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

October 2, 2019 | 4:27 pm
Source: National Archives/Wikimedia
Maria Caffrey
Climate scientist

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.