A lifelong passion for national parks


Jonathan B. Jarvis slid his finger under the flap of an envelope that was addressed to him in the crooked penmanship of a 10-year-old boy. The letter inside explained that the boy had visited five national parks and that he intended to be a park ranger one day.

“That not only puts a smile on my face, it lets me know that our future is in good hands,” said Jarvis, who is director of the U.S. National Park Service. “There are many things I love about the job, but probably what I treasure most is meeting people, especially kids, who care passionately about the parks.”

Jarvis is responsible for overseeing nearly 400 national parks more than 20,000 employees and 140,000 volunteers to ensure that the land is protected, respected and enjoyed.

Much of his days are spent in meetings, keeping up with the extensive operations of the organization. Climate change remains the biggest threat to national parks with rising global temperatures extending the frequency and intensity of wildfires in Rocky Mountain National Park, melting the mountain glaciers of Glacier National Park and increasing the elevation level at which pine beetles are able to destroy pine forests.

Decisions on adapting to climate change and trying to reduce its impact “are a challenge to our mission to preserve America’s most important historic, cultural and natural landscapes for people to enjoy today and in future generations,” Jarvis said.

A warming earth means sinking shorelines as seas swell to higher levels. Areas such as South Florida’s Everglades National Park are especially sensitive.

“At Everglades National Park, rising seas may overwhelm the mangrove communities that filter out saltwater and maintain the freshwater wetlands,” Jarvis said in an interview before being appointed director on Oct. 2, 2009 by President Obama.  Coral bleaching and disease caused by increased sea surface temperatures led to the loss of more than 50 percent of reef-building corals in Virgin Islands parks since 2005, he said.

As demanding as Jarvis’ job may be, he can still relate to the hopes his young pen pal expressed in his letter. Growing up in the small town of Glasgow, Va., Jarvis and his brother would make two-hour road trips to Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Their time spent exploring the outdoors cemented a love for nature that prompted dreams for a future career.

“We did a lot of adventuring and I knew early on that I wanted to work in protection and enjoyment of the outdoors,” Jarvis said.

His brother, Destry, is a former National Park Service and Department of Interior executive who served under former President Clinton.

After graduating from the College of William and Mary with a bachelor of science in biology, Jarvis joined the National Park Service as a seasonal interpreter in 1976, giving park tours and hosting campfire events in Washington, D.C. He later served as protection ranger, management specialist and park biologist.

More responsibility came with the position of chief of natural and cultural resources at Prince William Forest Park in Virginia, Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas, Crater Lake National Park in Oregon and North Cascades National Park in Washington, as well as superintendent at Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska.

After completing the Senior Executive Service Candidate training program in the Department of Interior, Jarvis was promoted in 2002 to regional director of the Pacific West, a position he held up until becoming national director.

In addition to preparing parks for climate change, education is high on Jarvis’ list of priorities. One of the first administrative changes he made upon entering office was to create a new position for an associate director of education.

“The other issue that I think a lot about is how we make sure that the National Park Service remains relevant in a changing society,” he said.

Traveling and attending conferences around the country have become a major part of Jarvis’ job with the goal of advancing people’s connection to the park system. He will be in Miami at the Society of Environmental Journalists annual conference, speaking to journalists and environmentalists about the state of the Everglades. He attended the environmental journalists conference last fall in Missoula, Mont., and led a group of journalists to nearby Glacier National Park to discuss global warming’s impact on parks.

Jarvis attributes his commitment to the park system to his desire for everyone to treasure the land as he does.

“It’s not just about having fun and being active outside,” Jarvis said. “National parks are where we can learn about our country and its history in the places where it happened. National parks offer powerful experiences to every visitor.”

The best advice he has for America is to be curious – you don’t have to be the kid who grew up collecting leaves, studying mountain trails, or writing letters to a government official declaring your intentions to one day be a park ranger to reach the level of appreciation Jarvis has for nature.

“Learning is a lifelong vocation that keeps you interested and interesting,” Jarvis said. “The national parks are a unique educational resource with 395 different campuses, give them each a try. Take that curiosity and use it to make a difference in conserving our natural world and preserving the places of our history.”#

At a glance

Name: Jonathan B. (Jon) Jarvis

Position: Director of the National Park Service

Background: Started working with the National Park Service in 1976, as a tour guide.

Education: B.S. in biology, College of William & Mary

Personal: Age 58, married to Paula, has two children, Benjamin and Leah.

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