ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - All but three members of the Interior Department’s 12-person National Parks Service Advisory Board tendered their resignation this week, citing frustrations with the department and Secretary Ryan Zinke.
First authorized in 1935, the board is tasked with advising the National Parks director and the Interior Secretary on the national parks system, as well as national historic sites and landmarks. But the board’s chairman, former Alaska governor Tony Knowles, says Secretary Zinke refused to meet with them, or consult them, on several recent decisions.
"We tried to contact the secretary to get a meeting to discuss what the board did and what the momentum was that we had accomplished with the national parks," Knowles told Channel 2 in a Wednesday interview. "Yet we were ignored, and it was apparent there was no interest with the department with what we had done."
Knowles also faulted the department’s policies in areas such as conservation and climate change.
"In many areas, the Department of the Interior has raised serious questions about its conservation ethic with the recent national monument reduction, and giving hundreds of millions of acres of land in the outer continental shelf for oil and gas exploration," he said.
On Wednesday, the Interior Department denied the allegations and welcomed the nine resignations, calling the move a "hollow and dishonest political stunt."
"It is patently false to say the Department had not engaged the board, when as recently as January 8, we were working with the board to renew their charter, schedule a meeting and fill vacancies," said DOI Associate Deputy Secretary Todd Willens in a written statement.
"The board traditionally meets at the end of each year, and the secretary rarely attends (Jewell and Salazar each attended only once). However, since the board's charter expired in late December, we were working with them to renew the charter and hold a meeting in the coming weeks," he added.
Willens also fired back at the board, alleging they turned a blind eye to sexual harassment problems at national parks, as well as ignored allegations of ethics and management failures brought against former NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis by the department’s inspector general.
The Interior Department says it already has a number of candidates interested in joining the board, and plans to fill the vacancies and hold a full board meeting "soon."
Alaska Congressman Don Young said, "While I respect Gov. Knowles and his service, it’s important to remember that a new Administration means there are going to be changes and growing pains." Young said that it was his understanding that the Interior Department had recently engaged with the board.