National Park Service still waiting for Biden to pick a director

Service has not had a permanent director since 2017

National Park Service rangers walk near the National World War II Memorial on Monday, May 25, 2020. The service has had temporary directors since 2017.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
National Park Service rangers walk near the National World War II Memorial on Monday, May 25, 2020. The service has had temporary directors since 2017. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted August 18, 2021 at 8:00am

The last time the National Park Service had a Senate-confirmed director, Joe Biden was vice president.

Yet seven months after being sworn in, President Joe Biden has not nominated a candidate for the position, which sets the direction and policy for the management of animals, lands and people in 423 National Park Service units ranging from parks to wilderness areas and historic sites.

In between was the Trump administration, which relied on acting directors to fill the role, as it did with many of the other leadership positions within the NPS. That gave former Interior Secretaries Ryan Zinke and David Bernhart de facto control over agency decisions.

“Never in the 104-year history of the NPS has the agency gone through an entire administration without a permanent director,” Paul Anderson, president of the Association of National Park Rangers, wrote to Shannon Estonez when she was on the Biden transition team. She is now the assistant Interior secretary for fish and wildlife.

“While we know our colleagues in long-term acting positions professionally did the best they could, given the unusual circumstances, there is no doubt that this chorus of acting assignments created confusion and chaos within the agency,” Anderson wrote. “A vacuum in leadership at best causes stagnation within an organization, and at worst a decline in the ability to achieve the mission.”

Anderson is not the only person concerned about the lack of a confirmed director.

 “There’s a real problem with not having a leader at the head of the agency. It’s killing morale. Killing morale,” Kristen Brengel, senior vice president for government affairs with the National Parks Conservation Association, said in an interview.

Jeff Ruch of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonpartisan advocacy group that works with government whistleblowers and frequently sues the executive branch, said in an interview that it was baffling Biden had not yet picked someone, noting the congressional calendar will be busy in the fall and finding time for nominations may be difficult.

“There are only so many shopping days before Christmas,” Ruch said.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., whose state is home to Glacier National Park and the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, said he was unsure why Biden had not offered a nominee. “I honestly think it’s just workload,” Tester said. “I think it’s just probably getting people vetted.”

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Joe Manchin III, D-W. Va., on July 27 told Interior Secretary Deb Haaland he was disappointed no nominee had been named. "I urge the president to send us a nomination so that we can get this position filled as quickly as possible," he said at a hearing on the administration's fiscal 2022 budget request. 

Former President Barack Obama nominated Jonathan Jarvis to be director in July 2009. Confirmed that September by voice vote, Jarvis served in the role until January 2017 and was the last confirmed director at the agency.

“It’s a problem, more so than usual, because there’s been four years without a director,” Jarvis’ brother, Destry Jarvis, an NPS alumnus turned consultant, said by phone. Jarvis said the administration is making diversity a key element in its selection and has at least one Black candidate from outside the service and another from inside under consideration.

“There have been at least six names bandied around that are under consideration at some level,” he said. Jarvis declined to disclose names.

Representatives for the White House, the Interior Department and the Park Service did not respond to requests for comment about the director role.

Key decisions await

Ruch said a number of issues have gone unaddressed or wound up on Haaland's desk, such as a dispute at Point Reyes National Seashore in northern California over a dying elk herd; a lawsuit about implementing flight plans over national parks; and the culling of Yellowstone National Park’s bison for fear they spread brucellosis.

“I’m sure she needs to spend her time on these issues like she needs a hole in the head,” Ruch said. “There’s a whole bunch of resource issues where it would be helpful to have a park service director.”

Also vacant are the regional and park superintendent positions. And while the fiscal 2022 budgeting and appropriation process is underway in Congress, the next one is already coming.

“They’re formulating the FY23 appropriation request and the administration has their 30 by 30 initiative that the Park Service has to play a significant role in and lots of other issues that are sort of hanging, without anyone to make a decision,” Jarvis said, referencing an administration goal to preserve 30 percent of federal land and water by 2030. “That is frustrating to lots of people over lots of things. And it gets more problematic the longer they wait.”

Jarvis said Trump administration priorities have been carried over into the Biden administration, including the allocation of park maintenance funding approved under the law titled the Great American Outdoors Act. That law authorized spending up to $1.9 billion a year for five years to address backlogs in maintenance at parks and other Interior responsibilities. Manchin, in his July 27 comments, pointed to the law, saying the service faced "significant funding decisions" in its implementation. 

“Those priorities have continued over because there hasn’t been anybody to change them,” Jarvis said.

 Biden has also not yet named nominees to lead the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

All three, like the park service, are sub-agencies within Interior. Tracy Stone-Manning, the nominee to run a fourth division of Interior — the Bureau of Land Management — awaits a confirmation vote on Senate floor.