FAIRBANKS — Former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles and the U.S. Department of the Interior traded accusations of dishonesty this week on a subject that’s usually far too boring to make the national news: the meeting schedule of an advisory committee.
Knowles, a Democrat who served as Alaska’s governor from 1994 to 2002, led a mass resignation Monday from the National Park System Advisory Board. The board is a congressionally chartered organization created in 1935 whose duties include advising the government on the designation of national historic and natural landmarks. Knowles was appointed in 2010 and was the board chairman. His term had been scheduled to expire in May.
Knowles said in a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Monday that he’s leaving because the department hasn’t called a meeting with the board all year and doesn’t appear interested in its work. Knowles’ letters states it was previously Interior Department policy to meet with the advisory board twice a year. He said the board wants to brief Zinke on subjects such as “mitigation of climate change; engaging young generations; evolving a more diverse culture of park visitors, advocates and employees; bringing our schools to our parks and our parks to our schools; stressing park urbanization; (and) protecting the natural diversity of wildlife.”
“Our requests to engage have been ignored and the matters on which we wanted to brief the new department team are clearly not part of its agenda,” Knowles said in the letter. “I wish the National Park System and Service well and will always be dedicated to their success.”
Knowles is a critic of many of Zinke’s policies, including an expansion of offshore oil drilling, a reduction in the acreage of some national monuments, fee increases at national parks and the reversal of a plastic water bottle ban at national parks.
Knowles ended the letter with the names of eight other board members who he said were leaving the board for similar reasons. Two of the eight named by Knowles had terms that had already expired. Knowles said in an interview that he included these former board members because replacements had not yet been nominated for their seats. A ninth member of the 12-member board wrote her own resignation letter Tuesday.
The resignations were first reported by the Washington Post.
Reuters news agency reported that Interior Department press secretary Heather Swift responded to the board resignations with an emailed statement Wednesday.
“We welcome their resignations and would expect nothing less than quitting from members who found it convenient to turn a blind eye to women being sexually harassed at National Parks,” Swift said in an email, Reuters reported.
The news wire also reported Swift said it was “patently false to say the department had not engaged the board, when as recently as Jan. 8 we were working with the board to renew their charter, schedule a meeting, and fill vacancies.”
In a telephone interview with the Daily News-Miner on Wednesday, Knowles reaffirmed his statement in his letter that Zinke hasn’t made any effort to meet with the advisory board.
“When she says 'patently false,' I don’t know what patent she’s using, but I can tell you it’s not true,” Knowles said. “There has been no contact with the board about a Jan. 8 meeting or any meeting to take part of in the future,” he said.
Knowles sounded amused about how much attention his resignation has received. He said Swift’s response sounded like a political response to resignations on a not-particularly political board.
“Everyone knows advisory boards are worthless, right?” he said, laughing. “This group is just a bunch of wonks that talk about policy every single meeting.”
Knowles took umbrage at Swift’s comment about turning a “blind eye” to sexual assault, which Knowles interprets as a dig at Obama-era National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, who led the agency during sexual harassment scandals at Grand Canyon National Park and Cape Canaveral National Seashore. In October, Zinke announced the results of a survey that showed 38 percent of National Park Service employees had reported experiencing harassment or discrimination on the job.
“You just wonder how low people can go slandering a previous director who, for eight years and for a career did a magnificent job for the National Park Service,” Knowles said.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski has oversight over the Interior Department as chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies. The Republican senator said in a telephone interview Wednesday morning that she inquired about the national park board after reading the Washington Post story Tuesday.
“We put in a query to the secretary’s office last night,” Murkowski said. “Making sure that you have functioning boards is important.”
Murkowski said Zinke had been interested in the composition of various Interior Department boards when she met with him soon after his nomination last year. She speculated that the lack of board meetings may be related to the massive reorganization of Interior Department staff that Zinke announced last week.
Knowles, who lives in Anchorage, said he’ll continue working on National Park Service policy through other organizations even though he’s no longer on a government board. One organization he said he’s interested in working with is the National Parks Conservation Association, where he said he might be able to work with his former lieutenant governor, Fran Ulmer, who is a member of the organization’s board of trustees.
Contact Outdoors Editor Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors