Cultivating Censorship at the National Park Service: New Acting Director Issues Controversial Memo

, Climate scientist | October 2, 2019, 4:27 pm EDT
Bookmark and Share

The National Park Service (NPS) has a new acting director. The Department of the Interior (DOI) has announced that David Vela is replacing Dan Smith as the head of America’s national parks and monuments starting October 1. For some this announcement might be hailed as good news. Mr. Vela is a former NPS superintendent with almost 30 years of service under his belt and a near-spotless record (in contrast to the controversial Smith).

And yet, in what might be an ominous sign of things to come, it has also come to light that Vela quietly issued a memo on August 13 that may severely restrict the ability of park superintendents and other staff to weigh in on activities happening on adjacent public lands. Specifically, the memo gives guidance on how much the Park Service can participate in the review process of environmental impact statements and project proposals of other federal agencies.

Undermining government science

On the surface, the memo makes it appear like an effort to streamline environmental reviews and speed up NPS response times. Upon closer inspection, however, it is clear that it actually undermines government science and its role in protecting our nation’s public lands.

The National Park Service is responsible under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for compiling both scientific and legal comments on any projects that might impact parks’ ability to fulfill their mission. In the past the Park Service has also provided comments on projects that fall outside the bureau’s jurisdiction, such as projects on adjacent public lands that are managed by another federal agency like the Bureau of Land Management. For example, if an energy development is proposed adjacent to a national park and would destroy part of a migratory corridor for park wildlife, then the NPS would be within its rights to issue an objection or demand mitigation for such a project.

Mr. Vela’s new guidance directs park staff that “comments to other agencies should be substantive, limited to areas of NPS jurisdiction and/or special expertise, and presented in appropriate tone and format.” The guidance also instructs employees to submit their comments to senior leadership in Washington in advance.

Being forced to report comments in this manner gives Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and his staff advance warning if the NPS is planning to issue comments that could challenge projects championed by the Trump administration.

In particular, this new process and guidance would allow Secretary Bernhardt and his staff to review and block any comments deemed not “substantive” or outside “areas of NPS jurisdiction and/or special expertise.” What’s more, it is also unclear whether this added level of political review will involve anyone with sufficient expertise to determine whether comments from scientists and other staff meet the threshold of “substantive.”

Cultivating censorship

I was a climate scientist based in the National Park Service Natural Resources Stewardship and Science Directorate. In 2018 one of my reports was subjected to edits without my knowledge by staff in the Washington Area Support Office (WASO) in an effort to remove any mention of the human causes of climate change.

Based on my experience with WASO, I find it extremely troubling that administrators will become the arbiters of what is worthy of Park Service comment, especially given the senior staff’s history of editing science that does not fit with the Trump administration’s agenda.

Now political appointees in the Interior Department have become the gatekeepers to Park Service participation in the environmental review process. Even more disturbing, this new process also makes it more likely that NPS staff will no longer be notified, or given any reasons why, if their comments are not submitted as part of a review. NPS scientific experts may be left completely in the dark over whether their comments were used, or possibly even edited before they were submitted.

What is the motive for this change? A clue lies in the memo itself, which explicitly states that the new process applies to DOI priorities that include energy development, utility-related infrastructure, broadband or telecommunications access, and access to park resources or recreational opportunities.

This memo illustrates once again some of the many ways the Trump administration continues to censor expert opinions and undermine government science in the environmental review process.

Let’s hope this doesn’t set a trend for things to come under Vela’s new leadership. We need to make it clear to the new acting director that he should not let politics interfere with how we protect our public lands and demand that they retract this memo.

You can reach out to the National Park Service through social media (Twitter: @NatlParkService and Facebook: @nationalparkservice) or by email.

Source: National Archives/Wikimedia

Posted in: Science and Democracy Tags: , , , ,

Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.

Show Comments


Comment Policy

UCS welcomes comments that foster civil conversation and debate. To help maintain a healthy, respectful discussion, please focus comments on the issues, topics, and facts at hand, and refrain from personal attacks. Posts that are commercial, self-promotional, obscene, rude, or disruptive will be removed.

Please note that comments are open for two weeks following each blog post. UCS respects your privacy and will not display, lend, or sell your email address for any reason.

  • Adoptsalot

    The real answer is to Vote.

  • carl

    Until we get rid of the polluter (from his mouth) in charge, stuff like this will continue unabated. This country is in a sad state of affairs notwithstanding the economy, which is NON of trump’s real doings, (tax cuts for the rich do on spur the economy, did not work with Reagan and not now, ) with all the trade wars, issues in the Mid East, cozy with an US enemy in Putin and the denial of the science that shows we to do more to help roll back emissions.. Nov of next year can not come fast enough..

  • Peacedreamer Purcell

    Well, I hope a large tree branch drops on his head. Not to kill him but hopefully knock some sense into him.

  • BHorton2

    This censorship has 1st Amendment costs that far exceed whatever process benefits there may be. Reverse it!

  • On Dre

    Make all the comments you want to the park. They wont care. The leadership is being purposely corrupted to suite the whims of those who will pay money (or favors) to the Trump family.

    Those people have to be named and shamed.

  • It’s shockingly UN-American – & more akin to Fascism – how the Trump administration keeps breaking down U.S. eco-protections – & now, even interfering in the National Park Service’s validity & input on environmental reviews! You nailed the root of evil for suppressing Park Service autonomy, of course — those same-old “DOI priorities that include energy development..” SAY NO MORE: Trump’s woeful pandering to polluters precedes himself – & has gone too far: now he wants to mow down every patch of public parkland/wilderness & replace with more polluting O&G infrastructure!? In light of current threats to climate/nature, measures like this ought to be blocked & their grounds questioned — due to their harmful effects on justice & people’s right to influence the future/uses of THEIR LANDS..
    (Trump & Co aren’t fit, & shouldn’t have the right to make such drastic changes – esp. as they debilitate Americans to an unfair extent)