Acting Director, National Park Service
U.S. Department of the Interior
1849 C Street NW
Washington, DC 20240
We are writing to you to raise an important issue that we expect to continue during the tenure of David Vela, once he is confirmed as the 19th Director of the National Park Service. We believe this is an issue that demands immediate attention, and we are writing to you now because we know that you, like David, have a strong interest in the career staff and the vitality of the Service’s growing relationship with partner organizations.
The issue of concern is the lack of guidance for superintendents and other NPS officials on how to meet agency ethics standards while fulfilling their important role in cultivating and capitalizing on relationships with partner organizations and donors, and we hope to establish an ongoing dialogue with the leadership of the Service in the months ahead to address this problem.
We all know that is essential for NPS to seek outside sources of funds, yet we are aware of considerable confusion and lack of clarity among Service personnel as to how this role should be fulfilled. Our concern is heightened by the fact that we have witnessed several superintendents who were pursuing this function become subject to investigations and adverse personnel actions as a result of steps they took in the interest of promoting the National Park Service mission. The purpose of this letter is therefore to seek your personal involvement in addressing this problem by establishing clear guidelines and internal education programs so Service personnel have proper guidance as they engage in the fundraising activities that they are expected to undertake and that are necessary to support the National Park System.
As you know, for decades, NPS has strongly encouraged its managers to engage in partnerships. The emphasis on, and need for, partnerships have become more intense in recent times as resources shrink and collaboration with other parties becomes more essential. Over 100 friends groups have been established to assist parks in protecting resources and serving visitors. A revised Director’s Order (DO-21) was issued in 2016 to guide park managers in their interactions with these groups.
Unfortunately, DO-21 did not address two important issues. First, it failed to clearly define what the relationship between various park friends groups and the NPS should be. Are these groups to be viewed as organizations doing business and making money off the NPS, or as full partners assisting the Service to meet its resource stewardship and visitor service commitments? This issue was never resolved before DO-21 was issued and, as a result, park managers have been left in a difficult, if not untenable and legally precarious, position in attempting to establish the correct relationship.
A second serious problem is that the Service has failed to provide adequate guidance and staffing to implement DO-21, including training on ethical issues that may arise from its implementation. The absence of such guidance has resulted in superintendents seeking guidance on an ad hoc basis, often not getting it, and then needing to make decisions in a vacuum. At least three superintendents that we know of have been investigated and charged by the Inspector General (IG) with violations of Department policy, and even federal laws, that have never been clearly articulated to them. These individuals have suffered enormous personal, and in some cases, financial stress that is traceable, in many cases, to lack of clear guidance or the availability of ethics counseling and assistance. Park managers in this situation can be forced to experience these harsh personal consequences even though their advisers were motivated by the best interest of NPS and the parks they manager under DO-21.
From our perspective, IG investigations can, and sometimes have, resulted in reports, and even criminal referrals, that are inaccurate or off-the-mark for their lack of understanding of NPS roles and relationships. Nonetheless, IG reports tend to be accepted by both the Department and the Service as the final word. And they can be the subject of one-sided media exposure that is difficult for the targeted employees to respond to. Employees often have limited opportunity to explain their actions and refute charges. This problem has been exacerbated by NPS management failures to question the IG reports and stand in support of its employees who are simply seeking to fulfill the mandate of DO-21.
We make the following recommendations which would help to remedy these problems:
- Provide immediate direction to the field on how friends groups should be defined and treated;
- Implement and expand training, including ethics training, for all park managers who have, or seek to establish, friends groups or other partnerships;
- When problems with friends groups occur, quickly initiate internal NPS reviews to determine facts and recommend needed actions while giving full opportunities to the employees involved to respond. The IG should be the last resort.
- Establish designated ethics officer positions who are available on request from Service employees seeking guidance on ethics issues related to fundraising and partner relationships; and
- Review IG investigations/reports carefully and allow affected employees to respond to them in person to explain their actions and refute charges that are not justified or accurate, before reports are finalized. The IG’s office must be able to do its job, but NPS leadership needs to help position its employees to avoid becoming the target of such investigations, and, when they do occur, to play a proper role in the full and fair consideration of allegations and resolution of the underlying claims.
You have a reputation as a manager who cares about his employees and views them as the agency’s most valuable resource. You, and David once he is confirmed, have a clean slate to deal with some of these issues which are contributing to exceedingly low employee morale. If you believe, as the Coalition does, that NPS has been negligent in its lack of guidance, training, and oversight of the donor and partnership issue, you have an opportunity to set things on a better course. We would be pleased to provide you with additional information and advice on this issue.
The Coalition looks forward to working with you on this and other issues that will benefit the National Park Service and result in your successful tenure.
Philip A. Francis, Jr., Chair
Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks
201 I Street, NE #805, Washington, DC 20002