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Transcript: Jon Jarvis: Absolutely American

The full episode transcript for Jon Jarvis: Absolutely American.


The Oath with Chuck Rosenberg

Jon Jarvis: Absolutely American

Chuck Rosenberg: Welcome to The Oath. I’m Chuck Rosenberg and I am honored to be your host for another compelling conversation with a fascinating guest from the world of public service. Our guest this week is Jon Jarvis, the former director of the National Parks Service. Jon grew up in rural Virginia and studied biology at the College of William and Mary. In 1976, he began a four-decade career with the National Parks Service that culminated in an eight-year tour of duty in charge of the agency. A great American author, a Pulitzer Prize winner, Wallace Stegner, wrote: “our national parks are the best idea we’ve ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best.” But these parks are more than the best idea we ever had, they are a magnificent resource, and they are beloved.

Our park system numbers are staggering: 84 million acres, 419 national parks, 330 million annual visitors, 440 thousand volunteers, from Acadia to Zion, from Yellowstone to Yosemite, from Glacier to Grand Canyon, these are the most breath-taking natural landscapes and seascapes and forests and vistas in America. Jon Jarvis knows these places as well as anyone. Jon served in eight national parks from his days as a ranger, to his turn as Superintendent of Wrangell-St. Elias in south central Alaska, the largest park in our national parks system. Here is an astonishing number: Wrangell, by itself, covers 13 million acres, roughly the size of six Yellowstones. So, here’s a good question: what do park rangers do? A delightful entry on Jon’s resume reads simply that park rangers do, well, “ranger things.” That makes sense, rangers do “ranger things.” Jon fought fires, trapped bears, forded glacial rivers, repelled off cliffs, rescued lost people, gave tours, patrolled on skis and horses, climbed mountains, hiked, and watched sunsets. Those are “ranger things.” from 2009 to 2017, Jon served as the Director of the National Parks Service, in charge of its 22 thousand employees, 84 million acres, and its 3-billion-dollar annual budget.

He is a passionate advocate for our great national parks system, and knows it is both a spectacular resource for us to enjoy and savor, and a gift we must preserve for those who come after us. Jon Jarvis, welcome to The Oath.

Jon Jarvis: Thanks, Chuck. It's great to be here.

Chuck Rosenberg: Well, it's a real privilege to have you on the show. Jon, tell us where you grew up.

Jon Jarvis: So I grew up in Virginia down in the--technically the James River Valley, sort of a southern part of the Shenandoah Valley, rurally, small town, Glasgow, Virginia, that we lived out in the country had one brother and we grew very much up in the outdoors.

Chuck Rosenberg: Older brother, younger brother...

Jon Jarvis: Older brother, six years older than me.

Chuck Rosenberg: And how about your mom and dad?

Jon Jarvis: So my dad was a barber. He had a barber shop in Glasgow. He was also, let's say, politically involved, he was mayor of the town and had served in a variety of, sort of leadership roles around the town. There's a pretty small town, we're talking like 1000 people or so. My mom was a teacher's aide in the elementary school for kids with special needs. And so they were both pretty active in the community.

Chuck Rosenberg: If your dad was a barber, he probably heard all the town stories.

Jon Jarvis: There was a bench in the barber shop, where, you know, people sat and told every story that the shop was also a gun shop. My dad bought and sold guns, sporting goods--it was a game check station. So you know, during hunting season, folks would bring in their deer to be be checked off on the tag. So it was a--it was a pretty active place.

Chuck Rosenberg: What do you mean by checked off on the tag?

Jon Jarvis: So, in Virginia, when you get a hunting license, you get a tag for a certain limit on, on the animals that you kill. Under Virginia law, you have to bring him in and be checked off at a game check station and they take the tag--you actually tag the deer physically. And then, the individual that's representing the state takes that tag and then you--so you can't kill more than the limit.

Chuck Rosenberg: You told me that your father was in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the depression, which I found fascinating. Tell us a little bit more about that.

Jon Jarvis: My brother and I actually learned fairly late that our dad had served in the CCCs. When we actually went on an investigation to figure out actually what camp that he had served in. And he served in a forest service camp down in the southern part of Virginia on the Carolina border for about a year and a half. And you know, the CCCs we're doing work in our national parks in our national forests, building trails, building campgrounds, and that kind of work. And I got his pay slips. And he was getting paid $25 a month, of which he had to send half of it home to his mother. So it was, it was hard work, but I think it toughened him up.

Chuck Rosenberg: I didn't know this about the CCC, but it was only for men who were not married and who were unemployed.

Jon Jarvis: Yeah, and there was a black CCC as well, but they were segregated. But it was not for women, but it was part of this larger Works Administration that FDR put together. So there were--it wasn't just people in the field, there were artists doing public art. There's just a whole range of things, it was interesting too is they--there's a strong theory that when you took all of these men, and you put them to work for a couple of years in the field, and then, pretty soon after that, we went into World War Two. And so, they'd already created a form of discipline, hard work, teamwork. And I think it had a profound effect on our ability, particularly in Europe, where the men were soon dispatched into World War Two,

Chuck Rosenberg: You said that that experience connected your father deeply with the forest and streams of the area in which he worked. And then, that, in turn, instilled in you and your brother, a real passion for the outdoors.

Jon Jarvis: Absolutely. I would say our dad was a self-taught naturalist, and a great observer of nature. He was not formally educated, he only went through the third grade in a one room schoolhouse in rural Virginia. But he knew the outdoors. And he took us into the woods and taught us to respect nature, to try to understand it. And I think for both my brother and me, we wanted to go a little deeper. And so, we both pursued advanced education in biology, to really have a better, sort of, scientific understanding of what our dad learned intuitively,

Chuck Rosenberg: Is that what drove you to study biology? I know you graduated with a degree in it from the College of William and Mary.

Jon Jarvis: Absolutely. I took every biology class I could possibly take to, sort of, better understand what I was seeing in nature. I was constantly curious about how things actually worked in science.

Chuck Rosenberg: And then Jon, graduating in 1975, you took a little trip.

Jon Jarvis: I did. You know, growing up rurally, and with not much money, we really had never really traveled. It was a big deal to go 30 miles down to Roanoke, Virginia and that was kind of an adventure. So, I really wanted to go west and I had heard a lot about these extraordinary places in the West. And so, after graduation in 1975, my girlfriend at the time and I took off and went out west and spent several months camping in Glacier and Olympic and Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain and many of the extraordinary national parks. And I think that planted a seed with me in particular to think about that as a possible career.

Chuck Rosenberg: Had anyone else in your family worked in that capacity, Jon, in the national parks?

Jon Jarvis: No, being in Boy Scouts, our scout master was Forest Service, and my aunt, an aunt who worked in the forest service. So, I was a little bit aware of the, sort of, federal role in managing these plants. I didn't know much about the National Park Service. But at the time, my brother, as we mentioned, he's six years older than me, had served in the military, served in Vietnam, came back to the DC area and was now working for the National Parks Conservation Association, which is an advocacy organization for conservation at the National Parks. And when I got back from my jaunt around the West, I crashed at his house in Alexandria, you know, unemployed, I was applying for grad school at the time, so I was just looking for work. So, he, he tasked me--as older brothers can do, with doing some work for him around some environmental issues that--I'll never forget: he handed me the environmental impact statement for the expansion of the airport in Grand Teton National Park, and said, "read this and give me an evaluation." And I read it and it was a pretty fascinating issue and--that I won't go into--but the funny thing is that that is still an issue today, it's a perennial, a hardy perennial as we call those issues that never seem to go away. But it--I think, again, got my interest in this is a potential career path to really devote your time to work for an agency that has a strong mission. And my brother encouraged that as well.

Chuck Rosenberg: So you applied to the National Park Service, what happened?

Jon Jarvis: So, I looked where there might be opportunities to, to get hired, and I learned that the National Park Service hires seasonal employees--they're not permanent, they're pretty low pay. And they work for just a set period, like three to four months. And there was a job in Washington DC at the Bicentennial Information Center. This was 1976, the nation's Bicentennial. And they were hiring a very young and diverse group to welcome the public to Washington DC for the nation's celebration, and I got hired and I worked all summer at "BIC," the Bicentennial Information Center, welcoming millions of visitors to DC.

Chuck Rosenberg: Is that the first time you took the oath, Jon?

Jon Jarvis: Yes, that would be--absolutely, the first time where we--you take the oath of responsibility and to serve the Constitution in the American public in a public roll. And I kind of never looked back from that. Interestingly, the Bicentennial Information Center closed into that summer and I moved over to the Jefferson Memorial. And I spent, as I like to say, the winter with Mr. Jefferson. No one really went to the Jefferson Memorial in the winter, it's cold, the wind blows off the title base in their house through the chamber. And at the time, of course, there wasn't much else over there. The FDR Memorial had not been built, of course. And so, you spend hours standing in there with the president, you know, looking at his quotes around the top of the portico. It's a very powerful feeling that comes from that, very patriotic in many ways.

Chuck Rosenberg: Were you a full-time employee by then?

Jon Jarvis: No, I was still a seasonal. So, I worked two seasons--that's kind of the vernacular of the Park Service, you work a couple of seasons--so I work two seasons on the mall at various sites around the mall. And then, in 1978, I was hired in as a permanent position with the National Park Service and finally into the Career Service as a permanent career employee at Prince William Forest Park, which is a small unit of the national park system just south of Washington DC, by the way, a CCC site, Civilian Conservation Corps site. And I was immediately sent to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center to get my law enforcement commission, which is a second time you take the oath, particularly to be commissioned, and became a Ranger, a park ranger. And then, I worked at Prince William for four years in a law enforcement Ranger capacity.

Chuck Rosenberg: And Jon, from the time you became a seasonal employee during the bicentennial of the United States until the time you retired as the Director of the National Park Service, you would spend four decades in that capacity.

Jon Jarvis: That's correct. I moved around the system. My family and I moved nine times. I had a great desire that--one of the aspects of the National Park Service is that in order to move up in the system, you have to move geographically for the most part. They expect you to move, somewhat like the military, every three to five years and, and to get a grade. And so, I started out as a GS-4 and worked my way up through a series of positions I wanted to go west. So, from Prince William I, I went to Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas as a district Ranger. I was the "Frijole Ranger," the "Bean Ranger," in the Frijole district of Guadalupe. Then, I went to Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, as both a ranger, and finally, back in the direction that I want it to be, as the park biologist, and ran the Lake Research Program at Crater Lake, then to North Cascades National Park in Washington State, right upon the Canadian border as the Chief of Natural and Cultural Resources. And at the time, I had really had a desire to become a park superintendent. This was the, to me, sort of the ultimate job where you really had the full responsibility of managing one of these extraordinary places and I began to apply for Superintendent positions around the system.

Chuck Rosenberg: I know you've devoted your entire career to the National Park Service and to the National Park System. Wallace Stegner, the great American novelist, winner of a Pulitzer Prize, once wrote that "national parks are the best idea we ever had--absolutely American, absolutely democratic." They reflect us at our best. Just say a few words, Jon, about the national park system.

Jon Jarvis: I believe that the national park system does exactly what Wallace Stegner says: it reflects us. Each unit of the National Park System is individually selected and created by an act of Congress or a proclamation of the President. That's the only way you get into the system. And they are chosen because they are the best of the best. They represent our most extraordinary, natural landscapes, and our most important moments in history. And with that comes a responsibility to use those places to help America achieve its high ideals as articulated in the Constitution. It reminds us of not only who we are, but who we want to be. And by protecting them and passing them on to the next generation, we are, we are giving a gift to that generation about our nation. And so, the aggregate of the sights is really the most important and the stories that they entail.

Chuck Rosenberg: And the national park system is not just national parks. In fact, it includes memorials and monuments and forests and lake shores and sea shores and parkways and military and historical parks. There's a bit of a misnomer, right? We think of national parks, and perhaps people think of the big famous ones like Grand Canyon or Yosemite or Yellowstone, but it's actually much broader and much deeper than that.

Jon Jarvis: That's exactly right. And you're also right that there is a lot of confusion about that because there's some 30 different names that Congress has bestowed upon these places from National Recreation Area, to National Lakeshore, to National Seashore, to National Battlefield. It started out with just the big, sort of, spectacular landscapes of the West: Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Mount Rainier. And, but then, there became a recognition that there are, first of all, spectacular natural resources in the East: Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah Acadia. And so, they got added. And then, you know, over time, there's been a series of additions--probably the most important one though, was Franklin Roosevelt was taking an R&R trip over to Shenandoah National Park at the time, was a little secret fly-fishing spot that he likes to go to. And he was coming back with the then-director, Horace Albright, of the National Park Service, the second director. And Albright famously pitched to him to turn over all of the military battlefield sites across the United States, the revolutionary and civil war battlefields with which at the time were being managed by the War Department, to the National Park Service. And with a stroke of a pen, FDR did that and transferred some 50 different sites to the National Park Service. And in that moment, the Park Service took on this responsibility for a much more complex portfolio of places and their stories and the responsibility to use those stories to tell the American Experience. And, as I'm sure you're aware, even right up to this moment, you know, talking about Civil War battlefields and monuments and the history of the Civil War in America, the history of civil rights in America, really falls on the shoulders of the National Park Service to a great degree, as a result of that

Chuck Rosenberg: Was in large part what you do in preserving these amazing sites is tell stories, Jon?

Jon Jarvis: Yes. And I think the Park Service, the park ranger, to me, is kind of the gold standard for that ability to bring these places alive. And so, when you walk out on the field of Gettysburg, with a park ranger, that individual, very likely might have a PhD in history, has written several books on a particular aspect of the war, and will not only, you know, make you feel like you might have been in Pickett's Charge across the cornfield, but also to make you think about things like the cause, the role of slavery, states’ rights, and individuals that served, and so, that storytelling is extraordinarily important to us. And we build it on a body of scholarly research and science to be able to be as accurate and timely as possible.

Chuck Rosenberg: So, you said there were 30 some odd different designations of parks and memorials and monuments all within the national park system. And maybe this is the wrong word, but how many different units do you have?

Jon Jarvis: I think the count right now--and I think they've been added a few--but I think it's around 419. And I added 23 when I was director, so we bumped it up quite a bit during my tenure under President Obama.

Chuck Rosenberg: By the way, this continues to change all the time, just in September of 2020, The Dwight Eisenhower memorial was added to the list.

Jon Jarvis: Absolutely. So like on the National Mall--which is sort of an aggregate responsibility of the National Park Service--and stationed across that mall, are these extraordinary memorials: the Jefferson, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, and as new ones are added, as by an act of Congress, such as the memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, they are built with private funds. There's no federal dollars applied to these. These are raised philanthropically. They're built and then they are transferred to the National Park Service for our stewardship in perpetuity.

Chuck Rosenberg: I have to tell you, Jon, there was something in your resume that just made me smile. You had a listing that literally reads "did Ranger things," and then after that, a list of "Ranger things." You fought fires and trapped bears, you forded glacial rivers repelled off cliffs, rescued lost people, gave tours, patrolled on skis and horses, climb mountains, hiked, and watched sunsets. Those are "Ranger things."

Jon Jarvis: Those are just some of the Ranger things. I mean, there is a fun element to the job. That goes along with the extraordinary responsibility.

Chuck Rosenberg: How big is the National Park Service?

Jon Jarvis: I think it count, right now, permanent, it's about 18,000 employees. And then, the “seasonals,” the folks that we hire for summer operation about--8000 summer “seasonals” are hired. And then, an extraordinary army of volunteers, about 400,000 volunteers serve with the career employees to provide protection to the parks.

Chuck Rosenberg: 400,000 is remarkable.

Jon Jarvis: It really is. And we couldn't do it without them. Our volunteers do just about everything from Mountain Rescue, to campground hosts, to work the front desks, trail patrol.

Chuck Rosenberg: They're official volunteers, they're enrolled.

Jon Jarvis: That's correct. We sign them up, they get $7 a day to cover all their needs. In some cases, they get housing, they--where we have availability, and a lot of them are retirees, and a lot of them are young people. It's, it's kind of a mix. A lot of folks that really love the national parks and have had a career and you know, whatever--they come to us and say you know, "we would love to volunteer." We have some that basically volunteer year-round, they'll move back and forth between summer and winter parks. And we have some volunteers that have volunteered for 20-30 years in one individual park.

Chuck Rosenberg: You mentioned 18,000 full time employees and 400,000 volunteers. That's to accommodate more than 300 million visitors a year.

Jon Jarvis: The level of visitation is pretty extraordinary. Like when I was director, I used to make this statement which has, which has been fact checked, which is that the National Park Service on an annual basis hosts more than all of Disney, all of national football, national baseball, national basketball, soccer, and NASCAR combined. And we do it on the budget of the city of Austin, Texas: about $3 billion. So, yeah, the level of visitation is pretty extraordinary. It's wonderful because people are getting the opportunity to experience these places, but it also is often a challenge, a logistical and operational challenge.

Chuck Rosenberg: Say a little bit more about that, Jon,

Jon Jarvis: You know, the parks' infrastructure was built mostly in the 50s and 60s. So, roads were narrower, campgrounds were smaller, trails were narrow, parking lots small. There was a big push for infrastructure development in the 60s called mission 66, when most of our national parks got their major infrastructure.

Chuck Rosenberg: That would have been the 50th anniversary of the creation of the National Park Service,

Jon Jarvis: Right. So, interestingly, during World War Two, the parks were closed. And with the exception of a few of them being used for R&R for the for the returning military or military coming back, particularly those that had PTSD, were sent to places like Yosemite Valley and stayed in the Ahwahnee hotel. Because of the economy at the time, the parks, when they reopened, they were in pretty bad shape, pretty neglected. And so, coming up on the 50th, the director of the National Park Service at the time launched what they called Mission 66, which is a 10-year infrastructure development program, that built, as I said, most of the roads and trails and parking lots in visitor centers. At that time, visitation was, you know, 100 million. Now we're at 320 million. And so, some of the parks are really quite overwhelmed, particularly in sort of the peak seasons, places like Zion, South Rim of the Grand Canyon, Yosemite Valley, you know, unfortunately, it is impacting the experience, and in some cases, the resource with that kind of crowding,

Chuck Rosenberg: I presume it's also impacting the wildlife.

Jon Jarvis: There's definitely a displacement. You know, we saw here recently, when the parks were shut down, at least temporarily due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that the wildlife came out, and there were bears wandering around in the campgrounds and sleeping on the, on the roads and, and sort of returning, so they're there. They're just, you know, avoiding the crowds as would be expected. So there is definitely some displacement that goes on with this kind of crowding.

Chuck Rosenberg: How do you accommodate 300 million plus visitors, preserve the parks for future generations, care for the wildlife, and make sure that you have the resources, both budget and personnel to address all that?

Jon Jarvis: Well, you just described my job as the director, it's complicated. You know, one, is that you really try to educate the public about how to visit, and when to visit, and the different ways they can visit, and still have a great experience. So, part of it is really about public education. If the public obeys the rules, stays on the roads, stays on the trails, it really can accommodate a lot more people than if people are misbehaving, driving off road, doing, you know vandalism, and the like. And for the vast majority of the American people, and our extraordinary foreign visitation that comes some 60 million from around the world, they're very well behaved. There's always a few you really have to work on, and that's why we have Rangers that can enforce the law, and help people, you know, experience it safely and go away with great memories. We also try to use the internet to help, sort of, redistribute the public to lesser crowded areas, or at different times. There are definitely peak periods of when you can sit in a car jam for hours just trying to get in the gate. And part of it is because you showed up and everybody else showed up. And so that's another part of it. And also to work with our public land partners. There are extraordinary areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management in the US Forest Service, that do not get this kind of visitation, but can also be wonderful places to visit as well.

Chuck Rosenberg: I definitely want to talk to you about your time as Director in charge of this magnificent, natural resource. But I also wanted to ask you about the times that you served as the superintendent of various parks, because you had some remarkable assignments, Jon.

Jon Jarvis: Yes. So, I wanted to be a park superintendent by the time I was 40. That was my, that was my career goals. And I landed Craters of the Moon, National Monument in Idaho, it was my first assignment. I was a GS-12, had a staff of 10 counting me.

Chuck Rosenberg: And we should explain to those listeners who may not be familiar with the GS system. You had mentioned earlier, you started as a GS-4, suffice to say, a relatively low paid, federal employee. By the time you're a GS-12, you're a supervisor, and you're not highly paid, but you're well paid.

Jon Jarvis: Yes. I mean, I think I was making in that time, maybe $60,000 a year, somewhere in that neighborhood. And you know, it's enough to live on, for sure. At that the time, I had two small children and it was adequate, and we lived on it, you're okay. The GS scale is commensurate with the level of responsibilities. A small park would be in that scale, and a large park would be at the top of the GS scale like a GS 15, or senior executive.

Chuck Rosenberg: So talk about Craters of the Moon and what you did there.

Jon Jarvis: So, Craters is an older park. It's in rural Idaho. It is a lava field that had a series of eruptions over the last 15,000 years, not dissimilar to what you would see in Hawaii with these large, the salt, stone, black stone lava flows, and it's on the Snake River Plain. It's a very conservative part of the country. Rural agriculture, ranching, the small town of Arco is the closest town and I joined the rotary, and went to meet with the folks there to help sort of promote the park, invite people back. And one of the most interesting things that I did while I was there was--this was also the homeland of the Northern Shoshone tribe--and I was interested in the fact that the lava flows in the park, or we were using the Native Hawaiian terms: "aa," and "pahoehoe," to describe two types of lava. And I said, well, we're in Idaho, we're not in Hawaii, wouldn't there be Shoshone terms for the same thing, they've been here for 1000s of years. So, I went down to the Fort Hall Indian reservation and made some connections with the tribal leadership and asked if a couple of the elders would come up and spend the day with me. So, these two women, wonderful women, came up, and I put them in my pickup truck. And we drove around the park all day and looked at sites and went on walks and, and talked about the long-term relationship with this area, with the Shoshone. And I said, well, you know, I have my question, you know, that really wanted to know is that were there Shoshone terms for the lava? And they looked at me and they said, "Yes, there are, but we don't know them. We were taken from our families as children, that our mouths were washed out with soap in the Indian schools, until we could no longer speak or remember our, our native language." And so, I was unsuccessful in part in attaining those, those names, but at least we began to build a stronger relationship with, with the tribes in their traditional homelands, which is something that I've done throughout my career as well.

Chuck Rosenberg: Where did you go from Craters of the Moon?

Jon Jarvis: As my wife would say, I went--we went further and further from civilization. So, I went to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska, but always wanted to work in Alaska. In 1980, the Lands Act was passed, and they created a whole group of new national parks in Alaska. And it had really called to me to go there. So, I landed the "Superintendent of Wrangell-St. Elias," it's the largest park in the system. It's 13 million acres, 21,000 square miles. It's an incredible resource of glaciers, mountains, bears, wolves, caribou, and four linguistic groups of native Alaskans associated with it in their traditional homelands. So, we moved to Copper Center, a community of less than 100, I would say, and lived there five years, as I was the park superintendent.

Chuck Rosenberg: I read something about Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, that astonishment, you just mentioned, and it was 13 million acres. The entire national park system is 84 million acres. One seventh of the national park system is in Wrangell-St. Elias.

Jon Jarvis: Yeah, it really is an extraordinary landscape. I mean, the way to think about Wrangell is that it's--you're sort of managing the Pleistocene, the glaciers have just recently receded. And you're starting to see these extraordinary wildlife displays, and in a visitation to Wrangell is about 35,000 people a year. And so, the visitor impact is inconsequential. You're really managing a resource that is still pretty intact, and the relationship of the native Alaskans is still intact. And one of the good things about when the park was established was this was recognized in legislation. And so, the local native people have subsistence rights in the park. And they can come and hunt and harvest and travel just as they did for 1000s of years. And this is something that is integral to the management of the park. And so, I worked every day with the Native Alaskan community on ensuring they had an ability to to exercise those rights, or all of their cultural needs.

Chuck Rosenberg: You mentioned that you had a staff of 10 at Craters in Idaho. How big was your staff in Alaska?

Jon Jarvis: About 25.

Chuck Rosenberg: And tell me how 25 people covered 13 million acres?

Jon Jarvis: Well, the, the park is broken into districts. And the Nabesna district is 5 million acres, which is about two and a half times of Yellow stone with one Ranger, and the archetype Ranger which is down on the coast, you know, I would see him once a year. So you cover the park, by fixed wing, by airplane. There were 125 sort of known air strips, we've actively managed about 25 of them, just sort of general maintenance. And you'd go out and do patrol. And you know, just to see what's going on in the park, because there were people living in the park, not only native, but non-native kind of old miners living on old mining claims there were trappers, I mean, I remember flying out with one of the Ranger pilots in the winter, so it's 20, below zero, or so. And we landed in the town of McCarthy, we're going to have a town meeting. So there's maybe 30 people that live out there in this old mining town. And we landed on the airstrip. And we timed it to be there for the mail plane. So the mail would come in once a week on the mail plane. And all of the locals would come to meet the mail plane. So we knew they'd be showing up. And they there's an opportunity to have kind of a little bit of a community gathering. And so, over the course of an hour or so, people began to show up by snow machine, dog team, skis, snow shoes, just coming out of the, out of the woods onto the airstrip. And then, we stood around in a big circle, and had a town meeting. And it was 20 below zero at least, which is really not a great temperature to be standing around a lot. So, you know, after about 30 minutes, everybody sort of jumping up and down and slapping their hands and sort of trying to get a little bit of circulation going. But that's just sort of classic Alaska is that you, you adapt. And these are extraordinary people, some of them resentful over the parts existence, but a lot of them are glad that the place is being protected, and that their rights are being respected at the same time.

Chuck Rosenberg: You mentioned living in a small town in rural Idaho and living in a small town in South Central Alaska. How does the National Park Service think about the communities that are essentially gateways to these beautiful national parks?

Jon Jarvis: It's a really good question, Chuck, I, I think that the Park Service looks at these gateway towns as a partner, the people that live in those towns are--in many ways, derive their, their livelihood, and their quality of life from the existence of the park. So, it's really important to build a trust relationship with those communities, and ensure that their voice is being heard in the parks, while at the same time though, the National Parks belong to everyone. So, you have to balance the needs of the local communities with the larger ownership of these parks by the entire, you know, American population. The other thing that's interesting is that park service people bring capacity to these communities. Oftentimes, in small rural communities, there, there's this kind of a limited capacity. There'll be a few people that do everything. You know, they're the town mayor, they're the firefighter, they're their plumber, they're the deacon at the church, and work at the food bank. And when park service people come and live in those communities, they bring their skills and assets to those communities. And so, when I worked in Wrangell and one of my staff was on the school board, one of them was coaching basketball, you know, one was on the Community College Council, we volunteered for the fire department. Really integrating yourself into those communities is key to working with them.

Chuck Rosenberg: Did you serve as a superintendent again after Wrangell, after Alaska?

Jon Jarvis: I did. I came back down to the lower 48 and took on the superintendency of Mount Rainier National Park, which is a classic, iconic Park been around since 1899. In many ways, an urban park because it is, you know, an hour from Seattle and Tacoma, and it is the destination for learning to do climbs, particularly Alpine climbs. So American climbers who are planning to go to the Himalayas will climb or near a half a dozen times to get ready. It's a challenge park because you get about 10,000 attempts on the mountain a year, about 5000 make it, and three or four die. We'll run 10 or 15 highly technical rescues a year on the mountain with our Rangers to, to bring back those that are injured or to do a body recovery.

Chuck Rosenberg: And talk a bit about those highly technical rescues and the teams that do that.

Jon Jarvis: So Rainier is a little over 14,000 feet, you know, that's high elevation, so you really have to acclimate. So what we do is we station our climbing Rangers at 10,000 feet on to remote cabin sites. And so, they are prepared ready, all their equipment, ready to go at a moment's notice 24 hours a day, throughout the climbing season. And they're quite capable, you know, one of my longtime friends and the climbing ranger when I was there, Mike Gauthier, had summited Rainier over 200 times, and you get the call, you try to assess what's going on. And then, you dispatch a team to execute the rescue, we always had a high elevation helicopter on standby with a trained pilot to be able to do an extraction or to do--to bring the Rangers onto site if necessary. But one of the challenges, of course, with these kinds of incidents is they they always happen in the worst possible conditions, heavy storms, wind, you know, lightning, whatever. And that's when the Rangers go in. You know, I'm not skilled at that level, I did summit twice with the Rangers, just to get up there and see what they're up to and what their challenges were. But there's these incredible individuals that if you're in trouble, you want them coming for you.

Chuck Rosenberg: It reminds me, Jon, my father served in the Coast Guard and hated the water and boats for the rest of his life because they went out in the worst weather for rescues. He enjoyed the Coast Guard and his colleagues, but I hated the water for the rest of his life.

Jon Jarvis: Yeah, I can understand that. I served as the superintendent there for three years, and we had over 20 fatalities in those three years. And one of the jobs I always took on, as my responsibility was to deal directly with the families of those that were lost, in part because I wanted to free up the Rangers to go back to do what they do best, which is to move on to the next rescue. So, I had the task of following up with the wives or husbands or mothers or fathers of those that we had lost or recovered. In some cases, we didn't find them till the following year, by after snow melt, to be able to, to recover a body. So it's it is a challenging place.

Chuck Rosenberg: Which is a good reminder: the parks are spectacularly beautiful, but Rainier is not the only place that can be deadly.

Jon Jarvis: No. And that's one of the challenges with the public is that, you know, for the most part, their experiences with wildlife is at the zoo, where you're behind the fence, but you go to Yellowstone, and you get out of your car, those bison are wild, those grizzly bears are wild animals. And people unfortunately forget that. And they're also in these extraordinary natural challenges the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, El Capitan in Yosemite, it's the, it is the best big wall climb in the world, and attracts individuals from all over the world to test their skills. And we embrace that, we don't discourage that opportunity to have that kind of experience in our national parks.

Chuck Rosenberg: But it comes with the recognition that people get hurt. And worse.

Jon Jarvis: One of the things that was deeply troubling to me as director, and something that I did take on, was the safety of our own employees. When I became director, the National Park Service was the most dangerous federal agency to work for outside of the Department of Defense. We injured or killed more of our employees on an annual basis than any other federal agency, including all the law enforcement agencies. And we really dove into that. And interestingly, with your connection to the Coast Guard, we turn to the Coast Guard to learn about a program that they had instituted a number of years ago about operational safety, where anybody on the team could raise their hand and say, "wait a minute, let's walk this through, and think this through before we launch and identify any possible ways to do this more safely." And we trained every employee in operational leadership while I was director, and we saw a significant reduction in the number of injuries and deaths of employees as a result of that just through a lot of hard work, not just programs, but individuals being willing to step up and say, you know, let's think about this before we take off.

Chuck Rosenberg: That also requires a cultural change, not just a policy change, and that can be a very hard thing to do in large organizations.

Jon Jarvis: It can be very hard and the Park Service is pretty hidebound in terms of its culture. There's no question about that. And it has a very strong can-do side to it, almost to the point of self-sacrifice. We saw this over and over again in some after incident reviews where individuals would work themselves to exhaustion over a particular issue, even not necessarily a rescue, it could be saving turtles on Padre Island, and taking extraordinary risks with their own health and safety. And so, getting people to understand that they could still accomplish the job and come home safely took a lot of work. And it really had to start at the sort of the ground level. And one of the hard parts of the culture is that the agency is also very hierarchical. A lot of military roots in the Park Service with the superintendent at the top and your division chiefs and line of authority and great skill often in these chief Rangers. And when the chief Ranger says go do it, you go do it. And with operational leadership, we said, the lowest person on the work chain could stick up their hand and say, "don't we first need to put on your chaps before you fire up that chainsaw?" Or "have we thought about how we're going to come back from this particular incident? How are we going to get ourselves out?" And then, to sit down and do an analysis and move the needle back towards safety. And what is required is the willingness of the supervisor to accept a much lower graded employee challenging them in the middle of an incident. And that is a cultural shift. But it's been it's been pretty successful.

Chuck Rosenberg: Atul Gawande has a wonderful book called The Checklist Manifesto in which he describes the difficulty of introducing that concept into operating rooms, where there's a very strict hierarchy. And hierarchical organizations often struggle with exactly the thing you're describing, Jon.

Jon Jarvis: Yeah, exactly. But I think what we were able to turn the tide, I think, by focusing on the mission, and the knowledge that you could still accomplish the mission and do it safely at the same time, we were not willing to say, you know, we're going to sacrifice yourself for the mission.

Chuck Rosenberg: You spent eight years as the Director of the National Park Service from 2009 to 2017. talking a little bit about the span of control, we mentioned that you had 18,000 employees and 400,000 volunteers, and 84 million acres of Park and 400 plus units, including 62 national parks. But how do you run something like that out of an office in Washington, DC?

Jon Jarvis: Yeah, you also have 17 time zones that you're operating in, including parks that on the other side of the dateline in the far Pacific. So, part of it is that the organizational structure of the National Park Service tends to be highly decentralized. There are delegated authorities out to the field to make the day to day decisions. So we have regional directors, seven regions, geographically dispersed across the country, and then, the superintendent's work directly for the regional directors. But at the superintendent level, they have extraordinary autonomy to make most of their decisions, they can make budgetary decisions, hiring decisions, priority planning, infrastructure, and the Washington office as director, it's very difficult to be involved in any type of day to day kind of issue unless the issue is can't be resolved at the local level. And that can be ones that are highly politically charged, have got the involvement of the White House, or the Secretary of Interior, or there are a sort of inter-agency conflicts between the Department of Transportation, like the long standing issues of overflights over national parks between the Park Service and the FAA, Federal Aviation Administration, over scenic flights over places like the Grand Canyon. Those kinds of issues, do come to Washington and you're dealing with them every day. But the day to day kind of, you know, what's happening in Zion, or Grand Canyon is really managed at the local level.

Chuck Rosenberg: You got into this line of work, though, because you love being outdoors. Did you still travel to the parks as director?

Jon Jarvis: I did, though, I would say that usually my travel itinerary was determined by which issue I was having to deal with at the time. And I'm a big believer in going out and actually seeing what the issue really is. You get a tip of the iceberg view from Washington. And so, going on the ground was pretty important to go out and actually visit it and listen to the different stakeholders, including different levels of staff, community, advocacy organizations, and others and sort of get the gist of what really what's going on. Then, you can sort of go back to Washington and formulate a game plan to resolve it.

Chuck Rosenberg: Unlike other directors in the National Park Service, you came up through the ranks. In fact, I think you were the only director ever to have served in Bush, Alaska.

Jon Jarvis: That's correct. Yes, I was.

Chuck Rosenberg: So one very difficult issue that you had as director was sexual harassment in the ranks of the National Park Service. I don't think it's unique to the National Park Service, unfortunately. But could you say a little bit about that, what the problem was and how you tried to address it?

Jon Jarvis: Absolutely. And thank you for bringing this up, because I think it's important to talk about. So, you know, the Park Service, as you indicated, is a large organization. And as you would imagine, there are individual problems with sexual harassment and other types of harassment in any organization. But in the Park Service, we became aware, in 2014, of a particularly egregious and horrible situation at the Grand Canyon. 13 women who had been repeatedly sexually harassed by the Rangers that managed the river trips for the park, basically, were being forced to provide sexual favors in order to execute their jobs along the river. They had reported it up through the chain. And really, there had been little or no action at the park level. It had not gotten to Washington, we did not know about this, but it had gotten to the region. And they became very frustrated with the lack of action to change this culture in this activity. And so, they wrote a letter to Secretary Sally Jewell, Secretary of Interior. And she immediately launched an inspector general investigation in 2015. And we became aware at that point that this was a pervasive problem in the Park Service, not just at the Grand Canyon, but at other sites as well. So, what I did immediately was to figure out who out there was sort of state of the art, and learned that really, the Department of Defense Office of sexual assault response was the key. And we made contacts there, the Major General Camille Nichols was extraordinarily helpful to us, we brought her to meet with our leadership team. And she pretty much laid out what we would need to do to try to begin to change this culture. It was a very strong wake up call to the Park Service. And to me as well, that we had a male dominated culture. I mean, that might be apparent anyway. But that it was resulting in mistreatment of women of minorities of age discrimination as well throughout the system. And in a way, it was an--it might sound weird--but it was a gift for us to really begin to address this in a true systemic, and aggressive way. So with the advice of the EOD team, I began to talk about it, we got our leadership to talk about it, and we took some very aggressive actions, some removals of individuals in supervisory roles, setting up an ombudsman, setting up a call center, apologizing repeatedly to the women of the organization, who, who had been enduring this in the past, and then tried to understand really what is our baseline, if we're going to try to take action to improve the culture of the agency, then we needed to know really how bad it was. And this was a recommendation that the Department of Defense made. So, we developed an anonymous survey of the employees. And it was conducted in, in the late '16, the results came out after I had retired, but it did indicate that there was a pretty deep and pervasive aspect of harassment within the National Park Service, and that it needs to be continuously addressed through a wide range of actions. Most importantly, that is that when it is reported, there is immediate response by leadership and action taken on the perpetrators and on the supervisors if they knew about it and had not taken action.

Chuck Rosenberg: And to that point, though, Jon, you need immediate response, you need strong action, but you also need success of leadership to take it as seriously as you did. Once it's out of your hands, how do you know that the changes you implemented are going to stick?

Jon Jarvis: You know, I was the last Director of the National Park Service. There's not been a director since I left. We've gone the full first term without a director of the National Park Service. And many of the senior leadership that I put in place, including the woman that I sent to the Grand Canyon, Chris Lehnertz, was forcibly removed. A lot of this stuff has stalled, frankly.

Chuck Rosenberg: Do you worry about the changes that you made lasting?

Jon Jarvis: Yes and no, I do worry about it, of course, because I you know, I have enormous respect for the people within the National Park Service. I mean, none of our accomplishments could be counted unless they're done by a team. I figure the part services the is the gold standard for public service, in particularly public communication and working in--and they have enormous respect for the public--and they just need to turn that respect to each other. But it is not just going to happen without aggressive action by leadership. I'm encouraged by the women that we put in place into senior leadership roles across the system, superintendents, regional directors, supervisors, and there is a core of rising young women in the Park Service who are quite extraordinary. And I think that they will demand this of the agency, they are committed to the mission, so they're not just going to give up on it. But they are going to fight. That gives me hope.

Chuck Rosenberg: Here's a question you probably don't like, so I won't ask it which is to name your favorite National Park. But I thought I might ask it slightly differently, which is do you have a favorite park in the winter, in the summer, in the spring, and in the fall?

Jon Jarvis: Well, I used to get that, "what's your favorite Park?" question all the time is director and I always said I love all my children. In terms of the seasonality of the parks, I'm a winter person, I like winter and winter would have to be Wrangell-St. Elias. To go out in the evening to walk my dog in the park around the edges of the park, and Northern Lights would be out, and just extraordinary displays in Northern Lights. You might hear an owl absolute sound booth quality quiet and the Milky Way just incredible winter silence, the snow, it's 20-30, in some cases, 50 below zero. So the snow is that crunch as you're walking along just that crunch-crunch-crunch, your mustache is freezing to your glasses. And so that's my Winter Park. I love the forest in fall in East Shenandoah, when the maples and oaks and the beach are turning that fall colors. It's pretty extraordinary and a lovely temperature and time to be in that Eastern deciduous forest as well. For spring, it would have to be Yosemite because the snowpack is beginning to melt. And the waterfalls are just roaring off the valley walls in a myriad of different ways. And so, just to be able to walk the valley and see spring erupting, pretty incredible. And summer, oh man, there's so many so many parks that are fantastic.

Chuck Rosenberg: You can pick more than one, Jon.

Jon Jarvis: I love the Virgin Islands, St. John, Virgin Islands National Park in terms of just a really wonderful place to go and tropical Caribbean seas, beautiful water, and a wonderful resource of bird life and a pretty quiet, easy living environment down there as well.

Chuck Rosenberg: How do we make sure that these magnificent places are magnificent for those who come after us?

Jon Jarvis: Well, I think investing in the next generation. I created the Every Kid in a Park pass, a free pass to every fourth grader in the nation. And we chose that age, because based on the science and our recommendations from the Department of Education, a child at the fourth grade is usually in homeroom. They are generally studying their state's history. And at that age, they'll still listen to an adult. And by giving them a voucher for a pass to the national park system for a year that they could then bring to a park, get their real pass, or in some cases, we handed the passes out and bring their parents to the park. We were investing in building a new generation of Park advocates. And I think that's one. The second is being willing to tell the darker part of the American story in our parks. And so, we added new parks that represent parts of the American story that are not well told, like reconstruction, Harriet Tubman, Colonel Charles young Buffalo Soldiers, you know, the first military officers and soldiers that protected the national parks were African American. And that is just completely unknown for most of the American story. So civil rights sites--we added to Stonewall in New York City to recognize the LGBTQ movement, the turning point and gay rights. And so building relevancy to this next generation and to all Americans, to me, is an investment in that sort of insurance that they will care about these places well into the future.

Chuck Rosenberg: And how about some of the larger macro issues as well, climate change and the challenges that that means for our national parks?

Jon Jarvis: Well, I said more than once that I think climate change is the most worrisome problem to the future of the national parks, to their integrity. We are already seeing, as we speak, the impacts of climate change to our national parks: fires are burning, glaciers are melting, new species are showing up that had not been there in the past, and the net result is we need to aggressively address climate change from an adaptation standpoint, from a science standpoint, and from a public education standpoint, to really prepare our parks for the kinds of changes we're going to see.

Chuck Rosenberg: And that's some of the work you're still doing. For instance, you're affiliated now with the University of California at Berkeley.

Jon Jarvis: I am, you just can't let this stuff go, you know? We're working on helping the state of California achieve its biodiversity conservation goals. We're working with some tribes on protecting tribal lands, we are working on issues of fire in California, which is a huge, very complex issue, as well. And we're working on building a new generation of young scientists who will spend their careers working on these issues in international parks.

Chuck Rosenberg: And do you enjoy that, Jon?

Jon Jarvis: I really do. I really continue to be impressed by this next generation of young people that are that care a lot about these places and care a lot about the environment. They want to be involved, they want to know how they can help. And so, I get to play the old sage now to give them advice about career paths, what I think are the hot research topics like large landscape conductivity, and creation of migratory corridors, and how you do biodiversity conservation, or how do you build urban parks without displacement as you gentrify communities? So a lot of these things are really a lot of fun to work on.

Chuck Rosenberg: And you mentioned a new generation of leadership at the National Park Service. Are you still seeing enough interest among young men and women to join as Rangers and to do the work that you did?

Jon Jarvis: I am, you know, there's obviously, a new demographic in the United States and the Park Service does not reflect that demographic change. That is one of the challenges is that we need to have as much diversity as the nation has in its populace. And like the issue of it being male dominated, it has also been white dominated for almost all of its history. And so, recruiting a generation that looks like America is key to its future as well. And the young people that we have connected with, they see this system telling their story, whether it's at Selma to Montgomery or women's rights, or Stonewall piques their interest and say now, this is maybe an organization I would like to devote my career to, and that's really exciting.

Chuck Rosenberg: How about your next vacation? Which park?

Jon Jarvis: Oh, probably Point Reyes National Seashore, which is only a couple hours from here. It is a longtime favorite. I mean, the fact that you can drive an hour and a half from San Francisco and walk on a pristine beach and hardly see anybody and see elk and see whales. That's pretty extraordinary.

Chuck Rosenberg: Another extraordinary thing, Jon, is the 40 years you spent doing Ranger things, as you said, climbing mountains, hiking, watching sunsets, trapping bears, rescuing people patrolling on skis and horses. You've had an extraordinary career and one of service to our country.

Jon Jarvis: Well, thanks, Chuck. It's been an honor, in my view. We talk about the Park Service mission. And it's deeply ingrained in the employees that we have this responsibility to pass these places on to the next generation unimpaired so that they can learn from them and enjoy them. And that really is sort of deeply ingrained and almost all the employees, the Park Service spend their entire careers just like I did in the Park Service doing this kind of work. And when they retire, they don't let go. They're still out there. There's a whole crowd of them that we do Park work around the world. I'm doing some work in China to help them create a national park system as well. So, it's a lifelong passion, and there's some fun along the way. Don't forget that.

Chuck Rosenberg: Well, I'm glad there's some fun along the way. Thank you for not letting go, and Jon, thank you for your service and for spending some time with us today.

Jon Jarvis: Thanks, Chuck. It's been a real pleasure.

Chuck Rosenberg: Thanks to Jon Jarvis for sharing his story with us. Jon led our magnificent National Parks Service for eight years, the culmination of a four-decade career that began as a park ranger following his graduation from college. As the great novelist Wallace Stegner wrote: “our national parks are the best idea we ever had.” Indeed, they are: stunning landscapes, breathtaking vistas, among the most important and beautiful parks and rivers and seashores and historical sites in America. Jon Jarvis knows we have an obligation to preserve these magnificent gifts for those who come after us, and he dedicated his professional life to that endeavor.

If you have any thoughtful criticism, feedback, or questions about this episode or others, please email us at That’s all one word:, and though I cannot respond to every email, please know that I read each one and appreciate it. If you liked this episode, please let us know by leaving a 5-star rating on whatever app you use for listening, and ask your friends to subscribe. We are available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Tune-In, and on every major listening app. If you are listening on a smart phone, swipe or tap over the cover art of the podcast. The Oath is a production of NBC News and MSNBC. This podcast was produced by FannieCo, with Rob Hebert, Nic Bannon, Kate Robbins, and Fannie Cohen. Olivia Cruser provided excellent production support, as always. Our associate producer is Allison Bailey. This is The Oath with Chuck Rosenberg. Thank you so very much for listening.