Superintendents stay mum during ‘blackout on news’

By Rob Hotakainen, Jeremy P. Jacobs | 01/18/2019 01:02 PM EST

National Park Service superintendents have largely stopped talking to the press and park advocates during the partial government shutdown. Some speculate the reason for the silence is fear of backlash from NPS headquarters in Washington.

A ranger in Joshua Tree National Park.

A ranger in Joshua Tree National Park. Kurt Moses/Joshua Tree National Park/Flickr

There’s an easy reason to explain why National Park Service superintendents have suddenly gone mum: They’re scared.

That’s according to former National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis.

"In my conversations with folks that are in the field, there is an element of fear that has been conveyed down, that you’ll be punished if you speak out, certainly if you speak to the press," Jarvis told a group of House Democratic leaders this week.


In an interview with E&E News, Jarvis said the Trump administration wants to keep superintendents silenced to prevent them from describing the widespread damage they’ve discovered in parks during the partial government shutdown, now in its 28th day.

"This is complete chaos, and superintendents know that — and they don’t want that word out," said Jarvis, who led the Park Service for eight years under President Obama. "The [Trump] administration is trying to suppress any bad news."

The issue has become a cause for consternation among the media and park advocates alike, who say they’ve effectively been shut out by the Park Service during the long shutdown.

"There’s no outreach at all — in fact, it’s just the opposite," said Richard Ring, executive council member of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, testifying at a hearing Tuesday called by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, and leaders of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee.

National Parks Traveler, a nonprofit media organization in Utah that covers the parks, called the situation "a blackout on news," adding that top NPS officials in Washington are "keeping a tight clamp on the flow of information" by gagging the superintendents during the shutdown.

"The parks should not be political pawns, and Park Service staff should be allowed to accurately describe how the parks and their resources are being treated," wrote Kurt Repanshek, founder and editor-in-chief of the organization.

Similarly, Tracy Barbutes, a freelance journalist who covered the shutdown for Vox Media, said this week that she couldn’t get questions answered from officials at Yosemite National Park in California.

"Multiple attempts to reach park service representatives with questions regarding long-term effects of the shutdown on wildlife, plant life and research projects have gone unanswered," she wrote.

‘Not doing any interviews’

In a spot check yesterday with several national parks in Western states, requests to speak with superintendents were either denied or ignored.

Aly Baltrus, a spokeswoman at Zion National Park in Utah, said that park was "sending all media requests to our main office" before abruptly hanging up.

Most parks surveyed did not have anyone picking up the phone or returning emails. Those included Yosemite along with Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona.

A phone message and email sent directly to Utah’s Bryce Canyon Superintendent Linda Mazzu was not returned.

And a request to speak with Cicely Muldoon, superintendent of California’s Point Reyes National Seashore, was referred to Andrew Munoz, a regional spokesman for the Park Service.

Munoz said that Muldoon was furloughed and that they are "not doing any interviews." When asked whether other superintendents in the region have been furloughed, Munoz responded: "You’ll have to talk to Washington."

The Washington office did not respond to a question on how many superintendents have been furloughed.

Jeremy Barnum, the chief spokesman for the Park Service, said that employees "at all levels have generally been unable to accommodate interview requests" during the shutdown, except in cases involving public safety or emergencies.

"During the lapse in appropriations, the National Park Service has encouraged parks to continue to provide information via media and on social media platforms regarding current conditions, health and safety at parks as appropriate," Barnum said. "Parks have also been encouraged to provide the public updates on changes in accessibility and services at parks."

Barnum said that under "long-standing guidance" that dates back to 2012, local park officials have been asked to contact Park Service headquarters in Washington "in advance of any media interviews, media requests or contacts that may involve significant policy announcements or that may generate significant news coverage, public interest or inquiry."

‘This is new’

Phil Francis, a former NPS superintendent at Blue Ridge Parkway and the current chairman of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, said "messages have become more and more controlled" over the years throughout the Park Service.

"Anytime parks are instructed to refer calls to Washington, it sends a message that park staff better not give their personal opinion," he said.

The policy has angered employees, too.

"This feels so against our First Amendment rights not to be able to speak," said one longtime NPS employee in California.

Jarvis, who now serves as executive director of the Institute for Parks, People and Biodiversity at the University of California, Berkeley, described the situation as "very dismaying."

"First of all, this is a significant departure from the past — probably from the entire history of the Park Service," he said. "We’ve always been transparent and asked park superintendents to be available to talk about issues. The willingness to engage directly with the media has always been respected. This is new."

While superintendents have been told they can’t talk, Jarvis said most of them have remained on duty during the shutdown, "unpaid, of course."

In addition, Jarvis told the legislative panel that the decisionmaking power of superintendents has been transferred to Washington. He cited the case of Joshua Tree National Park Superintendent David Smith, who tried to close the California park last week after discovering razed Joshua trees and new roads created in the desert sand, only to be ordered by his superiors to keep it open.

Jarvis said Smith found the situation at the park "untenable" but still was not allowed to shut it down.

"All decisions related to parks are being made at the departmental level and coming back down to the superintendents," Jarvis told the lawmakers.

Smith said last week that he could not discuss the damage in the park without getting clearance from his bosses in Washington. The Washington office then would not allow him to be interviewed.

Barnum said the Park Service is relying on park superintendents and managers who "have and continue to make sound decisions according to their on-the-ground expertise."

While the Park Service has promised to keep as many parks open as it can for the duration of the shutdown, Barnum said some park managers have closed areas "due to weather, health and sanitation issues, and damage to park resources."

"In many cases, park managers have been able to bring back staff to clean up and restore access to those areas using recreation fee revenue," Barnum said. "Washington has reviewed those plans to ensure that they follow all relevant rules and regulations."