When Facebook’s communications chief approached the National Park Service to ask the agency to show company founder Mark Zuckerberg how the warming climate is melting ice sheets at Glacier National Park, scientists, park rangers and public affairs staff were giddy with excitement.
“This is going to be great!” wilderness specialist Kyle Johnson wrote in an email June 21 to Facebook’s Derick Mains as planning for a July 15 tour got underway. When Mains had approached him two days earlier, Johnson responded, “I think something like this would be outstanding for all. … Thanks for helping us showcase Glacier.”
The U.S. Geological Survey’s public affairs office was thrilled to make the park’s top climate scientist, a USGS staffer, available to Zuckerberg to explain how global warming is altering the ecosystem of the northern Rockies.
“This is an incredible opportunity and I hope that you can make time or have one of your staff be available,” spokeswoman Suzanna Soileau wrote to Daniel Fagre, a research ecologist based at Glacier, of the half-day tour.
And Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow, when told that the billionaire tech titan would be visiting, asked his staff to line up an official with the park’s fundraising partner to make connections.
But their eagerness to accommodate Zuckerberg on his high-profile tour quickly turned into a high-wire scramble for Park Service staffers, as political appointees at the Interior Department, the Park Service’s parent agency, demanded that they walk back their generosity, according to documents The Washington Post obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The Trump administration was far less keen on Zuckerberg — who has been increasingly vocal in his criticism of the president — and apparently balked at giving him the red-carpet treatment that national parks often roll out for lawmakers, potential donors and dignitaries.
“This seems like a lot of government resources to dedicate to a celebrity’s personal PR tour,” Interior press secretary Heather Swift wrote in an email to a Park Service spokesman three days before the scheduled tour.
Negotiations between political appointees and the Park Service and Geological Survey unfolded over weeks, with the discussions reaching senior officials at each agency. Interior officials told the Park Service to minimize its planning and moved at one point to cancel the Facebook chief executive’s July 15 tour altogether, the newly released emails show.
“Got called in today to discuss Glacier and the visiting guest coming in,” Michael Reynolds, the acting Park Service chief, wrote to the director of the agency’s intermountain region. “Need to come up with a plan as they want things shut down still..explained we can’t really do that nor would they want that we would think.”
Reynolds apparently prevailed — but not before he was told to pull climate scientist Fagre, Superintendent Mow and several other Glacier staffers from the delegation park officials put together to show Zuckerberg around.
Interior appointees even questioned why Gracie the Bark Ranger, the popular border collie who prevents bighorn sheep and mountain goats from getting too close to park visitors, was invited to tag along.
Zuckerberg, widely rumored to have political ambitions, has called out Trump for the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. This week, he condemned the president’s decision to rescind the Obama-era program shielding from deportation nearly 800,000 young immigrants brought to the United States illegally as minors as “cruel” and a “sad day for our country.”
The administration’s micromanagement of Zuckerberg’s tour came as Trump officials de-emphasized 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. The president and several of his Cabinet secretaries have questioned the scientific consensus that global temperatures are rising because of human activity.
It is common for superintendents of national parks to greet and give tours to prominent visitors, largely to help promote the Park Service and to develop relationships that could eventually lead to philanthropic donations.
Zuckerberg’s visit was particularly appealing for park officials since he planned to write his impressions afterward and post them on Facebook to 92 million followers.
But soon after then-agency spokesman Tom Crosson sent an email to employees that included a mention of the planned Facebook visit, the trouble started.
Swift and others at Interior started asking questions. Had Facebook obtained a special permit ? (They didn’t need one.) Why was Gracie going to be on the tour? Why was a law enforcement ranger? Would reporters be covering it?
“Sir, a little bit of swirl is taking place around here (NPS and USGS) regarding Glacier’s visitor on Saturday,” Crosson wrote to Bob Vogel, the Park Service’s acting deputy director for operations.
The staff scrambled to get answers.
“I would try to add a bit more to the special use permit section … what types of activities normally merit an SUP [special use permit] and why we don’t believe this falls into that category,” Sue Masica, the intermountain director, wrote to the region’s communications chief. She reassured Interior officials that “NPS is not taking any extraordinary measures for this visit different than what we normally do for VIPs.”
The delegation was whittled down to five employees, including the deputy park superintendent and Gracie’s handler (Gracie stayed).
Mains, Facebook’s communications chief, was not happy.
“This is really disappointing,” he wrote when the Park Service sent him the final list. “Since I told Mark that the Superintendent was hosting can you share more details on why he can’t attend? Also who will be able to talk to him about the research that has been causing the Glaciers to melt?”
Mains was nervous that there would not be enough people in the truck Facebook rented to climb Logan Pass and asked whether the company could add volunteers.
The visit also was whittled to two hours. Afterward, Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook of his alarm at the melting glaciers.
“Since the 1850s, the number of glaciers here has gone from 150 to 25. In a couple of decades, there may not be any glaciers left in the park at all. The people here have no idea what the effects will be when glacier water stops flowing into the ecosystem.”
The Park Service was not allowed to post anything about the tour on its Facebook page or social media accounts.