In contemporary times, however, the job of overseeing John Muir’s “cathedrals of nature” requires presiding over fights of partisanship, science, religion and the appropriate telling of the American story.
For Jon Jarvis, the newly named director of the National Park Service, the future of the 391-unit system promises similar controversy.
As director of the service’s Pacific West Region, Jarvis, 56, sought diversity in park staff and visitors, established programs to make parks relevant to young people, and provided materials in Spanish and on teaching inner-city families how to camp.
Citing climate change as one of the top challenges in parks, Jarvis echoed the Obama administration’s pledge to reemphasize the role of science in federal land management decisions. Even though the park service is charged with a mission to educate, problems arise at places such as the Grand Canyon, where some visitors prefer a biblical interpretation of the canyon’s age.
“I’m not the least bit afraid of controversy in the work that we do,” Jarvis said. “We’re pretty good at this. It’s our job to tell the story and without embellishment, to tell it as truthfully as possible. Based on the historical side, scholarly work; and on the natural side, scientific work. That’s going to be the basis for our interpretation and we shouldn’t shy away from it.”
One change Jarvis says he’ll institute is to put park rangers back in classrooms. When Gale Norton was Interior secretary, she stopped that long tradition, saying it represented “mission creep.”
Rangers’ storytelling–called “interpretation” in the park service–will also shift. Jarvis said that rangers at Civil War battlefields now spend less time telling visitors where the Confederate and Union armies lined up for Pickett’s charge and more time discussing slavery and civil rights. Those issues are more relevant to today’s society, he said.
The role of the parks, Jarvis said, is to continue to tell the American story. He said that a group of military lawyers recently toured historic Japanese internment camps, to try to get a look at “how the current internment of American citizens will appear in history,” he said.