NPS director’s answers and promises in Orono

Catherine and Jim Robbins, John Bryant and other MFPC members at the park/monument forum in Orono May 16.
Catherine and Jim Robbins, John Bryant and other MFPC members at the park/monument forum in Orono May 16.

At the end of the park/monument forum in Orono (5/16/2016), Jonathan Jarvis, National Park Service director, answered the questions of participants. (Read coverage of the event in the Press Herald and Bangor Daily News). Here are his (transcribed) answers:

Jonathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service.
Jonathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service.

“I’ve led probably hundreds, maybe many, many hundred, public meetings in my 40 years (with the National Park Service) and I really do love them. I really do.

I think that you are participating in something that is unique in the world. This kind of participatory democracy, listening to both sides in a respectful, honored way is something that should never be taken for granted.

So let me run down my list (of questions people asked). Brett, you asked about the maintenance backlog. So yes, the park service has a maintenance backlog. It’s about $12 billion. That’s a lot of money. Let me explain what that is.

So about half of that backlog is our road system. We have 5,000 miles of paved road, 1,400 bridges, we have tunnels. It’s the entire sort of transportation infrastructure of how you drive around in Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons and all those parks.

Congress just passed a transportation bill, a 5-year bill, the park service is going to get $268 million a year. That goes up to $300 million annually, to address the transportation side of the backlog.

The other half of that backlog are sort of the wastewater treatment plants, the water systems, the utilities, electrical power and the buildings. Visitor centers, historic homes, Independence Hall, the Statue of Liberty, which does, by the way, belong to the federal government.

I should know. I managed the Statue of Liberty. It’s still open and available to all Americans.

So we are addressing our backlog in a number of ways. Private philanthropy, a very, very generous individual from Washington D.C. has been giving us millions and millions of dollars through the National Park Foundation to address the backlog at some of our “icons, “ like the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Iwo Jima Marine Memorial, the Vietnam Wall, are being repaired with private money right now.

And Congress has been very generous in the 2016 budget and we have a very robust request in the 2017 budget as well.

We also use our fees to address the backlog, so we’re absolutely taking it on.

Brett also had a question about expansion. The park service, by congressional act, has no authority to use eminent domain. Unless Congress specifically authorizes it in a specific location, which they have done most recently in the Everglades. But in the rest of the national park system we do not have any authority to condemn property and we would not condemn property.  It’s a bad idea.

So you can put aside any fears associated with this potential designation that there is any interest in expanding beyond 87,500 acres that comprise the hard boundary of the EPI lands that are in question.

Roger asked about private lands affected on the boundaries and I want to assure you there is no effect on private lands on the boundaries. As I said this morning, I worked at Crater Lake National Park and there were timberlands – active working lands on the boundary. And we used to walk along with the timber cruisers along the boundary – I did it myself – to select trees and if the center of the tree was leaning on the inside it stayed in the park and if it was leaning outside it got cut.

So we’re talking about inches – there were no buffers, no buffers at all.

Don asked about guide services and we heard from some guides that are quite successful and I’m sorry, Don, if you’ve run into some issues with being not friendly to guides. We need guides and if I think this place is established we’re particularly going to need (garbled word) guides to provide that kind of experience. You know the public come to national parks and there’s a limit to the number of us in the green and gray. It’s really the people that live there and that understand it.

You go to Gettysburg and you can get incredible step-on guides to the history and they’re wonderful experiences. And I think if this were established it would be a huge opportunity for those who know the forest, who work for the forest, know the plants, know the animals, know where to see moose – that’s going to be incredibly important as well.

Al asked again about restrictions on lands and again I would like to reinforce that there would be no restrictions on abutting lands.

Bob asked about snow machine use. So many of our winter parks allow snow machine use. I’ve probably read the paper many, many times about Yellowstone and snow machine use there, which is incredibly popular. That is an area that’s figured out how to run a four-season tourist operation. They’re very busy in the summer with the regular tourists and in the winter they’ve got snowmachining.  In the fall, they’re elk hunting and in the spring visitors come in to see the meltdown.

So snowmachining, I understand the way this proposal is being made, that on the lands on the east side of the Penobscot River there will be a permanent snowmachine route north to south established, maintained by volunteers, maintained by the land managers allow, to maintain that traditional north-south route. So I think that’s a positive aspect as well.

Jean, you asked about conflict of interest with Roxanne Quimby on the National Park Foundation Board. So let me explain who the National Park Foundation is. They’re wealthy people. We like wealthy people because they give us their money. And they know other wealthy people who also give us their money. And philanthropy has always been part of the national park system. We have always had this relationship with wealthy people. As was mentioned, John D. Rockefeller, who gave us many of the lands in Acadia, also gave money to maintain the carriage trails and to fill those trails and brush those trails. Many, many thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dollars as well.

So let’s say that – we’re just not – somebody gives us a piece of property and we say automatically it’s a national park just because they’re giving it to us. It doesn’t work that way. We have, we have some very high standards in the National Park Service that – it’s exclusive recognition and one of the things that the park service wants to have in it’s sort of inventory for the American people is sort of the best of the best.

We look at these and we say, “Do we already have one of those?”

We have no representation in the national park system anything like the forests and lakes of northern Maine. There’s nothing in the park service like that.

And I want to say that we don’t want it all – we don’t want 3 million acres or whatever that is. What we want is a piece of it, what we’d like to have is a piece of it to show as an example for the rest of the world, the beauty that all of you know and love in Maine.

This particular piece of property has all those elements. It’s got incredible forest – cut over, of course. There’s second and third growth there. That’s OK. It’s got lakes. It got Penobscot River, Seboeis. And it’s got views, obviously, of Baxter. And I’m certain it’s got wildlife.

So it is absolutely worthy. Let me just put that one to bed. If you want to make the argument that it’s not worthy on the natural side, it’s worthy on the cultural side as well in terms of its native American history, the routes that the native Americans used up and down the rivers and, as has been mentioned, Henry David Thoreau, Theodore Roosevelt and many others as well.

Hunting, Gerry (Lavigne) from the Sportsman’s Alliance about hunting. So right now the lands that EPI manages are not open for hunting on the west side of the Penobscot. They are open, as I understand it, on the east side. And that’s not going to change. That is the way we would manage it if it were to come to us. That the lands west of the Penobscot, against Baxter, would be managed without hunting and the lands on the east side of the Penobscot – where we’re talking about a snowmachine route – would be open to hunting and that would be in perpetuity.

That’s something to remember. In perpetuity.

Mary (Adams) brought up the question of why this has been a slog. It’s always a slog. There are park proposals that have gone on for 50 years or longer. And I know it’s painful that this seems to go on and on and on, but it’s just the way things work unfortunately.

George brought up Acadia has the potential to be gridlocked and I would say it already is gridlocked over there. I’ve sat and tried to get off that island a couple of times in the line of traffic as well. So one of the things that we’ve been doing in the national park system is to offer alternatives to the public. Instead of going to Yosemite at this particular time and sitting in traffic, there are other alternatives – you look at Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. They get like a quarter of the participation of Yosemite. So I’m saying try one of these others as well.

That is part of the issue – where do we distribute the public.

Chip brought up tax rolls. So federal lands should this come to the national park service are subject to payment in lieu of taxes – it’s PILT. Payment in lieu of taxes is the federal appropriation that goes to counties in lieu of a tax base, recognizing if lands are brought into the federal government, you lose local taxes. So there is a payment to counties in lieu of taxes.

Chip also brought up the question of access to Great Ponds. That’s statute in Maine, so absolutely Great Ponds we would respect that, we would honor that legal right as well.

Anita asked about how can local communities help. And I mentioned this a lot when I was in Millinocket and East Millinocket as well, is that should this happen, the first thing the National Park Service does is land on the ground the next day and engage with the communities. And sit down across the table with a cup of coffee and in meeting spaces in the evenings and in the mornings for quite a while. Because we want to know what the community wants. We want to know what the community expects, what the community needs and how we can help those communities that will be affected, both positively and potentially negatively as a result of this potential designation.

Jimmy asked about spruce budworm and fire. The National Park Service is part of the interagency fire effort where we work very cooperatively with our state and federal partners on fires. Yes, we have a lot of fires. We’re just going into fire season in the west right now, we did have a 10,000 acre fire in Shenandoah, we participate very actively with all of our fellow agencies.

There’s one thing where the federal government actually works very well and it’s in fire. I’ve been in fire management almost all of my career as well.

The numbers of jobs is always a guess. It’s very hard to nail down what percentage of visitors – and this is another question from Jimmy – and talking about up in Voyageurs and International Falls and other areas. The advantage here that I think gives you some predictability is that at Acadia is just down the hill. And there are 2.7 million visitors going there. And Bangor is a center point for tourism access, fly in, rent a car.

If there’s another park unit here, they’re going to come. They’re not going to blow it off, as opposed to other isolated parks out there in the system.

I don’t know what percentage – I really don’t. But like I said, if it’s 10 percent, that’s 270,000, so that’s still a lot of people.

Logan asked about ecological impacts, about ATV use, UTVs. Probably not very much of that is going to be permitted on these lands. There are plenty of other opportunities in the area. If you think about southern Utah in the Canyonlands Arches area – I think the senator even mentioned that – if you go into Moab you can go on jeep trips, you can rent ATVs, you can do all these. But that’s on adjacent lands, so you’re really looking at a diversified opportunity, a business opportunity that could really be developed in the area.

Teresa asked about what are the differences in designations, of whether oil and gas could be developed. No, oil and gas are permanently eliminated from any development on these lands if they were to be donated to the National Park Service.No mining, none of that stuff can occur.

David asked about the endowment. The way that it’s currently being structured is that $20 million would be vested in the National Park Foundation. They would carry it in an investment account so that the corpus is protected and the revenue generated off that would be used directly at this park. And the commitment has been made to raise $20 million over the next three years so there is a total of $40 million invested in this park. That’s unprecedented, let me just put that right up front, nothing like that has ever happened.

There was a question about takeover of Baxter. We have no interest, zero interest, in taking over Baxter. What we have an interest in, if this occurs, is working very much in partnership with Baxter.

Percival Baxter didn’t want to give it to the government because we probably would have overdeveloped it. He wanted it as a wilderness park and that’s what it is – a wilderness park. There’s very limited in terms of I think it’s got 65,000 visitors a year and that’s pretty much all it could probably handle, based on the way it’s managed. And I’m not questioning that.

What I think these lands –- we would look at a complement to that, which would be much more active in terms of the use, of the recreation, access in terms of activities, than Baxter.

So it’s a very strong complement and we have models of this in Redwood National and State parks, where we work completely side by side and very cooperatively with the California state park system. I know Baxter is not really technically part of the state park system, but it’s a very good model of how we work cooperatively as well.

Matt raised a couple of classic questions and I’ll just touch on them. No change in air quality regulations. No imposing of Class I that is something that happened in 1977 in the amendment to the Clean Air Act that directly affected Acadia. New parks it has not effect. There would be no effect if there was some new development of mills, some new emissions effect. This has no impact on that whatsoever.

Access – there already are a lot of roads that access this property and we understand from EPI that some public access routes to that and we know there are logging trucks on a lot of these roads. And we operate around the country in forest product industry areas where there have been big logging trucks. I mean I’ve been on many, many roads adjacent to national parks where you come around a turn and there’s a big truck coming down the road. They used to have much bigger trees than they do today, but they’re still loaded down.

This is part of public education, it’s part of signing, it’s part of occasionally you’re going to have to close a road because of too much activity. But it’s all doable as well.

Andy asked about the park service’s budget. So there’s sort of – the biannual budget from the U.S. Congress is roughly $3 billion and most of that is operations. Most of that goes into the day-to-day – rangers on the ground, search and rescue, interpreters, maintenance folks, running water systems, just keeping the park open and running. A portion of that is construction and we get about $230 million a year for the construction budget roughly and that goes into predominantly fixing up the stuff we already have. We really don’t do a lot of new construction in the park service at all. This park, if established, would be eligible both for operations and construction funding from the park service budget.

Let’s see, Steven asked about metrics and we don’t know the metrics yet. I can tell you there will be economic benefit and there will be jobs. I can’t tell you how many because we really don’t know that.

Brian asked, what is preservation? The park service has been in the preservation business for 100 years, longer. So I think we kind of know what it is. We know you can’t freeze time or freeze nature in a perfect state. Things change. We have weather, we have climate, we have forests, we have beetles, we have fire and we do our very best at sort of managing all of that so it sustains sort of the core of its integrity. That’s kind of what preservation really is to the national park service as well.

Jeff from Trout Unlimited mentioned, talked about roads. We manage I think 6,000 miles of dirt road in the national park system. We have a lot of roads. We have a lot of people who know how to manage roads. And there are a lot of people in these communities who know how to manage roads. They do a really great job with their graders and their equipment at managing roads. We’d be looking to a lot of you and the folks in Millinocket and Patten and other areas to help us really manage these roads well.  Making culverts, keeping the sediment out of these fantastic trout streams that you already have.

And you know it’s interesting. Steve (Schley) said, “What’s the rush? And Mary said why is it taking so long?”

In terms of parks, as I mentioned before, there’s no one that has more influence over how a park is managed than the local community. Our employees, our rangers, our park managers live in the community. And they become a part of the community. Their kids go to school. They volunteer for the fire department. They join the PTA. And when they’re in the community – and I can attest to this because this is my career – it’s pretty hard to be anonymous. You hear every day about what’s going on in the park, what the problem is, what issues are, what needs to be fixed, all of that. And so the rest of the American people don’t get to do that on a day-to-day basis with the park manager. So you have an enormous amount of influence about what goes on in a park like that as well.

But they are national assets, that’s the way to remember it too. This designation says that your story, your history, your area is of national importance. And there’s a great deal of pride in that. You should be proud of these incredible places and this history. But with that comes responsibility and we manage it partly for these young people who were standing up at the microphones. That’s the inheritance. We’re just borrowing it for the time being. They’re the ones who inherit it.

So there are some restrictions that will be applied inside this boundary, but not outside.

And last but not least, just for a little humor, Nancy mentioned the night sky. So don’t forget about the astro tourists out there. There is a large group of people that come from around the country with their telescopes to places of night sky and they feel the wonder of planets and stars. And this could be one of those great night sky areas.

Thank you.”