ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A U.S. Interior Department official on Wednesday blasted the resignation of most members of a board that advises it on national parks, suggesting the move was politically motivated and their work was flawed.
Todd Willens, associate deputy secretary of the department, brought up investigations that uncovered sexual harassment at national parks such as the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone and an internal investigative report of a guidebook written by former National Park Service leader Jonathan Jarvis.
"We welcome their resignations and would expect nothing less than quitting from members who found it convenient to turn a blind eye to women being sexually harassed at national parks and praise a man as 'inspiring' who had been blasted by the inspector general for ethics and management failures," Willens said.
Nine members of the 12-member National Park System Advisory Board, including chairman Tony Knowles, a Democratic former Alaska governor, resigned Monday in a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, saying their requests to meet were ignored.
The Washington Post, which first reported the resignations, said a 10th member stepped down Wednesday.
It's the latest hit to committees that advise the Trump administration.
Half the expert members of a board that advises the Environmental Protection Agency on the integrity of its science were not reappointed last May. At the same time, the Interior Department said it launched a wide-ranging review of more than 200 boards and advisory committees, including some that had not met in years.
The congressionally authorized National Park System Advisory Board must meet twice per year by law but has not been called into session by the Interior Department since President Donald Trump took office.
"Our requests to engage have been ignored and the matters on which we wanted to brief the new department team are clearly not part of its agenda," Knowles wrote in the letter.
Willens said that was "patently false" and that department officials were working to renew the board's charter, schedule a meeting and fill vacancies as recently as last week.
"Their hollow and dishonest political stunt should be a clear indicator of the intention of the group," he said.
Knowles, the board chairman, said no one at the department contacted him or other board members this month about future meetings. The idea of a political statement by board members, made up of national experts in natural resources, financial management, geography and other fields, was disingenuous, he said.
Most of the board had worked together for seven years.
"We're all a bunch of wonks," Knowles said. "There's absolutely nothing political about any person on it. We have a lot of different backgrounds and were all brought together because we want to do something really important for the national park system of America and build it for the 21st century."
The board has collected comment from more than 100 experts, including Nobel Prize winners, to offer advice on challenges the system faces, including climate change, attracting more diverse visitors and employees, and protecting natural diversity of wildlife.
As for sexual harassment within the parks, Knowles said, "We had complete confidence that Jon Jarvis, a person of integrity and strong control of the park system, was taking care of it."
Jarvis is now executive director of the Institute for Parks, People, and Biodiversity at the University of California, Berkeley. He said by email he had no comment.
Knowles said he had no knowledge of a report on Jarvis by the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General. It investigated a guidebook that Jarvis wrote without consulting the department's ethics office. The book was published by a nonprofit group that operates stores and sells merchandise in national parks.
The report determined that Jarvis worked on the book outside office hours and directed royalties to the National Park Foundation, which raises money for the National Park Service.