National Park Service Director Outlines Agency Challenges – and Solutions

National Park Service Director Outlines Agency Challenges – and Solutions

This report is available as a .pdf here.

June 7, 2013 (Washington, D.C.) – The American Recreation Coalition (ARC) welcomed Jon Jarvis, Director of the National Park Service, as its special guest speaker at the Great Outdoors Week Recreation Exchange on June 4, 2013. The Exchange was hosted jointly by ARC and the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association. Director Jarvis’s remarks covered a number of key topics, including: the challenges currently facing the National Park Service; the agency’s upcoming Centennial in 2016; and new agency initiatives.

The Director noted that Sally Jewell, the new Secretary of the Interior, was well versed in national park issues, having served as a member of the Second Century Commission. The Commission was formed in 2008 to help prepare the National Park Service for success in its second hundred years. He noted that, as a commissioner, then-REI CEO Jewell had focused on the need to connect the American people with their parks, understanding completely that the effort could not be the agency’s alone but must involve travel, tourism and recreation interests as well. He also noted that, in addition to the Secretary, eight of the 12 members of the National Park System Advisory Board were former commissioners as well. He described the Commission’s report, Advancing the National Park Idea, as the “foundation document” for how the agency is thinking about its second century. “You can bet that we are paying attention to the [report’s] recommendations,” he said.

As it prepares for its second century, the National Park Service is facing a number of significant challenges, from essentially flat visitation to aging infrastructure. Mr. Jarvis commented that the lack of cultural and ethnic diversity among visitors and the irrelevance of the parks to too many young people were even greater concerns than the lack of growth in visitation. “We’ve got to connect to all Americans,” he said, describing the lack of diversity and youth as “a recipe for decline.” Another challenge cited by the Director was funding. He described both the current economic situation and the federal budgetary process as “tough,” explaining that the Park Service is faced with the difficult task of managing “a perpetuity mission on an annual appropriation.” Directly related to the funding issue is the agency’s $11 billion infrastructure-maintenance backlog, with half of that backlog involving roads. Other challenges cited by the Director included the wide-ranging impacts of climate change, Americans’ lack of interest in history, and the need to enhance technical connectivity – seen as absolutely essential by young people especially – in the national parks. Despite this daunting list, the Director remained optimistic. “They’re all fixable with some work,” he said.

Mr. Jarvis described the Centennial, which will be celebrated on August 25, 2016, as an opportunity not only to celebrate but also to prepare for a second century of stewardship and public engagement by laying out specific actions to meet specific goals. He described the four goals that had been chosen as the focus of Centennial preparations: connecting people to parks; advancing the agency’s educational role; preserving special places; and enhancing organizational excellence. He explained that connecting people to parks begins in neighborhoods – “[you need to] go to where the people are,” he said. As examples of the Park Service’s educational mission, he cited the lessons that can be learned by visiting Gettysburg or Vicksburg rather than just reading about them. Preserving special places is a goal that encompasses not only current national park sites but others that should be protected as well. He explained that enhancing the agency’s excellence would necessarily involve a willingness to take risks, to innovate, to trust partners and to try new financial models. “We are making some strides in that as well,” he noted.

Director Jarvis told the group that the first Director of the National Park Service – Stephen Mather – had been a marketing expert from the private sector who had successfully sold the national parks – “in the middle of nowhere” – to both the U.S. Congress and the American people by partnerships with the tourism industry, represented in those days by the railroads, with the National Geographic Society, and with the artistic community, to attract people to these special places. Today, in contrast, although the agency’s Organic Act tasks the National Park Service with both the regulation and the promotion of the national parks to ensure their enjoyment by and preservation for current and future generations, the regulatory side has been dominant. The job done on the promotion side he characterized as “not so hot.”

However, that situation is changing. Mr. Jarvis reported that Grey Advertising has been hired by the National Park Foundation to develop an over-arching campaign strategy for the national parks in conjunction with the Centennial. Using this effort to build awareness of the National Park System will take a real marketing strategy, he stated, likening it to the RV industry’s Go RVing campaign, and will involve the use of well known figures from sports and Hollywood, as well as iconic events like the Tournament of Roses Parade and halftime at the Super Bowl. A successful campaign will also mean increased visitation and the development of a constituency for parks – as both stewards and philanthropists – among the next generation.

The agency is also looking at new models for financing its operations, he reported, and is carefully evaluating the many different ideas for sustainable supplemental funding that were introduced recently during a gathering at the Bipartisan Policy Center. And he praised the innovative ideas that are coming from urban parks, involving community engagement, new partnerships, and the restoration of both lands and waters. Linking outdoor experiences with improved health offers another avenue for increasing interest in and support for the outdoors. The medical community should be prescribing the outdoors, Mr. Jarvis asserted, telling people to “Go RVing, go fishing . . . take a hike and call me in the morning.” He noted that the National Park Service would be co-sponsoring a conference with the Centers for Disease Control in 2014 on “Healthy Parks, Healthy People.” He also noted the new effort – in partnership with national park concessioners – to introduce healthy food into the park experience and invited the audience to join him on the National Mall the following day for a special event featuring healthy food.

Mr. Jarvis reviewed a number of additional actions and initiatives being undertaken to address agency challenges. He noted that land-management agencies were working together to create connectivity among and improve access to public lands. He cited designations of new national park units that recognize the important contributions of Harriet Tubman, a former slave who helped slaves make their way to freedom in the 19th century, of Charles Young and the other African-American Buffalo Soldiers, who served as some of the first caretakers of the national parks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and of César Chávez, the 20th century advocate for farm workers. He described ongoing work with scholars of American-Latino and Asian-American/Pacific-Islander history, who were helping identify places of historic importance for inclusion in the National Park System. He noted that a new partnership had been launched that day with Sesame Street and work was continuing with the First Lady’s Let’s Move Outside program to encourage children to experience the outdoors. He also reported that a new study on the economic impact of national parks was being undertaken and should be ready by 2016.

The Director concluded his remarks by describing the national parks as a great – and distinctively American – idea to establish places where all the people can enjoy the outdoors. “We are looking to use every one of our tools in our toolbox and every one of our partners . . . and every one of the land management agencies . . . to really re-engage the American public in this extraordinary asset,” he said.

During the question-and-answer period that followed his remarks, Director Jarvis was asked if the words “fun” and “marketing” were allowed to be in the vocabulary of a National Park Service Director. In his good-humored response, he acknowledged that the word “fun” was missing from the report of the Second Century Commission, noting, “That’s a problem.” “We may be the only agency in the government that has the responsibility for fun,” he said, “and we think that’s a core responsibility.” And, he added, “We are marketing.”

Asked about the impact of the sequestration process, he described actions that had been taken to absorb the mandated 5% reduction in funding, including delayed openings, facility closures, reduced hours and programs, more deferred maintenance, a hiring freeze, a decrease in seasonal employees, and furloughs of park police. “I think we will muddle through this summer,” he said. “We didn’t close any parks.” However, he did express concern about the impact of additional funding cuts. All across the country, he explained, parks are economic engines for the areas that surround them, meaning that park closures would impact far more than the parks themselves. His message to the Congress? “What we do is not a cost,” he said. “It’s an investment. It has enormous return.”

If you would like to contact Jon Jarvis, he can be reached as follows:

The Honorable Jonathan B. Jarvis
National Park Service
1849 C Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20240

Recreation Exchanges are made possible by the following sponsors:

American Association for Nude Recreation
American Horse Council
American Motorcyclist Association
Bureau of Land Management
National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds
National Marine Manufacturers Association
National Park Service
National Tour Association
Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association
Recreation Vehicle Industry Association
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
U.S. Forest Service