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In retirement, Knowles exposes the bad direction of the Interior Department

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: June 17
  • Published June 17

Former Alaska governor Tony Knowles at his home Wednesday, June 13, 2018 in Anchorage. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles took a stand for courtesy and reason, and that really got under the skin of the Trump Administration.

It was a brief flare-up, but it was telling. When Knowles led the mass resignation of the National Parks Service Advisory Board in January, a deputy to Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke fired off a dishonest and hypocritical diatribe in response — just like the president does.

Alaskans who support Trump and Zinke for pro-development policies should think about how Zinke is degrading America's stewardship of lands and disregarding science and public policy. Alaska's congressional delegation seems to be delighted.

"It's very disturbing," Knowles said. "Also the governor. Everybody is fawning over Zinke."

He added, "We have a dumpster fire doing on in the Department of the Interior. And it's reckless. And there is no ideology there other than get rid of all the responsibilities and authority that has been accepted by the public as important to the public assets, the public treasure that Department of Interior has."

Evan Osnos documents Zinke's incompetence in the May 21 New Yorker magazine, reporting that Zinke calls himself a geologist with no graduate degree or professional experience. Aides said he doesn't read briefing materials and doesn't understand basic resource concepts, such as "invasive species."

Knowles is not a liberal. He became Alaska governor as an oil industry advocate and pushed for development. But he also believes in science, rational policy and public process.

After retiring from politics, he has served in a series of volunteer positions on a national level to bring the best science to important environmental issues, on public lands, the oceans, and climate change.

Former Alaska governor Tony Knowles at his home Wednesday, June 13, 2018 in Anchorage. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

I worked with him several years ago on a study that brought together top economists and technical experts on climate solutions. It was funded by an Oklahoma oil industry billionaire. The guiding principles of the work were truth and practicality.

Knowles joined the National Park Service Advisory Board seven years ago. As its chair, he led members who were mostly academics and policy experts. The advisors formed a series of committees with more than 100 members, working for years in public meetings to create plans for the parks' future.

The park service called the board the most productive since Congress created the body in 1935.

But when Zinke came into office, he refused to meet with the board as required by law. Plans that so many people had worked on were summarily discarded without input.

Knowles reached out to Zinke with consummate courtesy. His letter looked for a common bond as military veterans. But the board remained dormant. After a year, with the agency's mission in crisis, Knowles acted.

He led nine of the 11 board members in resigning. Their resignation was polite but firm. It praised former park Director Jonathan Jarvis.

Zinke's representative — Todd Willens, Interior's associate deputy secretary — responded with Trump-style anger and dishonesty.

"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 told the Associated Press.

Unpacking that quote is fascinating.

Sexual harassment complaints raised at the parks had never been brought to the board. Knowles points out that a public advisory board isn't the appropriate place to deal with personnel issues.

A new Inspector General report on harassment came out during the year Zinke had frozen out the advisory group, when it never met.

That report validated complaints against a park superintendent. He was then given a bonus and a new $82,000-a-year job under Zinke, according to the Washington Post. The agency also produced talking points extolling his work.

As for the previous Park Service director, Jarvis, supposedly 'blasted' for ethical lapses — his lapse was writing a positive book for the centennial of the parks without getting prior approval of the ethics office. He wrote the book on his own time and donated all the proceeds to the parks.

I hate to take this much time to untangle one dishonest statement. By May 1, Trump had personally issued more than 3,000 falsehoods while in office, the Post reported.

Lies are much quicker and easier to say than to refute. We usually just stop listening to people we don't trust.

But here we don't have a choice. Alaska's lands are caught up in a win-at-all-cost political game.

Dividing these issues by red and blue almost assures that we will get the wrong answers. The natural world and human needs are infinitely diverse. Good stewardship requires careful study and reasoned decisions.

But our congressional delegation is trapped in an old paradigm, in which all environmentalists are extremists and more development is always good. I don't think most Alaskans think that way anymore.

Knowles has set aside his work on boards. He is concentrating on being a grandfather. He recently attended is fiftieth college reunion at Yale (with classmate George W. Bush, who Knowles admits looks a lot better now than he did before Trump showed up).

Having stepped out of the game, Knowles is looser and more open about his criticism. But he remains surprisingly idealistic.

He thinks that if we work together as Alaskans, with scientists, we can resolve the development issues that have divided us over and over again — issues that often end up being decided by federal power, one way or the other.

"Federal overreach is too often used as part of a political blame game and a convenient excuse for not taking on our responsibilities for defining our future," Knowles said. "The answer to our issues is local and state. That's where we have the ability to affect the kind of policy that reflects our values."

Recently, Alaskans haven't shown great skill at solving divisive problems. See: budget gap.

But Knowles is right. Federal overreach is bad whichever side is doing it. Especially when those making that reach are as careless as Ryan Zinke appears to be.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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