The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Zinke creates new outdoor recreation panel made up almost entirely of industry advisers

State Route 261 is shown on the edge of Cedar Mesa in Bears Ears National Monument.
State Route 261 is shown on the edge of Cedar Mesa in Bears Ears National Monument. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has appointed 15 representatives of the outdoor recreation industry to advise him on how to operate public lands, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post, including three people whom department officials flagged as potentially having a conflict of interest on the matter.

The membership of the “Made in America” Outdoor Recreation Advisory Committee, which Zinke launched in November, marks the third time the secretary has assembled panels dominated by industry players to help chart policies affecting their businesses.

Many of the members of the Royalty Policy Committee hail from the oil, gas and mining industries; the new International Wildlife Conservation Council is largely composed of people with ties to trophy hunting.

Records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that industry representatives urged Zinke to establish the new recreation panel to provide their clients a greater voice in shaping Interior Department policies. The appointments — which the department announced shortly after The Post made the appointments public — include officials representing companies with National Park Service contracts, such as those in the hospitality sector, as well as those from the manufacturing, fishing, boating and all-terrain-vehicle industries.

Zinke said in a statement that the panel “is made up of the private sector’s best and brightest to tackle some of our biggest public lands infrastructure and access challenges,” adding that the group’s “collective experience as entrepreneurs and business leaders provide unique insight that is often lost in the federal government.”

Several outdoor industry representatives interviewed in recent weeks said they had spent years working to convince federal officials that they deserved greater input in policymaking, given their businesses’ impact on the U.S. economy. In February, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis concluded that outdoor recreation and supporting activities, such as construction and travel, account for 2 percent, or $373.7 billion, of the nation’s gross domestic product.

Frank Hugelmeyer, president of the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association, said he began pushing to create a broad umbrella group during President Barack Obama’s second term so industry officials could present “a unified recreation voice to whoever won the election.”

Zinke has met multiple times with representatives of the new trade association, the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable.

Hugelmeyer, the roundtable’s vice chair, said that when it comes to public lands, “the administration and the secretary have been fairly responsive to industry on ideas that will improve access, infrastructure and growth.”

Internal emails among Interior Department staffers attribute the gen­esis of the Made in America committee to Derrick Crandall, who has been selected to serve on the panel. In addition to being the roundtable trade association’s president, Crandall is chief executive of the American Recreation Coalition, which includes boat and snowmobile manufacturers and ATV dealers, and counselor for the National Park Hospitality Association.

The advisory committee “is coming out of Derrick’s conversations with the Secretary,” wrote Lena McDowall, the National Park Service’s deputy director for management and administration, to a colleague in a Nov. 7 email.

In an interview Monday, Crandall said he was “excited” to serve on the panel, adding that the Interior Department had concluded his ties to concessionaires did not represent a conflict.

“I get no money directly from any contract with Interior,” he said, adding that when it came to advocates such as himself, “we can represent expertise and experience, and add something to the deliberations of a body.”

In an interview earlier this month, Crandall said Zinke came up with the idea of an outdoor recreation committee during a meeting in his office with industry officials in April. The secretary noted that while the department had roughly 200 federally chartered advisory panels, Crandall recalled, “he expressed that none of them were equipped to tell him what he really wanted to know” about improving access to public lands.

Last year, Zinke suspended all of the department’s advisory committees as his staff conducted a review of their operations. Most of them have resumed operations, but some have yet to convene a meeting since the start of the Trump administration. In January, nearly all of the members of the National Park System Advisory Board quit in protest, saying that Zinke had reversed several key Park Service policies without soliciting their input.

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During the recent selection process for the Made in America panel, Interior Department staffers color-coded Crandall’s name along with those of Bruce Fears, president of Aramark Leisure, and Jeremy Jacobs Jr., co-chief executive of Delaware North, for having potential conflicts of interest. The document places Crandall in the category of “individuals who advocate for and represent the interests of NPS concessioners” and Fears and Jacobs as “current concessioners with the NPS.”

Aramark and Delaware North rank among the Park Service’s biggest concessionaires: Aramark has a $2 billion contract to operate concessions at Yosemite National Park, while Delaware North runs concessions at Shenandoah, Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks.

Fears and Jacobs Jr. won appointments on the panel, according to the final list, while the one other nominee flagged for having a potential conflict of interest, AccessParks chief Tim Rout, did not.

Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said in an email that “all potential appointees are carefully vetted and approved in writing by senior career officials in Office of the Executive Secretary, Ethics Office, and the Division of General Law.”

Delaware North spokesman Glen White said in an email that the company’s “extensive experience as a concessioner for the National Park Service makes our Co-CEO Jeremy Jacobs Jr. well-qualified to provide insights via an advisory panel on how the Interior Department can improve the parks for every visitor.”

White added that Jacobs had previously served on a Commerce Department travel and tourism board during the Obama administration.

None of the four nominees put forth by the Outdoor Industry Association — which represents more than 1,300 manufacturers, retailers, distributors, suppliers, sales representatives and nonprofits — made it on the new committee. The group, which generally advocates on behalf of those who engage in nonmotorized activities such as mountain climbing, hiking and kayaking, criticized President Trump’s decision to scale back Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments’ boundaries in December.

Kate Kelly, director for public lands at the liberal Center for American Progress, questioned why the department would establish an advisory panel comprising mostly members who had a financial interest in the agency’s policy decisions. “This is less of an advisory committee on outdoor recreation and more of an echo chamber for how public lands can be tools for private profit,” she said. “The group seems to have been handpicked to cheerlead for more motorized use of public lands, more roads through the backcountry and more taxpayer subsidies for hotels chains operating in the national parks.”

Since taking the helm of Interior, Zinke has spoken repeatedly about the benefits of privatizing some campgrounds, which are now run by the Park Service, or forging other kinds of partnerships with the private sector to direct additional resources toward the park system.

Zinke told reporters in May during a phone briefing, “We have not been a good partner with industry” and that private financing could ease the Park Service’s more than $11 billion operations and maintenance backlog. Speaking to Hugelmeyer’s group in June, he remarked, “As the secretary, I don’t want to be in the business of running campgrounds. My folks will never be as good as you are.”

Several of the new committee members endorse increased privatization. Linda Craghead, who serves as Kansas’s assistant secretary for parks and tourism, states in her LinkedIn profile that in her current job she has “implemented key business strategies to transition the state park system from dependence on state funding to a self-sufficient business model while enhancing the natural, cultural, recreational and educational aspects of the parks.”

Crandall has also endorsed privatization as a way of financing upgrades to campgrounds such as ready access to WiFi and hot showers, saying that current ones “lack the amenities sought by today’s campers.”

“That is a legitimate role for private-sector partners,” he said, noting that ski operations in national forests were built privately.

Zinke’s push to establish new advisory groups comes as he has frozen out others. Interior Department officials let the Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking expire in September, for example, and replaced the Wildlife and Hunting Heritage Conservation Council with a new group.

But the secretary just convened the first meeting of the newly created International Wildlife Conservation Council, which is charged with engaging the public “on the benefits of international hunting” and supports hunting overseas as “an enhancement to foreign wildlife conservation and survival” and “an effective tool to combat illegal trafficking and poaching.” It draws most of its members from the big-game hunting community. These include Safari Club International President Paul Babaz and Ivan Carter, who leads safari hunts and hosts a show on the Outdoor Channel. Another member, Cameron Hanes, is a bow hunter and friend of Trump’s oldest son.

In some instances, this shift in emphasis led to tension within Interior itself. A raft of documents obtained under FOIA chronicle exchanges between department officials and members of the National Park System Advisory Board before their en masse resignation earlier this year.

On Nov. 13, Park Service policy chief Alma Ripp pleaded with the agency’s then-acting director, Mike Reynolds, to keep the board going even though Zinke had yet to respond to its entreaties for a meeting.

“All the NPS boards, committees, commissions (with a few exceptions) have been unable to meet since May,” she wrote. “This is the only NPS committee that the [department] seems interested in filling. PLEASE ask them not to resign.”

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