Joshua Tree National Park Superintendent Reprimanded for Climate Change Science Tweets
What Happened: After Joshua Tree National Park’s Twitter account published a series of tweets based on climate change science, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke reprimanded the park’s superintendent in person and ordered the park to cease posting tweets on climate change.
Why It Matters: Intimidating government employees in discussing climate change science makes it difficult to educate the public on climate change science that the Department of Interior is working on and, therefore, undercuts the Department’s science-based mission.
On November 8, 2017, the Twitter account for Joshua Tree National Park published a series of 15 tweets on climate change. The information in the tweets ranged from discussion of climate impacts on Joshua tree habitat to why beetle attacks may be more devastating to trees as droughts become more severe. Yet despite the scientific basis of all 15 tweets, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke was so displeased by their publication that he flew the park’s superintendent, David Smith, to Washington, D.C. to reprimand him in person.
According to the Hill, in the one-on-one meeting between Zinke and Smith, “Zinke made it clear to Smith that the Trump administration doesn’t want national parks to put out official communications on climate change.” One source told the publication that Smith “got a trip to the woodshed,” while another said that Zinke told Smith “no more climate tweets.”
The tweets did not violate department policy (they are still online) and no formal action was taken against Smith; however, this episode is another troubling development in the Department of the Interior’s (DOI) attempts to quash climate change science. Under Zinke, climate change has been scrubbed from DOI’s strategic plan, climate change scientists have been abruptly transferred, and press releases have been stripped of climate change language.
This episode is notable because there was no inflammatory language in the tweets—indeed, they contained basic information on climate change science. One tweet noted that “As habitats shift to higher elevations due to warming, individuals of a particular species may become isolated on mountaintops. These habitat islands—refugia—serve as safe harbor, however, they’re at high risk to wildfire or other catastrophic events that destroy large areas.” An ecological response to climate change that has been well documented now.
To attempt to intimidate agency staff against posting scientific information is a concerning development. As the LA Times noted in an opinion piece, “ordering a park superintendent to a D.C. meeting with a Cabinet secretary to be told what not to say sends a chilling message through the Interior Department.” The government should be promoting communication about basic scientific facts—not silencing it.