Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke brought the leader of a California park to his office last month to reprimand him for climate change-related tweets the park had sent via Twitter, two sources close to the situation said.
Zinke did not take any formal disciplinary action against David Smith, superintendent of Joshua Tree National Park. And the tweets at issue weren’t deleted, because they didn’t violate National Park Service or Interior Department policies.
But Zinke made it clear to Smith that the Trump administration doesn’t want national parks to put out official communications on climate change.
And by bringing Smith from California to Washington, D.C., to deliver the tongue-lashing, he also sent a message to the park service at large.
One source said Smith “got a trip to the woodshed” and described his one-on-one meeting with Zinke as “highly unusual.”
Another source said Zinke expressed concern with the tweets during the meeting, and told Smith “no more climate tweets.”
Other sources with knowledge of the meeting confirmed that Zinke wanted to stop tweets about climate change.
The Park Service didn’t respond to various questions about the situation, including requests to confirm the Zinke-Smith meeting and to identify who sent the tweets at issue.
“Many of our 417 National Park sites have a social media presence and content is generally determined at a local level,” Park Service spokesman Jeremy Barnum said in a statement.
Smith did not talk to The Hill for this story, and the Park Service did not make him available for an interview.
Heather Swift, a spokeswoman for Zinke, denied the description of the meeting.
“You have been given really bad information,” she said, declining to elaborate or to make Zinke available for an interview.
The meeting came after a series of 15 tweets were sent on Nov. 8 by Joshua Tree’s Twitter account. The tweets were focused on climate change’s impacts both on national parks in general and on Joshua Tree in particular.
The tweets were based on scientific conclusions, sometimes citing federal government reports and including caveats when necessary.
An overwhelming consensus—over 97%—of climate scientists agree that human activity is the driving force behind today’s rate of global temperature increase. Natural factors that impact the climate are still at work, but cannot account for today’s rapid warming,” read the first tweet of the series.
“Current models predict the suitable habitat for Joshua trees may be reduced by 90% in the future with a 3°C (5.4°F) increase in average temperature over the next 100 years,” said another.
It detailed climate change’s expected impacts on the desert Southwest, including on flora and fauna species like pinyon pine and desert iguana, and linked to a Park Service web page with more details on Joshua Tree and climate change.
The tweets got significant attention, garnering far more retweets and likes than the vast majority of tweets from national park accounts.
It’s not the first controversy surrounding the Park Service’s social media under the Trump administration.
On the day of President Trump’s inauguration, the Park Service’s main Twitter account retweeted a comparison of the inauguration crowd size on the National Mall — which the agency manages — against an obviously larger crowd from former President Obama’s 2009 inauguration.
The tweet was soon deleted.
Days later, the Twitter account of South Dakota’s Badlands National Park sent out tweets with facts about climate change. They were deleted, and the agency said a former employee with access to the account was responsible.
Trump’s opponents celebrated both episodes, along with the Joshua Tree tweets, as rebellion against the new administration, including Trump’s skepticism of human-induced climate change.
Conservationists say Zinke’s admonishment over the Joshua Tree tweets is especially troubling, both because of the chilling effect on the agency and as a sign of the administration’s views on global warming.
“This meeting shows how little respect Secretary Zinke has for the front-line employees who manage our national parks and public lands. It also reveals how far the Trump administration will go to hide basic facts from the American people,” said Aaron Weiss, spokesman for the Center for Western Priorities, which has fought much of Zinke’s agenda.
Zinke’s decision to call the Joshua Tree superintendent to Washington also serves as a window into Zinke’s leadership style.
He’s caught significant attention as Interior secretary for his brash style, reflected in direct attacks on the outdoor gear maker Patagonia after it criticized him; accusations that “the dishonest media or political operatives” were trying to tie him to Whitefish Energy’s utility repair contract in Puerto Rico; and his declaration that controversies surrounding his travel spending are “a little BS.”
Zinke has instructed employees to raise a flag for the secretary atop Interior’s building when he is there and has had commemorative coins made for him.
Maureen Finnerty, a retired Park Service superintendent and career official with the agency, accused Zinke of ignoring science in criticizing the tweets.
“The parks should be at the forefront of climate change discussion, because it’s impacting them,” she said.
Finnerty is chairwoman of the Coalition to Protect National Parks, a group composed largely of retired Park Service employees who advocate on numerous agency issues.
In Zinke’s time as secretary, he’s worked to roll back nearly all of the department’s major climate policies, including a moratorium on new coal mining on federal land and a policy to limit methane emissions from oil and natural gas drilling.
The changes have been less pronounced at the Park Service. But the agency did scrap a controversial Obama administration policy from December 2016 that asked parks to formulate plans for preserving natural resources and protecting them from threats like climate change.
If Zinke wants park employees to avoid talking about climate change, he should be more transparent about it, Finnerty said.
“They should go through the process, they should be transparent about it, they should seek whatever input they need, and then they can change the policy,” she said.