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.
Other advisory groups have dissolved in the last year but at Zinke’s behest. The Wildlife and Hunting Heritage Conservation Council and the Advisory Committee on Climate Change and Natural Resource Science were shuttered by direct order.
Last May, Zinke said he would review the “charter and charge” of more than 200 advisory groups both inside and outside the Interior Department. Several of those committees were under review because of numerous vacancies dotting their boards while others simply hadn’t met in months, the department reported last year.
The hunting heritage council was resurrected on Jan 9. but with different emphasis. Now known as the Hunting and Shooting Sports Conservation Council, the reinvented committee is poised to emphasize conservation primarily through hunting.
In a statement introducing the revamped committee, the department included a list of accomplishments by Zinke since his appointment by President Donald Trump.
They included the reversal of a lead ammo and tackle ban on National Wildlife Refuge lands, the expansion of hunting and fishing access at 10 refuges and the opening of New Mexico’s Sabinoso Wilderness Area “for the first time ever,” to hunters.
Two of the three remaining National Park System Advisory Board members, Linda Bilmes and Rita Colwell, will see their appointments end this summer. The term for last remaining member, Carolyn Hessler Radelet, CEO for the nonprofit global philanthropic organization, Project Concern International, expires in 2021.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., bemoaned the resignations and the state of the National Park System under Zinke’s leadership in a statement Tuesday.
“The president still hasn’t nominated a director for the National Park System and [Zinke] has proposed tripling entrance fees at our most popular parks. His disregard of the advisory board is just another example of why he has earned an ‘F’ in stewardship,” she said.
On Wednesday, Theresa Pierno, president for the National Parks Conservation Association echoed Cantwell’s frustration, lamenting the spate of resignations and the culture she believes led to the committee’s mass departure.
“For eight decades, the non-partisan group of issue experts and committed park enthusiasts have studies issued, consulted fellow experts and made recommendations to the Director of the National Park Service and Secretary of Interior on matters facing our parks… and yet this administration has shown no interest in benefitting from their expertise,” Pierno said. “In fact, [Zinke] hasn’t even met with them, despite repeated requests throughout 2017. Not one single meeting.”
The Interior Department did not immediately return request for comment.
“With all of these issues facing our National Park System, from a more than $11 billion maintenance backlog to budget cuts and staffing issues, this is the very time the Advisory Board should be consulted. Instead they’re being ignored while the administration continues to carry out their war on parks,” Pierno added.
In their joint letter, the former committee members said their numerous attempts to brief Interior staff would have included presentations featuring “overwhelming support” for department riven efforts to mitigate climate change, protect wildlife diversity at the parks and more.
“From all of the events of this past year I have a profound concern that the mission of stewardship, protection, and advancement of our National Parks has been set aside. I hope that future actions of the Department of Interior demonstrate that this is not the case,” Knowles wrote.
Unlike some of her departing fellow board members, Judy Burke, the former mayor of Grand Lakes, Colo., said her resignation was triggered by her leaving elected office but that she “fully agreed” with the assertions made by Knowles.
“I resigned with great regret because I feel that the advisory board is an important advisory group that is made up of 12 highly qualified individuals all of whom are well respected in their fields and who give freely of their time and expertise for the mission of the National Parks,” she told Courthouse News Wednesday.
As for what comes next for the board, Burke said she hopes new members will share the same ethic and devotion to the national parks as she and those who resigned.
“My sincere hope is that good, well-founded nominations will be made and that currently vacant positions will be filled so that we can make progress to a great future,” she said.
Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift told Courthouse News the number of individuals who have expressed interest in joining the board is growing and the department is on a “fast track” to filling vacancies “with people who are actually dedicated to working with the department to better our national parks.”
“We expect to have a full board meeting soon,” Swift added.