WASHINGTON (CN) – Nine of the 12 members of the National Park Advisory Board, the group which selects historic and natural landmarks, resigned Monday amid claims Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke left them with little choice after a year of being ignored.
“For the last year, we have stood by waiting for the chance to meet and continue the partnership between the [advisory board] and the Department of the Interior as prescribed by law,” wrote board chairman Tony Knowles in a Jan. 15 resignation letter to Zinke. “We understand the complexity of transition but our requests to engage have been ignored and the matters on which we wanted to brief the new department team are clearly not part of its agenda.”
In addition to Knowles, the former governor of Alaska; eight other members joined the exodus. They include professors and conservation experts Gretchen Long, Paul Bardacke, Carolyn Finney, Judy Burke, Stephen Pitti, Milton Chen, Belinda Faustinos and Margaret Wheatley.
A tenth member has stepped down but it is not clear yet which member has resigned.
The three remaining board members, Rita Colwell, Linda Blimes and Carolyn Hessler Radelet, CEO for the nonprofit global philanthropic organization, Project Concern International, did not immediately respond to a request for comment about their status on the board Wednesday night. Carolyn Hessler Radelet’s term expires in 2021.
Blimes and Colwell’s terms will expire by July.
On Wednesday, Todd Willens, associate deputy secretary at the Department of the Interior, dismissed the resignations as "a hollow and dishonest stunt.”
The deputy secretary also called Knowles' claims of Zinke's neglect "patently false."
Meetings and board charter renewals were pending at the time of the resignations, according to Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift.
“It is patently false to say the Department had not engaged the board when as recently as January 8, we were working with the board to renew their charter, schedule a meeting, and fill vacancies," Swift said in an email to Courthouse News. "The board traditionally meets at the end of each year, and the secretary rarely attends - [Interior Secretaries Sally Jewell and Ken Salazar] each attended only once,” Willens said.
“However, since the board's charter expired in late December, we were working with them to renew the charter and hold a meeting in the coming weeks,” Swift added.
Knowles told the Associated Press Wednesday there was "absolutely nothing political" about the members' decision to leave the committee.
"We’re all a bunch of wonks ... We have a lot of different backgrounds and were all brought together because we want to do something really important for the national park system of America and build it for the 21st century," he said.
Knowles could not immediately be reached for comment by Courthouse News Wednesday, but in an interview with Alaska Public Radio he explained why he and fellow board members resigned.
“The department showed no interest in learning about or continuing to use the forward-thinking agenda of science, the effect of climate change, protections of the ecosystems [and] education. And it has rescinded National Park Service regulations of resource stewardship concerning those very things: biodiversity loss, pollution and climate change,” he said.