Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has resurrected a federally chartered board that advises the National Park Service with his own appointees, nearly a year after most of its former members resigned in frustration.
The newly reconstituted National Park System Advisory Board — composed largely of current or retired business executives — was set to meet for the first time Wednesday in Washington. The Interior Department postponed the session, however, because the federal government observed a national day of mourning out of respect for former president George H.W. Bush.
The new panel includes a California winemaker, a beer distributor in Texas and three veterans of the real estate and home-building industry. All of the 11 new members appear to be white, and nine of them are men. Public records show all of the new board members are either registered Republicans or have voted repeatedly in GOP primaries.
The current committee poses a stark contrast to the 12-member panel picked under President Barack Obama. Two-thirds of those members were women, and the group included African American members and members of Latino and Asian descent.
In a statement Thursday, Interior spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort said the Park Service published a notice on Nov. 16, 2017, soliciting nominations “for interested members of the public who wished to serve on the Board. All applications received by the Department of the Interior were reviewed and compared to the membership criteria contained in the Board’s charter.”
Leaders of some national park advocacy groups voiced dismay about the panel’s lack of diversity, given the agency’s ongoing efforts to broaden its appeal to Americans of color.
Theresa Pierno, president and chief executive of the National Parks Conservation Association, said her organization was “pleased to see these vacancies finally filled." But she added that “we had hoped that the Department of the Interior would have recognized the importance of diversity when appointing new members.”
The appointments reflect the latest instance of Zinke reshaping the work — often in a more business-friendly direction — of the more than 200 advisory boards that help Interior manage the roughly 500 million acres of public land it oversees.
The newly appointed board also did not include any working academics, as the previous version did. Among the old panelists were professors from Harvard and Yale universities, as well as the University of Maryland and the University of Kentucky.
The new group includes three big-dollar donors who have each contributed more than $500,000 to GOP candidates and causes since the 2008 election cycle.
They are John C. Cushman III, a Los Angeles-based commercial real estate executive who gave $537,950, mostly to Republicans and GOP-affiliated political action committees; John L. Nau III, who runs the nation’s largest distributor of Anheuser-Busch products and gave $847,022, largely to Republicans; and Boyd C. Smith, a Bay Area-based real estate developer who contributed $986,407, largely to GOP candidates.
The board member designated with representing the park system’s gateway communities is Billy Hewes, the two-term Republican mayor of Gulfport, Miss. Hewes once served as the national chairman of the powerful American Legislative Exchange Council. The group, while nonpartisan, is best known for writing model bills for state legislatures that advance conservative policy goals such as cutting environmental regulations.
Many of the new members come with experience relevant to park management. Cushman, for example, once served as national president of the Boy Scouts of America. Another new member, Philip G. Pearce, is a paraplegic wheelchair user with expertise in accessibility under the Americans With Disabilities Act. A third, Zelma Lansford, an organizational consultant, said in an interview Wednesday she brings to her new assignment two decades of experience working with roughly two dozen parks.
“What I bring to the table is knowledge of the agency and how it works,” Lansford said.
Both she and Joseph S. Emert, also a Tennessean named to the board, emphasized this week that they view the job as nonpartisan.
“The national parks are too important to be a political football. I hope that people from any political spectrum can come together and support our parks,” Emert told the Blount County, Tenn.-based Daily Times in an interview this week.
Lansford, who met briefly with Zinke over the Fourth of July just after she was appointed, said the secretary’s interest in the parks came through.
“I think he was really looking for people of enthusiasm and commitment more than anything else,” she said, adding that she and another new board member discussed how they hope to meet soon. “We were just devastated by the cancellation. We’re ready to go to work.”
Among the biggest challenges the park system faces is a $11.6 billion backlog of maintenance work that includes fixing bumpy roads and leaky water lines. A bipartisan bill to establish a park maintenance fund paid for by energy development on other public lands is still winding its way through Congress.
Nearly all of the board’s former members submitted letters of resignation in January after they concluded the Trump administration was ignoring their requests to meet twice a year as prescribed by law. First authorized in 1935, the board advises the interior secretary and director of the Park Service on running existing parks and designating new national historic and natural landmarks.
In response, Zinke said he wanted to expand the purview of the board to include wildlife conservation and sporting issues. He had added that he and others “welcome their resignations” after the board allegedly turned a “blind eye” to the prevalence of sexual harassment among the ranks of park rangers.
Phil Francis, chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, which represents 1,200 current, former and retired Park Service employees, said in an interview that some of the new board members bring valuable skills such as a knowledge of the agency’s history and operations. But he emphasized they should view their job as more than just promoting outdoor recreation and managing park concessions.
“It’s also how to protect the parks and leave them unimpaired for future generations,” Francis said, noting that climate change is already affecting parks across the country. “I hope the agenda will be comprehensive and not just items consistent with business interests.”
He added: “If anything, it will be interesting to see what they are going to be asked to do,” noting the board’s mission should be broader than just promoting outdoor recreation and managing park concessions. “It’s also how to protect the parks and leave them unimpaired for future generations. I hope the agenda will be comprehensive, and not just items consistent with business interests.”
Department officials solicited board nominations through a public process, but records disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act show that some made personal appeals to Zinke himself. According to a text Zinke sent to his assistant Caroline Boulton on April 13, Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation President Jeff Crane sought to arrange a lunch between Zinke and a man he described as ”the most famous guy in Napa.”
“He has expressed interest in your Parks Advisory Bd and wanted to know if you were open for lunch Wed 18th,” read the text, which was released in response to litigation filed by the Sierra Club, an advocacy group.
The message appears to be a reference to vintner Andrew “Tuck” Beckstoffer, whose winery is a financial supporter of Crane’s organization and just joined the advisory board. His official bio on the board’s site describes growing up “in a prominent Napa Valley grape-growing family,” adding, “Tuck, who remembers the Napa Valley of the 1970s as full of open spaces, has a deep respect for the land.”
Other fundraisers in the orbit of the Trumps have joined Interior’s advisory boards in recent months.
Four individuals who co-chaired or served on a host committee for a fundraiser with the theme “Camouflage & Cufflinks” on the day after Trump’s inauguration in January 2017 — Peter Lewis Horn II, Chris Hudson, Mike Ingram and Keith Mark — were later appointed to serve on the newly created International Wildlife Conservation Council. Another member of the council, Cameron Hanes, is a bow hunter and friend of Donald Trump Jr.
The president’s two oldest sons, Trump Jr. and Eric, were initially touted as “honorary co-chairmen” of the charity event but backed out of making an appearance amid allegations of influence peddling.
The International Wildlife Conservation Council was created by Zinke, who charged it with engaging the public “on the benefits of international hunting" while promoting hunting overseas as “an effective tool to combat illegal trafficking and poaching.”
Julie Tate contributed to this report.