Q&A: Jon Jarvis


National Park Service Director

Q: With the National Park Centennial less than two years away, what are the biggest challenges the Park Service faces?

I’ll mention a couple of things. From a resources standpoint, from a conservation standpoint, I think climate change is the greatest threat we have to the integrity of our natural resources. We are seeing the effects of climate change, whether it’s receding glaciers or more intense fires, the arrival of exotics that we’ve never seen before, highly volatile weather patterns. All of those kinds of things are happening as we speak, and I think they can be attributed to the volatility driven by climate change.

That shifts the paradigm of how we manage national parks because our paradigm for the last 70 years or so has been to preserve them unimpaired and unaffected as much as possible from anthropogenic change but climate change is anthropogenic so, how we manage in the face of these highly dynamic, changing systems is one of the biggest challenges.

I think second is more of a social issue, and that is how do we connect this next generation to our national parks and our public lands and really get them connected into the values of conservation, of historic preservation and make it a life’s work for this next generation. That’s really critical.

Q: What role do you see SCA playing in addressing those issues?

SCA is one of our oldest and most successful partners in bringing young people to national parks and other public lands for service projects. I’ve been working with SCA almost my entire career. I’ve been with the Service for almost 37 years and hired my first SCA in 1978. I see the lights go on with these young folks when they’re out in these environments and they’re working hard and they’re experiencing these places actually on the ground and contributing, and so I think SCA and some of the other youth corps out there do an extraordinary job of building the next generation of stewards for these places.

We can never do this stuff alone, you know. The National Park Service is distributed geographically around the nation, we’re in every state, but we leverage whatever we do through our partners, and SCA has been one of our longest partners. You basically do an incredible job of recruiting and managing and taking good safe care of these young folks, bringing them to our parks to do work, to learn, and have a fantastic experience, and I think we don’t have that kind of capacity to go out and do that kind of activism to get kids into parks and we couldn’t do it without SCA or our other Corps [partners].

Q: What advice would you offer young people interested in public lands stewardship careers?

Be patient and persistent. There are incredible jobs out there, both with the government – local, state, and federal – and with the NGO community as well. I think if you want a career in our kind of organization you need to be patient but persistent because jobs don’t open automatically.

You have to be willing to move geographically to pretty much anywhere. There are highly desirable sites and that just makes them very, very competitive. If you set your sights on “I’m going work in Yellowstone National Park and I’m going to apply for every job that opens up there, you may never get in, but if you decide, “I’ll go to Craters of the Moon first, and then go to Yellowstone,” then you could get in.

You need a college education in most cases, though we do have a significant number of maintenance type jobs that are fantastic jobs as well.

Engineers, architects…it’s not all the sciences, we also have jobs in all the cultural fields: History, archaeology, paleontology, and the like, so a wide range of opportunities, and I can say for myself, it’s a fantastic career.

Q: The Park Service is actively seeking to increase diversity within its workforce. Why is this so important?

The American population is diversifying rapidly. It’s a deep concern of mine. I’ll give you a perfect example from when I worked in California. I rode BART every day to work as the regional [NPS] director, and I would suggest that as a white male on San Francisco Bay Area public transportation I was in the fifth percentile in terms of diversity, then I would drive four hours from there to Yosemite National Park and I would be in the 95th percentile in terms of diversity, and what diversity I did see in Yosemite was international rather than domestic and I think that’s a problem.

We need to diversify our visitor base and we need to diversify our workforce as well. We need to reflect the diversity of America within our own workforce, so that individuals, young people who are coming up through school and who have an encounter with a park ranger or biologist can see themselves in that career, can think, “I could grow up to do that work too.” I think that’s incredibly important.

Q: SCA and the Park Service just jointly launched our fourth annual SCA-NPS Academy. What role does SCA in general, and this initiative in particular, play in your workforce development and outreach strategies?

As we approach our centennial in 2016, recruiting and retaining a more diverse National Park Service workforce is a cornerstone of our Call to Action plan for the next 100 years. National parks are a rallying point that can unite every American in a sense of wonder and pride.  With its ability to reach into traditionally under-represented communities, SCA is a playing a critical role in helping us provide young people with a professional pathway. NPS Academy is already making a difference for us and this important program typifies the innovative, collaborative spirit of the NPS-SCA partnership.

Q: What other initiatives is NPS pursuing in this area?

We are focusing a lot on national parks in urban areas. The Park Service also does a lot of things on what we call our “program side” of the house that really don’t have anything to do with units of the National Park System. Our Rivers and Trails Conservation Assistance Program, for example, works to improve river access and waterfront access in communities around the country as well as trails, so we’re being more strategic in the application of that work, particularly in communities that do not have green space, do not have parks, and they typically tend to be very diverse communities.

We are also designating national historic sites that represent the contributions of minorities and women which are particularly deficient in our overall inventory of sites, so we’re using all of our access to connect to diverse populations, particularly in urban environments, and bring the brand of the Nat’l Park Service to them to say this is an organization that is very interested in assisting your community, helping to tell your history and of your contributions to the American experience, and we would love to have you come see us and experience these great national parks that belong to you.

Q: What value will the 21st Century Conservation Corps (21CSC) bring to NPS?

Well the 21CSC is kind of an umbrella over all the various corps. What I like about it, one, is that it unifies the variety of efforts. We’ve had proposals to re-establish the Civilian Conservation Corps that was here in the ‘30s – my dad was in the CCC so I know it well. There’s no way you’re going be able to do the CCC in this modern day for a variety of reasons, so in this interim, since the CCC period, SCA and other corps have stepped up to fill that void. I think that they are doing a fantastic job of doing this, but there needed to be some sort of overarching umbrella that set a standard of quality the students involved –having an educational experience as well as a work experience, and the 21CSC does that, it creates an umbrella that all Corps can work from within, and it has an opportunity also from a philanthropic fundraising standpoint for us to target funds into this to get work done.

What role do you see SCA playing in 21CSC?

You play a leadership role, you have a very functional model that others both aspire to and emulate and both in terms of the way you manage your students and resource assistants and high school crews and all of that, the way you recruit, your focus on urban as well as rural, so I think you’re the standard bearer.

Student Conservation Association