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NPS Centennial Q & A with Jonathan Jarvis

We asked the Director of the National Park Service to look back at the last 100 years and to glimpse forward to the next century's challenges and opportunities.

August 25, 2016 marks the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary. We asked the Director of the National Park Service to look back at the last 100 years and glimpse forward to the next century’s challenges and opportunities.

Jarvis joined the park service as an interpretive ranger in Washington, D.C., in 1976, He went on to work in such parks as North Cascades, Wrangell-St. Elias and Mount Rainier. Since 2009, he has overseen all 410 national park sites.

What has the NPS done right in its first 100 years?

We began to understand how to manage large parcels of land in a way that as best as possible reflects natural process. On the cultural side, it’s how we interpret the story behind the resource. How we keep the Civil War alive even though no one alive today fought in the Civil War. And how we tell complex and difficult stories like Japanese-American internment, the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the Civil Rights Movement.

Why is celebrating the Centennial in a big way important?

I don’t think there’s any other institution equivalent to the NPS that has the story of America in places. We have a responsibility to use those places to help the American people understand where we come from but also where we should be going, what are our highest ideals as established by the founding fathers.

You’ve spoken out about your fear the parks will lose their relevancy to the next generation. Where does that fear come from?

The NPS exists only at the will of the people. We are a legislative construct that is funded by the federal government and supported by the American people. If we don’t have that, we’re toast. When I look at our current base of support, they are reflective of only one segment of society, which is an older, predominantly white, and middle-and-upper-income class. That group is soon to be a minority in our nation. If I were a business and that were my clientele, I wouldn’t be in business for much longer.

What’s the NPS doing to connect with a new audience?

One program is the public awareness campaign Find Your Park. It is a specifically designed invitation to the Millennial generation to find their park and share their story, particularly via social media. Another one is the growth of the NPS system. The new units that we’re adding and the stories we’re telling are being designed to build relevancy to a more diverse nation: Harriet Tubman National Monument, Fort Monroe, Pullman in Chicago, Cesar Chavez National Monument. We’re working on Stonewall, an LGBT site in New York. These are not random.

The Find Your Park campaign promotes smaller, lesser-known parks over big, famous ones. Why?

This is an opportunity for all of our public lands to be found and be a part of people’s lives. That threshold experience with the outdoors can occur in Central Park of New York or at [San Francisco’s]Golden Gate. We’re trying to brand that experience in a way that there’s a connection: “This place is part of a larger system, and I’ve been invited.”

What are the biggest threats

facing the national parks in the next 100 years?
At the top is climate change. So our coastal assets, both natural and cultural, are going to be threatened by sea level rise and storm surge. Inland, natural resources are already being affected as in melting glaciers. You’ll have a warming of streams, a change in aquatic habitats, invasive species moving in.

What’s your favorite memory from Yellowstone?

A couple of years ago I was hiking out of Slough Creek with my son. We heard the ground rumble a little bit, and up over the hill came a full stampede of bison at a dead run coming straight at us. We stepped behind a boulder and squeezed together, and the bison charged around us like water going around a rock in a stream. I could have run my fingers through their fur; they were so close.

What’s your favorite memory from Yosemite?

My daughter, Leah, wanted to do Half Dome. I said, “OK, I’ll take you up.” We were going to camp in Little Yosemite Valley, then get up early and do the cables at dawn to be ahead of the crowd. I contacted the park, and they said, “Your camp will be set up and dinner will be served at 5—you don’t have to bring anything.” My daughter said, “Dad, we’re not doing that. You’re not going to have a bunch of rangers fawning over you.” So, I ended up carrying a full backpack.

What’s your favorite memory from the Grand Canyon?

I was rafting the lower half of the Colorado River from Phantom Ranch to Diamond, and we came up on Lava, the biggest rapid. We pulled over to scout it, and we were up on the ridge looking down at another crew going through. The first raft through hit one of the big standing waves wrong and the oarman was thrown out. The raft went through the rapids just fine on its own. Our ranger said, “See, you don’t even need me. I’m just going to jump out. You’ll be just fine.”

What’s your favorite memory from RMNP?

I was in Rocky a couple of years ago for the BioBlitz. We had a bunch of elementary school kids doing a stream survey. They were down in the creek capturing insects. There was a girl picking up insect larvae, and I walked over and asked, “What have you got there?” She looked up at me and said, “I think it’s a chironomid.” I said, “Here’s my card. Call me in 10 years—I want to hire you.”

Your moustache has its own Twitter account (@jonsmoustache). Are you behind that?

No! It was created, I’m fairly sure, by an NPS employee, and it’s often contributed to by NPS employees.