Q&A with Director of the National Park Service Jonathan B. Jarvis

The National Park Service is ramping up for the spring and summer months, just as the mandated across-the-board federal budget cuts known as sequestration are setting in.

Despite current budget woes, Jonathan B. Jarvis still thinks he has the best job in America.


As the director of the National Park Service, he’s continuing his lifelong work of resource stewardship, natural and cultural preservation and historical engagement for all Americans. 

Jarvis, who got his start with the park service on the National Mall in 1976, is responsible for more than 84 million acres, more than 275 million visitors a year and a nearly $3 billion annual budget. 

He spoke to The Hill about the impact of budget cuts on the parks, what the public can expect this spring and his vision for the agency’s future. 

Q: Now that the sequester has gone into effect, what impact is it having on the National Park Service?

The problem with the sequester is that by law, it is line by line in the budget, and the National Park Service is budgeted park by park, so every national park, all 398 national park units in the system, have a line in the budget. Every one of them takes 5 percent. And there’s no authority for me to make those changes, so every park in the system, whether it’s the National Mall or Gettysburg or Prince William Forest or Great Falls or G.W. Parkway or Yellowstone and Yosemite, every one of them has to find 5 percent.

The second piece is that it comes halfway through the year. And just as we here in Washington are gearing up for spring and summer events, every national park in the system is gearing up for their summer. ... Now, there will be no park closures. We’re not closing down. This is not a government shutdown. This is a cutback on services across the system, and each of our park superintendents has had to make individual choices of that, and we’re seeing those kinds of effects across the entire system.

Q: If nothing is done to reverse the sequester, what will that mean as we get later into spring and summer?

States are offering assistance, our friends, organizations are helping out, sometimes the gateway communities. I think that we’re trying to provide as much public information and certainty so people can make their plans for the summer.

What’s really interesting about national parks is that we get a high percentage of repeat visitors. There are families that come every year to this campground, to this campsite, and they’ve done it for four generations and they may be impacted this time. It may just not be open when they traditionally use it, so we’ll see more and more of that as it plays out through the summer.

Q: If you were tasked with reducing the budget by 5 percent, are there cuts that would make more sense, if you had the discretion?

There are things that we can delay, construction projects. Five percent hurts, but we could move money around within the organization to probably minimize the impact to the field and to the resources.

Q: Are there any Washington, D.C.-specific impacts from the sequester that people should be paying attention to?

Absolutely: there will be reduced hours of rangers available at all of the monument sites and reduced availability of rangers to give interpretive programs, to be there to answer questions and provide directions. All of that is being reduced across the monuments and memorials. The same thing with our security staff. We’ll make sure that we’re maintaining, but it will be a reduced presence across [the agency]. To be blunt about it, we’re not going to do as frequent trash pickup, so there’ll be some overflowing trash cans out there that will be unsightly. We’ll come and get them, but during peak, we do it multiple times during the day; we’re not going to be able to do that this year. And we’re looking at our entire events schedule throughout the year, and seeing where we can save some money.

Q: What major projects are happening in the D.C. area?

You know the Washington Monument was damaged in the earthquake. We’ve issued a contract, and if you were in the District [at beginning of the millennium], you’ll remember we basically built a shroud — an attractive, internally lit shroud — around the monument. That’s what we’re doing right now. We’re building an entire Erector Set scaffolding over the entire monument, like an exoskeleton, and we will cover that and light it from the inside, so it will actually be attractive, and it will be that way for about a year, and we will do all the earthquake repairs.

The other big projects, one is restoration of the Mall itself. ... We’re starting, what we would say “cell by cell,” but they’re blocks of grass and we’re digging it down deep. We’re putting in drain rock, we’re putting in [an] irrigation system, we’re building it like a sports field essentially. And we’re embedding utilities within it. ... Ultimately the Mall will be completely restored, beautiful, resilient, green grass and look like it should look. 

Q: The park service announced that the 2013 cherry blossom peak is predicted for the first week in April. What should people expect this year, and what do you recommend for visitors?

Don’t try to drive. We do our absolute best to predict the cherry blossom timing — what we can’t predict is how long they’re going to last. That’s very, very weather dependent. If you get a cold snap, a wind storm, the cherry blossoms can be gone. ... 

If you haven’t walked the circuit around the Tidal Basin during the National Cherry Blossom Festival, you’ve really missed something. It’s really gorgeous to be down there, and it will be crowded as always, but it’s worth it.

Q: Looking ahead to the National Park Services’ centennial on Aug. 25, 2016, and thinking about the next 100 years, what’s your vision of how the park service can improve?

One is that we need to be more entrepreneurial, more sort of businesslike and more open to partnerships that leverage the federal investment with private dollars, with philanthropic dollars, with business, and I think that the way of the future is public-private partnerships. 

I think, two, is a national park system that is more broadly representative of the contributions of women and minorities in this country. There’s a lot of untold stories, and we want to bring those out. 

I think the other thing for the next century is the role of national parks in urban areas. With our population [becoming] increasingly urban ... I deeply, deeply believe that people need nature; they need someplace to be outside and experience fresh air, trees, birds, quiet, all of those things. As I like to say, “we only recently came inside.” We were outside for millions of years and now we just recently came in.

Q: Given your more than 30 years in the park service, how do you personally feel about overseeing the agency?

It’s the best job in America. And I’ve had many people at very high levels tell me that. Bill Clinton once told me, “I always wanted to be a park ranger.” I’m incredibly honored to serve in the role of director of the National Park Service. It’s a venerable institution with an enormous responsibility to the American public, and it’s pretty cool to be the director.

Q: Do you remember what first sparked your interest in park service?

I grew up in rural Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley ... I got a degree in biology, and I wanted to work in the outdoors. ... Right out of undergrad, I took off and went out West on a trip and visited a lot of the big national parks and came back and said, “that’s an interesting career.” So I applied for a seasonal job, got in, and never looked back. 

Q: Since taking the helm as director, what stands out to you as your proudest accomplishments?

There are a couple things. The designation of the César Chávez National Monument — I’ve personally been working on that one for about a decade, and it was great to finally get it done and see it, as we say, come into the system. ... Also, Fort Monroe, getting the president to designate Fort Monroe a National Monument. [It] was a really important story to the African-American experience. 

Then on the natural resource side, actually being able to participate in the removal of the Elwha Dam in Olympic National Park was incredible. ... This was a multi-agency, tribal effort that we’ve been working on for a couple of decades, and we literally took the dams down in just the last two years, and the steelhead and salmon are returning once again after 100 years from being blocked into 70 miles of pristine river habitat.