I am a member of the National Parks National Advisory Board (NAB), one of those who just resigned on masse in protest over Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s stonewalling of our repeated requests to inform him of our work and his current policies and decisions that seriously undermine the future of National Parks. I am writing now so that the public might understand who we were, what we accomplished, and what has now been lost.
In this time when sane, strategic planning has been overwhelmed by politics, opinions, and instant decisions that create more harm than good, the NAB’s work was an exemplar of how to implement changes based on facts, participation, and cohesive relationships among all stakeholders. What has been lost is both the changes we accomplished, and the practices we embodied for how to implement critical changes in a large, bureaucratic system.
My own field of inquiry and expertise is how to foster and sustain change in complex organizations and communities. From my experience, the success of the NAB is a story in how to engage citizen experts, internal staff, and visionary leadership to accomplish large scale changes.
Congress authored the National Advisory Board in 1935 to approve new natural and historic resources. But our role became much larger. This is what we did and why it worked so well:
1. Eight of the 12 board members had participated in deep, on-the-ground learning about National Park issues now and for the future as members of the Second Century Commission (2007-08). Working with internal staff and external experts, and developing a rich field of data and perspectives from being inside the parks, we created a series of recommendations to ensure the NPS’ future vitality as “America’s best idea.”
2. Each of us board members is well-respected in our different fields, and it was easy to invite our colleagues and networks into this work. Everyone who gets to work with park staff and leaders wants to keep contributing — the busiest of specialists make time to work with the highly motivated and dedicated park workforce.
3. As external citizen-experts, we were a critical resource and support to park personnel. We provided energy, focus and allies to the issues and projects they had been wanting to do but could not move forward because of their own workloads.
In eight years, this recipe for implementation resulted in extraordinary results, including:
- A sophisticated economic valuation of the parks, their contribution to local and regional economies and the value citizens place on their parks.
- Developing parks as a critical educational resource for teachers, supporting the development of future citizen scientists and park stewards through education, park access and multiple learning resources.
- Prioritizing the role of science in decisions affecting park management and maintaining leadership in ensuring the best science is used in DOI.
- Developing a long-term strategic plan for the development and vitality of NPS.
- Developing new strategies and policies for the role of philanthropy within NPS.
- Supporting NPS’ continuing commitment to tell the history of all Americans in its designation of national historic sites.
- Invigorating urban National Parks to best serve urban populations.
- Fostering a culture of innovation through multiple strategies for participation and engagement.
- Engaging Millennials as future park stewards, primarily using the 2016 Centennial celebrations.
This is a brief summary of our major accomplishments, any one of which would stand alone as important work; taken together they illustrate the power of what was accomplished using processes of complex facts, multiple perspectives, good thinking and respectful engagement with all stakeholders. (A 2016 summary report of the NAB, with video interviews of all Board members, is here.)
What has been lost? We’ve lost the lessons learned of how to tackle complex issues in an inclusive, sane way that leads to successful implementation. And more importantly, because these initiatives now suffer from neglect or policies to willfully destroy them, we are losing the future of national parks. Australian writer Tim Flannery coined the term “future eaters,” and that is who DOI is fast becoming. And this is why we had to resign as National Advisory Board members.
Dr. Margaret Wheatley, Provo, is an independent author of nine books and global consultant focused on creating workplaces and communities where people’s best capacities can flourish. Her most recent book is: Who Do We Choose To Be: Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity (Berrett-Koehler 2017).