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Op-Ed | The Park Service Has Lost Its Conservation Compass

Jeff Ruch

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Republished with permission from National Parks Traveler

Op-Ed | The Park Service Has Lost Its Conservation Compass

In the past six months, the United States has experienced two of the largest sea turtle mortality events in history. Each took place on the shores of a national seashore, but the National Park Service did not take the lead in responding to either mass die-off. In fact, the Park Service is currently dismantling its only program dedicated to sea turtle science and recovery.

In December, dropping temperatures in the waters off Cape Cod National Seashore drove approximately 500 nearly frozen endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles onto beaches. Unable to handle the casualties, private volunteers organized the largest sea turtle air evacuation in history, first to Tennessee and then on to the Gulf Coast.

In February, an unexpected freeze in Gulf waters, off of Padre Island National Seashore, resulted in thousands of cold-stunned green turtles, a threatened species, washing ashore where they were hustled into a variety of shelters.  However, nearly 10,000 “greens” died in the process.

Just months earlier, the NPS’ own Sea Turtle Science and Recovery program, based at Padre Island, had sounded the alarm about the record influx of greens. Dr. Donna Shaver, the STSR director, had published a study suggesting that even higher numbers of these threatened sea turtles may return to Texas’ shores if habitat protections and incubation support remain strong.

Yet, at the same time as numbers of green turtles reaching Texas’ shores are spiking, the National Park Service is significantly cutting back on sea turtle – especially green turtle – recovery efforts. The STSR was ordered to turn back approximately $300,000 in grant funds it had been awarded for green turtle recovery work through 2023. That move came as NPS further deemphasized green turtle work and limited sea turtle recovery to the boundaries of the national seashore. Moreover, NPS told Dr. Shaver that she should limit her future scientific research only to subjects bearing directly on park administration.

The result at Padre Island is that wildlife conservation  has been reduced to a secondary consideration in how the park is run.

This unfortunate trend is not limited to Padre Island. California’s Point Reyes National Seashore has just approved a plan to kill native tule elk because they consume fodder on land leased to politically connected dairy farmers whose leases would be extended to 20-year terms.

This deficit in the Park Service’s conservation ethic is also exemplified by the recent decision by Big Cypress National Preserve to create trails to allow swamp buggies into some of its wildest areas so hunters can more easily retrieve carcasses. Big Cypress’ former superintendent, John Donahue, characterized how misguided this move was by writing:

“In effect, what God and Mother Nature would not allow to be impaired by recreational pursuits, the NPS will spend taxpayer dollars to inflict upon the most primordial wilderness areas in the United States.”

Perhaps this growing institutional disregard for conservation is because it is not a required element for promotion into the NPS management ranks. Unlike managers of national wildlife refuges, national park superintendents are not required to have any conservation experience or training.  One superintendent described the real, but unwritten, criteria for selection of park superintendents as “politics, partnerships, and public image.”

This myopic view of what is required for park leadership was reflected in the formal proposal by Jon Jarvis, the last Senate-confirmed NPS director, to make “philanthropic success” (i.e., fundraising) a core competency for selection and promotion into park management positions. It would have been the only core competency for park leadership codified in NPS policy. While that proposal was thankfully defeated, the thinking behind it remains, unfortunately, too prevalent inside NPS.

As the Biden administration considers nominees to lead the NPS through the first decade of its second century, it should consider picking a conservation leader, rather than an NPS careerist.  Hopefully, the nominee will be someone who will restore the Park Service to scientific leadership and to its former role as an important global force for conservation.


Jeff Ruch is the Director of PEER’s Pacific office, having formerly served 22 years as the Executive Director of PEER.