KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Former Alaska Governor Tony Knowles sent a letter on Monday to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. It was a resignation letter. Knowles wrote that he and eight other members of the National Park System Advisory Board were quitting because they were being ignored. He says Secretary Zinke has not met with the board a single time since being confirmed last March. Knowles was the chairman of the board until he resigned, and he is with us now. Welcome to the show.
TONY KNOWLES: Thank you for having me.
MCEVERS: You served on this board for seven years. What happened to make you write this letter?
KNOWLES: The decision for myself and eight other members to resign was very difficult. We have a common interest in protecting national parks and making sure that they could get better. And we worked very well with the national parks director and secretary for seven years. And suddenly we were basically cut off (laughter).
We were told that our activity was suspended. We weren't told for how long or why. And after one, two, three, four months we've checked into it, no word from anybody. The acting director didn't know. After six months, I wrote a letter requesting that we have a meeting to talk with the secretary and his very key people. Two months later, they said, the secretary's very busy; we'll be in touch. And we've never heard anything.
If the secretary wouldn't listen to us, if the director wouldn't listen to us, we felt that we owed it to the policies of the national park system that had gone through so much improvement in climate change, science education, that we needed to make a statement and we could best do that by resigning.
MCEVERS: You wrote to Secretary Zinke that you have, quote, "a profound concern that the mission of stewardship, protection and advancement of our national parks has been set aside." Besides him not meeting with the board, what is it that gives you that concern?
KNOWLES: Well, there were some signals (laughter). He just arbitrarily raised the rates on various entrances to park under the guise that, well, you know, we need to raise money. (Laughter) Well, that's a huge issue that needs to be discussed. You just can't do that off your cuff because in a lot of ways, the people that we want to have participate at the parks - the lower-income people - they would be the ones that couldn't afford then to increase their participation - so just arbitrary decisions.
MCEVERS: We asked Secretary Zinke for an interview, and we were told he was unavailable. But Interior Department Press Secretary Heather Swift did send us a lengthy statement. It said, your resignations are welcome. And then there are a couple of other things I want to ask you about specifically. The statement says they would, quote, "expect nothing less than quitting from members who found it convenient to turn a blind eye to women being sexual harassed at national parks."
We should say that in the last couple of years, there have been several reports of harassment within the National Park Service, and a survey of NPS in place last year showed this as well. What do you say to that charge?
KNOWLES: I say it's completely unfounded. We had discussions with the acting director of national parks, and he was absolutely on top of that issue. So I don't think there's any basis for that accusation.
MCEVERS: The statement we got from Interior also says that as recently as the 8th of this month, the department was trying to schedule a meeting with you. It also says the interior secretary rarely goes to meetings with the board. Are either of those things true?
KNOWLES: (Laughter) We met with Secretary Salazar within days of being appointed. He was outstanding and always open for communication - the exact same situation with Secretary Jewell. That is not the case in the new administration.
MCEVERS: Did they request a meeting on the 8th of January?
KNOWLES: Not at all. I mean, it wasn't me or any member of the board.
MCEVERS: You know, as you think about this decision, you know, was there an option besides quitting?
KNOWLES: Well, I think the signal was quite clear. After one year - that's one-fourth of a term - and with no attempt to meet or even discuss. And so it was not only the 12 members of the board but also the hundred or so other national experts who volunteer their time - nobody gets paid for this - just to work on policy. We're a bunch of wonks (laughter).
And so to have that just dismissed, we felt we had to make a statement. Now, we're not discouraged. Every single person on that board is ready to go to work again, and we can take our knowledge and the vision that was begun but apparently is now being cut off and attempt to reintegrate it into policy.
MCEVERS: Tony Knowles is the former Democratic governor of Alaska and the departing board chairman of the National Park System Advisory Board. He and eight other members of that board resigned on Monday after the secretary of the interior, Ryan Zinke, refused to meet the board for the past year. Thanks so much for your time.
KNOWLES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.