our [upcoming 2016] centennial celebrations. We need to build the next generation of stewards. We need to connect at a deep level with this next generation. When I say “this next generation,” I’m talking on the one hand about the Millennials – sort of the 18- to 25-year-olds – but also the K to 12 folks. The National Parks and the public lands at large out there have a strong base of support, but that base has a couple of characteristics that are concerning. One is that they’re older and not very diverse. And this has been in the news a lot lately. And so we have actually structured our centennial around building relevancy into this next generation. Specifically, to answer your question, particularly with young folks there is this potential disconnect. We see it. But we also see that it doesn’t matter – socioeconomic status or ethnicity or whatever. If you get them into these environments, there’s something that clicks. A light comes on. There’s a power of these places. The trouble is, a lot of kids don’t get there. So one of the National Park Foundation’s major philanthropic programs is what’s called, “A Ticket to Ride.” That’s all about providing transportation for kids to get to parks. And then we built up our education curriculum around the parks, whether it’s the geology of the Grand Canyon or the history of the Civil Rights Movement, that relates directly to these places so that the teachers can utilize that when they come on their field trips. I think the other aspect of this is the role that urban parks currently and will in the future play in creating these threshold experiences with wild spaces.

You mean a place like Crissy Field in San Francisco or the San Gabriel Mountains in Los Angeles?

Absolutely, absolutely. Now, that may not be wilderness in the purest sense of terms, but it is enough of a contrast to the highly urbanized environment that you can have a wild experience for sure. And that in some ways whets the appetite for this next generation to come and experience, you know, truly wild places. In some ways it may be too much of a contrast for some kids to go from Downtown LA to Death Valley. We’ve actually seen that. We’ve had a couple of experiences where we brought kids from Los Angeles for an experience at Death Valley and they won’t get out of the van. They’ve never seen pure dark. They’ve never heard complete quiet. And the environment is so unfamiliar that they have no experience or knowledge base as to what’s out there. That could feel threatening to someone.

So urban parks are going to play a really, really important role, particularly if they are well constructed and designed like we’ve done in Golden Gate and like Crissy Field. You can get a taste of the experience.

I agree that the gateway experience of the nearby nature is hugely important. I happened to be at Muir Woods National Monument this past weekend, and it’s a wonderful place. But it’s sort of like “nature Disneyland.” Could you talk about the difference between the experience of a Muir Woods and, say, the deep backcountry of a North Cascades National Park?

I think that one is: You go to Muir Woods, and it’s pretty hard to find quiet. Even though we’ve constructed a certain section of the trail there where you’re supposed to be quiet, there’s always somebody talking. But if you go into the Fisher Basin of North Cascades or McAlester Pass and you’re in there for a little longer time, like a couple of days, I think that all of the detritus of a modern living sort of begins to melt away. And I think part of it is time. You begin to sort of really appreciate the quiet and the ebb and flow of the day – sunrise, sunset.

I tell my wife: We only recently came inside. [Laughs] We’ve been outside for a long time as a species, right? And our sensory perceptions were built around being outside. It’s just that we kind of turn them off. And so when you get back outside … We do this things with kids where we get them into an environment like that, and we actually get them to shush, and we say, “just listen.” And they realize that it’s not really quiet. There’s a lot going on out there. Birds are singing. There’s a breeze blowing through the trees. You hear water. There is a lot of sound if you tune your ear to it. It’s just different than the cacophony you hear in an urban space.

So I think that being in wild spaces gives you that opportunity to experience it over a longer spell. Frankly, my view is – I certainly know this about myself – I need that on a periodic basis in order to cleanse the noise from the day-to-day city life.

A lot of folks have written about the restorative experience of wilderness. Is there some sort of ethos that you think people kind of gain from spending time in wild spaces?

Well, we know that these kinds of opportunities not only allow you to appreciate those kind of spaces, but it’s also an opportunity discover things about yourself. To give you time to reflect, to contemplate your place in nature, if not in the world and the universe. I mean, it is a powerful reminder of who we are. And, you know, if you sit there long enough, you can begin to realize that you have some relationship to all of this, you’re not a foreign body in it, and that you have some responsibility for it, too. We should give ourselves credit that somehow the innate understanding of the importance of these places resulted in the political will to protect them. We have to remember that.

I mean, they were there before we decided to draw a circle around them – but we did do that. The Wilderness Act and the multiple [wilderness] designations that have occurred since then were somehow a manifestation of that feeling that is generated in those places. When we set them aside, it was an act of altruism. We did it for everybody. Which is very, very powerful. So, I think it does touch something pretty deep in us. Again, regardless of our upbringing. I don’t think wilderness is just something for the elite. I think it’s something for everybody.

You’ve said that for most Americans wilderness is an idea more than an actual experience. Only a sliver of a minority of Americans are going to get into the backcountry. Yet people still benefit from just knowing that it’s there. Why?

Well, I think that there are lots of things that American citizens have established for the benefit of the people that they may never personally, experience themselves – you know, equal rights or civil rights. A comprehensive system of justice – they may never participate in it, but they sure are glad it’s there. I think wilderness, to me, falls into that category. I think wilderness taps into something very deep in the American psyche, as well. Americans want to be proud of something that this nation symbolizes for the rest of the world – the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence are part of that. But also the natural heritage that this country had, and we had the opportunity to preserve it. So, in many ways, the establishment of the Mariposa Grove in Yosemite by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War – that was a place he had never seen and probably would never get to see. And he did that during a period when he was pretty busy. And then onto Yellowstone; those two can argue about which was “first.” The Wilderness Act was just the next manifestation of that. If you look at land designations in progression from National Parks to National Wildlife Refuges and Wilderness Areas – all those areas are in some sort of aggregate way saving something that makes Americans feel good about who we are, about us as a country. You know, these are our cathedrals.

I want to ask you about some of the new contemporary threats to these cathedrals. Last year, the National Parks Conservation Association put out a report detailing how the new oil and gas rush is threatening many of our parks and monuments. I’m wondering what the Park Service is doing in cooperation with other federal agencies to ensure that we’re not compromising the character of the parks and the monuments?

There’s an old adage that “only the losses are permanent.” Every time we win a fight about protection, we just pretty much have to fight it over again. So the protection of these places is a constant battle. We have a lot of successes that you don’t read about, and then we don’t always win either. Certainly the rapid growth in fracking in the Bakken Fields [of North Dakota] and others are hammering the air quality and view-shed and in some cases even threatening the water systems of some of our national parks. We are every day actively engaged in working with other agencies around energy development and transmission lines. And not just traditional energy, but renewables as well. I mean, they don’t get a free ride, either, in terms of what they require: Transmission lines, they require large landscapes. But what I would say is that we have the analytical tools today that we didn’t have in the past to look at landscapes.

I want to make a key point here: Yes, we’ve set aside wilderness areas and yes, we’ve set aside national parks. But this concept of them as a static piece of ground – we are realizing that that is not long-term sustainable, and that really the key to long-term conservation is connectivity. Connectivity for migratory species, connectivity for waterways, for transition of species that are going to be driven by climate change, all of that.  So we have that analytical ability now. I think that the Bureau of Land Management – which is sort of the principal developer of energy resources on the public land estate – is applying those principals. We have the desert renewable-energy planning going on in the California desert. So, if we are going to do development, where is the best place to do it that minimizes or completely eliminates or – if necessary, mitigates – its impact on our protected areas? I would say we have the tools, we are applying them. I wouldn’t say we are completely there yet, but we are definitely making that kind of effort.

You mentioned climate change. What are your thoughts on how to manage the new stresses of climate change – the threats to species like the pika or the pines – without wanting to micromanage? How do you balance the competing goals of wanting to preserve some species but also wanting to maintain the character of wild places?

You’ve seen our “Revisiting Leopold” report? That was our first attempt to articulate a new management paradigm for these National Parks where we know that we are going into a period of unpredicted change. I have a very strong team that’s working on our climate change adaptation strategy. There’re four components to our climate approach here. One is monitoring parks. We have a very robust monitoring program around indicator species and climate change. Parks can be a very, very important canary in the coalmine for larger landscapes in terms of the changes we are seeing. The second is our own carbon footprint. We know we aren’t going to solve climate change by going carbon neutral, but we need to clean up our own house, and we are doing that in terms of design and facility and fleet and all those kinds of things. The third leg of the stool is really adaptation and that is: OK, if we know climate change is coming, sea level rise, species will migrate, what are we doing to adapt to that change? And there’s a whole range of things. Everything from restoring habitats that can then be re-inhabited as species are driven [from their current habitats], creating duplications in the system.  You know, we sort of used to say, “As long as we’ve got one of it, that’s good enough.” Well, I think we’re recognizing now that we need duplication not in just the parks system, but beyond protected areas. When you talk about ocean rise, you say, “what’s uphill,” right? What’s going to be the next sea-grass bed? What’s going to be the next salt marsh? So building green infrastructure and resiliency in our coastlines is going to be incredibly important. And then the fourth leg of that stool is education. You know, the Parks Service is a respected educator of the public. When people come to parks they want to learn something, and we’re quite open and willing and are training our employees to be able to talk about climate change.

Now, at some point we are going to be challenged with issues like assisted migration. You know, we’ve got Isle Royale [Michigan] right now with a very, very small population of wolves. I have an old buddy who is a biologist who’s said, “Hey, Jon, when are you ready to put the sprinkler system on the giant sequoias?” [Laughs] Because, the giant sequoias are not going to migrate, right? Nor are Joshua trees. I mean Joshua trees will, but pretty slowly. So if you’ve got a climate that’s driving these iconic species out of their present environment, we need the analytical tools to predict what’s the next place that giant sequoias might persist for 3,000 to 5,000 years. Is that in the Southern Cascades? I don’t know that yet. But, we’re going to have to face those kinds of issues.

One other question about contemporary challenges: Our friends north of the border, at Parks Canada, recently announced that they are going to be expanding wi-fi service within their parks. And it led to some hand wringing: Does this mean that people are not going to be enjoying wild places because they are going to be too busy online? What are the National Park Service’s thoughts about connectivity and how much to offer, or notoffer, in the parks?

[Laughs] This is such an interesting issue. I’ve talked about this issue dozens and dozens of times. If I get an audience of typical Parks Service officials and I say, “What about technology?” they’re like, “Ohhhh, make them leave those devices at home. We don’t need that.” And I go, “Oh, so you’re still hiking in wool and wearing a wicker pack, huh? You’re not using any technology, right?” We’ve sort of picked on one piece of technology in this debate – the one that connects us to the rest of the world. And yet we’re using carbon fiber pack frames and Gore-Tex and high-tech stoves and solar whatevers. We’ve completely adopted that – that’s fine – in spite of the fact that it gives us the ability to travel wider and farther. But we’ve picked on this one technology. And then the second piece is – it’s no substitute. I read a review from some guy who watched Gravity on his iPhone, and he said it wasn’t that good. [Laughs] It’s like: I’m sorry, but looking at a picture of the Grand Canyon on your iPhone is not exactly the same as standing on its rim. So it’s not a substitute. But it is a potential teaser. It is a potential threshold.  It is a potential opportunity. And also it’s an opportunity for someone who is experiencing it to share it within a broader social network. And so I’m actually supportive of [more connectivity.] Now I’m not saying that we need to put up cell towers so that when you’re in the Fisher Basin of the North Cascades you can get connectivity. That’s all going to get solved soon anyways with satellite uplinks. So we don’t need to worry about that. But I do think within the visitors’ centers, within the hotels, within the front country, the high-visitor-use areas, there should be connectivity. One, it’s a powerful tool for us to provide communications to this next generation who, by the way, are going to bring their devices with them. They’re not going to leave them behind, and they’re going to expect that they can stay connected. And I think that’s OK. I don’t view it as competition. I view it as a potential to expand the experience.

I was on a BioBlitz at Golden Gate [National Recreation Area] just a couple months ago. We were out doing moths surveys in the evening and there were a bunch of fourth graders out along with some crotchety old entomologists who were helping us identify species. These kids, they were photographing moths with their iPhones and uploading it to iNaturalist and getting it crowd-sourced identified as we were standing there. A few years ago, Dan Janzen [biologist and former head of the US Fish and Wildlife Service] told me we are not far away from being able to slide a leaf in a slot on the side of our iPhone and being able to pull the DNA. I think technology could deepen the experience.

One more comment on this: If you look at a photograph of a park ranger talking to a group of kids, you see their eyes fixating on whatever that ranger is saying. And the ranger, let’s say, is holding a box turtle and talking about turtle biology. If you took that picture ten years ago, all the kids are just enraptured. You take that picture today, and every one of those kids is taking a picture of that turtle with their iPhone. They’re all holding their phones and sharing that story across their social network. And they’re posting it to Instagram or Facebook or whatever. That expands our ability to reach this next generation. Because somewhere out there, one of those kids that got that picture is going to say, “I want to do that in person. I want to have that experience.”

Jason Mark

Jason Mark is a writer-farmer with a deep background in environmental politics.  In addition to his work in the Earth Island Journal, his writings have appeared in the San Francisco ChronicleThe NationThe Progressive,Utne ReaderOrionGastronomicaGrist.org, Alternet.org, E magazine,and Yes!  He is a co-author of Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots and also co-author with Kevin Danaher ofInsurrection: Citizen Challenges to Corporate Power. When not writing and editing, he co-manages Alemany Farm, San Francisco’s largest food production site.

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