Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg flew to Glacier National Park on Saturday to tour the melting ice fields that have become the poster child for climate change’s effects on Montana’s northern Rockies.
The decision to micromanage Zuckerberg’s stop in Montana from 2,232 miles east in Washington, made by top officials at the Interior Department, the National Park Service’s parent agency, was highly unusual — even for a celebrity visit.
It capped days of internal discussions — including conference calls and multiple emails — among top Interior Department and Park Service officials about how much the park should roll out the welcome mat for Zuckerberg, who with the broader tech community in Silicon Valley has positioned himself as a vocal critic of President Trump, particularly of his withdrawal from the Paris climate accord.
Interior Department press secretary Heather Swift made it clear that she did not want Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow involved in the tour, according to three people with knowledge of the decision. And the Park Service’s public affairs staff was instructed not to post anything about Zuckerberg’s visit on its Facebook or other social media accounts, including sharing a Facebook post he wrote during the visit in which he registered his alarm at the shrinking glaciers at the park, according to someone with knowledge of the directive.
“The fact that you would have been sharing Mark Zuckerberg’s views with 93 million followers is going to give it that much more lift,” said one Park Service employee who was not authorized to discuss the deliberations and requested anonymity.
The high-level scrutiny comes as the Trump administration de-emphasizes climate issues, not just by withdrawing from the Paris agreement but by removing references to global warming from many federal websites and turning back regulations on U.S. carbon emissions.
Trump and several of his Cabinet secretaries have questioned the scientific consensus that global temperatures are rising because of human activity.
Mow, whose 26-year career with the Park Service included roles as law enforcement ranger, chief ranger and superintendent at seven Park Service sites before he took the top job at Glacier, said in an interview Thursday that he was not involved in the decision to cut him out of the Zuckerberg visit. He said he learned of his exclusion from an email from a broad group of officials discussing who should be involved in the tour.
“The way I look at it is whenever you have a new administration, it takes a while for them to get settled,” Mow said. “It’s an issue of people learning their jobs. They’re going to make mistakes along the way.”
“It’s growing pains and learning just how far you are going to get into the day-to-day operational issues at a park,” he said.
Mow is known as a climate expert who frequently tells visitors that the retreating ice sheets at Glacier are evidence of a climate undergoing rapid change. At high altitudes where most glaciers are found, temperatures are rising faster than in the valleys below, with signs pointing to even greater melting in the decades ahead.
Zuckerberg’s team did meet with a small group that included park rangers and the park’s deputy superintendent. The Facebook founder shared photos of himself on his site with the park’s resident border collie, dubbed the Bark Ranger because she shepherds wildlife away from popular tourist spots.
Daniel Fagre, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who is based at Glacier, told The Washington Post this week that he had planned to take Zuckerberg to Logan Pass, a scenic spot on the Continental Divide. Fagre said he was “puzzled” by the decision to disinvite him from the delegation and said he was not given a reason. He has published widely on the retreat of glaciers as evidence of global warming.
Swift, in an email Thursday, defended the decision to go with a small group as a prudent use of government resources.
“The park gets 3 million visitors a year, most of them coming in the summer months,” Swift wrote. “July is peak season. A number of Park rangers were made available for the celebrity’s personal tour but allocating such extensive government resources to a celebrity would have been a waste of money and a disservice to average parkgoers.”
But it is common at national parks, particularly premier ones such as Glacier, for the superintendent to greet and give tours to prominent visitors, largely to help promote the Park Service and in some cases to develop relationships that could eventually lead to philanthropic donations. Forbes listed Zuckerberg’s net worth as $63.3 billion Thursday.
Mow said he meets regularly with visitors, from members of Congress to school groups.
“It’s very rare for us to say no to anybody if I’m available and it works for my schedule,” he said.
As the list of park staffers for Zuckerberg’s tour kept changing last week, his advance staff grew irritated, said officials with knowledge of the issue.
Zuckerberg was “unaware of any of this,” Derick Mains, a Facebook spokesman, said of the decision to pull Mow and Fagre. “He had a great visit to the park and got to meet with a team from the National Park Service who were all very open and knowledgeable about the role that climate change is playing in the decline of the glaciers in the park.”