The lifelong civil servant has refocused the parks' conservation mission.

jonathan jarvis
A visit to Yellowstone National Park (left) after college inspired Jonathan Jarvis to embark on a career with the National Park Service.
| Credit: Getty Images

When President Obama nominated Jonathan Jarvis in 2009, a New York Times editorial described the decision as “the best news we have heard in the past nine years about the national parks.” A career public servant, who had previously worked to protect and advocate for our nation’s landscapes as superintendent of several western parks, Jarvis has restored the Park Service’s core focus on conservation and instilled new pride in the institution. Here, his thoughts on the park system’s past, present, and future.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

How did you first come to work for the National Park Service?

The summer I graduated college, I took off out west and traveled through many of the great, classic national parks, camping out. When I came back to Washington D.C., I crashed at my brother’s place. At the time he was working for the NPCA, a lobbying advocacy organization that focuses on the national parks, and he suggested that I consider applying for a job with the government—with the National Parks Service. I did, and I have worked for them ever since. That was 1976.

Anything memorable happen on that trip?

Here’s a funny story: I was camping in Yellowstone in the fall, and it was pretty chilly. There was a guy camping next to me in a big RV. He came out of the vehicle wearing a smoking jacket, fired up a chainsaw, and cut down a tree at the campsite, which was of course illegal. He then stacked up the logs in a huge pile, soaked them in gasoline, and set them ablaze. But the gasoline had spread out, so his entire campsite basically caught fire. Of course, he was in a full panic. I brought a shovel out of my truck, walked over to his campsite, and scratched a line around the fire to put it out. I think it was my first act as ranger—even though I wasn't a ranger yet.

I also remember going to Olympic National Park, in Washington, and going to the northwesternmost point of the continental United States. You have to drive out through the Makah Indian Reservation. You can sit out on this sort of rocky outcrop and watch the gray whales migrate along the coast. It’s a very powerful place.

What part of your job are you most passionate about?

Inspiring and empowering the next generation to take on responsibilities of stewardship, by bringing people that may not have had these kinds of experiences into places of great inspiration and power, whether national or historical. That’s what keeps me going every morning: education, but also the creation of opportunity. We recently brought 120 or so high school students from around the country—from places like Ferguson, Missouri, and Little Rock, Arkansas—to walk 54 miles along the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail, whose 50th anniversary of the famous march we celebrated last spring. Each evening, they camped on an area we call Tent City, where many African Americans lived in tents for years after they were kicked out of their homes, after the original march. Many of these kids camped and hiked for the very first time. They’ll never be the same.

How do you encourage visitation to the parks, while protecting them from human impact?

Unless you’re talking about an incredibly fragile environment, from a conservation standpoint the human footprint made from hiking the trails in Rocky Mountain National Park or walking up the canyon in Zion is negligible. I’ve come to the conclusion that the only real significant impact brought on by public use is an experiential one. In other words, concerns about crowds. I do think that there needs to be a range of quality experiences and that public use needs to be managed. But to be blunt, I worry a lot more about apathy than overuse. Apathy presents a much greater threat.

Why is this year’s centennial so important?

It’s a celebration of the nation’s core values. The national park was an original American idea. It’s been sent around the world and emulated and admired by hundreds of countries, adapted to their local circumstances. The Park Service also maintains and protects places that are part of our nation’s cultural identity: Civil Rights sites, the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall, the Civil War battlefields and the Revolutionary War battlefields, and sites of the American Indian experience, whether Ancestral Pueblo or places like Nez Perce Historical Park or Knife River. The opportunity to celebrate that aspect of our country—who we are as a people, what our high ideals are—reminds us that we are a nation always changing but always learning from the past.

What do you think the next century holds for our parks?

I hope that they continue to be places of hope and of inspiration. I hope that every American citizen finds their special place within one of these parks. For me, the word recreation is actually re-creation. We want everyone to have that experience. Visitation of the parks represents the diversity of our nation. It is important that they be protected, appropriately and adequately funded, and advocated for by the American people.

For more stories celebrating the centennial of the national parks, head here. »