NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis Guidebook to American Values and Our National Parks

After an investigation by the Department of the Interior’s Inspector General Office, National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis was officially “reprimanded” for intentionally skirting ethics rules while publishing his recent book, the “Guidebook to American Values and Our National Parks.”  He will not be allowed to oversee the NPS Ethics Office and must take ethics training once a month for the rest of his career.

Jarvis can be an intimidating fella, always having a command of both the material and the room. He “bleeds green and grey,” and his sense of purpose is a reason why he has served as director throughout the Obama administration. According to the Inspector General’s report, his place in time as director of the NPS during its celebratory centennial year of 2016 is a primary motivation for purposely avoiding ethics consultation and rules.

NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis Guidebook to American Values and Our National Parks
Photo: National Park Service / CC BY 2.0

To understand Jarvis’ NPS historical perspective and key to success is to also understand the immoral and unethical “good old boy” network within the NPS that lacks gender, racial, and economic diversity or equity. Here is a powerful core moral and ethical issue that Jarvis has benefited from and failed to address during his tenure as director.

Here’s how it works.

Back in the late ’90s, I worked alongside Jon at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska. I was a thorn in his side, we had many philosophical conversations, some regarding the tragedy of the commons related to visitation and carrying capacity and others related to the power and importance of the Washington Monument strategy of budgeting. Our talks were often regarding the economic and racial diversity problem within the NPS workforce and the resultant moral and ethical implications. He is a thoughtful, well-educated man who knew he was violating ethics rules when writing and publishing his book.

One day, he excitedly came into my office and told me that John Reynolds, western regional director at the time, had asked him to apply for the superintendency at Mount Rainier, a position that Jarvis was eventually selected for by Reynolds and that set Jarvis up for the senior executive service. Eventually, Reynolds retired to a position with the National Park Foundation, and Jarvis filled Reynolds’ former position as director of the western region.

NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis Guidebook to American Values and Our National ParksDuring Jarvis’ tenure as regional director, I worked in the Office of the Superintendent at Yosemite and was supervised by Mike Reynolds, John’s son. Before Mike, I was supervised by his childhood friend, Chip Jenkins. These very competent fellas were later promoted by the director to leadership positions within the park service. Chip is now the deputy regional director for the western region. Mike was the midwest regional director and currently serves as the NPS associate director, Workforce, Relevancy and Inclusion Management with oversight over diversity initiatives.

In its 100-year history, the NPS has had two female and two minority directors, with one being both female and a minority. In total, fifteen of eighteen were white males like Jarvis.

Within the NPS is a culture of “paying your dues” that favors those who are wealthy and networked. Straight out of college, you must volunteer, intern, and/or successfully compete for a multi-year series of low-paying seasonal and temporary positions, oftentimes without housing or health benefits. After this period of “networking,” you just may be lucky enough for those contacts to help you compete for a permanent position, oftentimes starting at even lower wages than the seasonal position you just left — but hey, you now have benefits and possible upward mobility.  

Whether seasonal, temporary, or permanent, the end result of this indoctrination process is that in most cases one must come from an economic background of resource to become an employee of the NPS, which results in a mostly white, male workforce.

According to the most recent official NPS statistics provided for 2014, 62 percent of the NPS workforce were male, and 82 percent of the workforce was white, resulting in both income and position disparities within the organization: White males encumber the vast majority of high-paying managerial positions while women and minorities are largely relegated to lower-graded administrative and maintenance positions.

NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis Guidebook to American Values and Our National Parks
Image: HispanicAccessHAF / CC BY 3.0

I have not yet read the “Guidebook to American Values and Our National Parks,” and from the description it is not very deep: It’s only 60 pages in length, describes 50 values, includes a forward by an Emmy Award-winning documentarian, and contains “dozens of photos.” I do not believe the salient ethical and moral issue that will define Jarvis’ tenure Jarvis is this minor book deal.

Rather, the ethical and moral issue that will define both Jarvis’ tenure and that of President Obama, who appointed him, is the failure to address the “good ol’ boy” network in order to better ensure that the American people have a national park system that is composed of the faces that represent them.

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