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Questions for Jon Jarvis, director of the National Park Service

Monday, April 19, 2010; A13

The National Park Service celebrates National Park Week this week by waiving entrance fees at the nation's 392 national parks. National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis discusses the program, the new law allowing guns in parks and his 34-year career with the agency.

QWhy are parks free this week?

It's an invitation to the American public to come visit their national parks. . . . It's a great celebration and opportunity to reacquaint with our parks.

The week of festivities is also tied to the 40th anniversary of Earth Day?

Earth Day is Thursday, April 22. There are over 300 [events] across the country. We have some events right here in D.C. around the Washington Monument. We have about 600 kids coming in to participate in a range of activities.

How much will the fee waiver cost the Park Service in lost revenue?

A little less than $1 million a day, so about $9 million total.

Is it worth the cost?

Absolutely. Our fee program is a great program, because we use it specifically to improve facilities for the visitors. . . . But occasionally, it's important to waive this fee. We'll do it again in August. The fee program is only a supplement to the regular appropriations we get from Congress to operate the National Park system.

How are overall visits to the parks going this year?

It's up. We got a bump last year, about 4 percent, or 287 million last year. We'll probably hit 290 million this year.

I think it's always hard to exactly pin down why visitation goes up or down. A lot of it is tied to the economy and you can probably give some credit to the Ken Burns series ["The National Parks: America's Best Idea" on PBS] in drawing some attention to the National Park system. You can give some credit to the economy and folks who couldn't afford to go to Europe, so they're reengaging with great places here in the United States.

Guns are now permitted on the grounds of many parks, depending on state firearms laws. Have there been any incidents and how have park staffers adjusted to the new laws?

There've been organizations that have come to the parks to demonstrate their new rights to carry, and we've been very professional in their rights to carry. But no incidents out of the ordinary.

We ensured that citizens were expected to know their rights whether or not they're in compliance with state rights, and our employees are well prepared with training. And sites where guns are prohibited are well signed so that the public do not bring their weapons into those. I think it's frankly worked out pretty well so far. [Protesters plan to bring their guns to a "Restore the Constitution" rally Monday at Fort Hunt and Gravelly Point parks on the banks of the Potomac River.]

You're a 34-year veteran of the National Park Service. Why did you join the agency?

I started right here in Washington, D.C., as a seasonal employee on the Mall. I started at the Bicentennial Information Center in 1976 in the Commerce Department building, where the White House Visitor Center is.

I'd known about the National Park Service from growing up in rural Virginia near Shenandoah National Park, and I had a biology degree and I really wanted to pursue this as a career.

At how many have you worked?

Eight actual parks (the Mall, Prince William Forest Park in Virginia, Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas, Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, North Cascades National Park in Washington, Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska and Mt. Rainier in Washington) and then I served as the regional director for the Pacific West, where I had 54 parks under my responsibility.

Do you have any memorable stories from working at those parks?

When you see those pictures of the big brown Alaskan red bears standing at the waterfall and catching fish with their teeth, it happens at two places, the McNeil River and the Brooks River.

The Brooks River is a really short little river, maybe a couple miles long, two lakes between and a fair amount of fall in the river. It's a great place to fish. I am a fly fisherman. I was fishing that river by myself very late in the day and I had a big old brown bear take a very strong interest in me. For about an hour and a half it was cat and mouse with me and the bear. I wound up swimming the river several times and floating past him and getting out of the bank as he actively pursued -- not in an attack mode, but was never more than 15 feet from me at any time until I got back to my cabin.

He literally followed me up to the cabin door. I burst into the cabin totally soaking wet and my brother was sitting in the cabin reading a book in front of the fire.

"What happened to you?" he asked.

"Look out the window," I said, and there was the bear staring at the door.

-- Interview by Ed O'Keefe

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