In an interview with Tom Fox, Jewell spoke about this month’s 100th anniversary, balancing public access and preservation, our obligations to Native Americans—and embracing Pokemon Go.
Fox is a guest writer for On Leadership and the vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. The National Park Service is celebrating its 100th anniversary this August. What is the significance of this anniversary?
A. When you have a milestone like a century of work, it is a great opportunity to shine a spotlight on what’s happened over the last 100 years and think about what’s necessary for the next 100 years. It’s really an opportunity to celebrate America’s best idea. The centennial has given us a chance to embrace a new generation of people so that they too can care about our parks and public lands.
Q. What are you doing to attract a new generation to the parks?
A. We have a campaign called “find your park.” (It’s on twitter at #findyourpark.) We’ve also done events all over the country and engaged celebrities who have millions of Twitter followers and who are encouraging people to get up, get out there and find their park. This was an opportunity to engage social media and focus on the millennial generation.
We’ve also embraced the Pokemon Go craze and we welcome people to come play, as long as it’s not off a cliff. We want to have people get out there. They may be playing that for a while, but they will look around and say, `Wow, this place is really special, this is really neat.’”
Q. How do you balance the need for public access and preservation at the national parks?
A. Living in a representative democracy, if you don’t have people who know about parks and public lands and historical places, how can we expect them to vote to support those places in the future? Getting more people out is a good thing. But it challenges us from a public land management standpoint to find ways that balance the visitor experience with the preservation.
For example, at Zion National Park, we went to bus access only on the most popular road, and people are now used to that. We’re now bringing this to Glacier National Park. The reality is most people who visit have an experience that is within a quarter mile from their vehicle or from where they might take a bus. So you have increased impact close to roads, but there are many areas that are just a little farther in that we’re not having difficulty preserving.
Q. What are some of the challenges that lie ahead for the National Park Service?
A. Climate change is having a big impact on our national parks at every level, from historic preservation to preservation of cultural assets, to sea level rise and melting glaciers and changing habitats for plants and animals. That is a very substantial challenge that we face. We also face deferred maintenance, because we have been starved financially with our budgets for many years.
Q. There have been reports regarding allegations of sexual harassment and mistreatment of employees at several national parks. What steps are being taken to address these issues and to change the culture of the park service?
A. Saying I’m profoundly disappointed about the sexual harassment issues at Grand Canyon and Cape Canaveral would be an understatement. I’ve prided myself in creating work environments that are enjoyable and fair and respectful for people.
We’re doing a lot of things right now to correct it. We reached out to other federal agencies that have had similar problems and said, “What have you learned, what can we learn from you and will you help us?” We are doing training; we will survey all employees in the fall; and we are creating a safe reporting mechanism so that people can come forward and we can take appropriate actions quickly.
Q. What are some of the other issues that have drawn your attention as leader of the Interior Department?
A. We are making incredible progress upholding our treaty obligations to our nation’s first peoples: American Indians and Alaskan natives. That means continuing to settle water-rights issues and settling litigation that’s been kicking around against the federal government for not upholding our side of the bargain in these treaties. We’ve settled over 100 so far. We don’t want to fight, we want to work together. We really have pushed the reset button on relations with tribes, and I want to make sure that that continues into the future.
Q. What advice will you give your successor in the next administration?
A. The most important thing is to do a lot of listening up front. Meet with tribal leaders and listen to them, meet with career staff and listen to them. Get out into the field where the rubber hits the road, whether it’s on an Indian reservation, in a national park, out with scientists at the U.S Geological Survey, in the labs in California where they’re working on earthquake resilience, or out at a stream gauge where they’re monitoring flooding.
When you get out and meet people who are doing this work and you create an environment where they’ll tell you what’s going on, it can really help you knock down the barriers so they can do their jobs effectively.