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 April 08, 2020
Lawyer with no park experience will run Grand Canyon

 In an unusual move causing some concern among current and former park employees, the Trump administration has named a longtime government lawyer to run the Grand Canyon, one of the crown jewels of the National Park Service.

Leaders at the Park Service on Friday picked Ed Keable, a longtime Interior Department lawyer, to be the next superintendent of the massive Arizona park. Now some observers are scratching their heads since it breaks with long tradition to put someone who has never worked directly in the park system in charge of one of the nation's most iconic and visited parks.

"It was a very surprising appointment," said Robert Arnberger, who served as the Grand Canyon superintendent from 1994 to 2000. "It's unorthodox in many ways."

The decision comes as park leaders have been criticized for shutting down parks too slowly in the midst of the growing coronavirus pandemic. The popular Grand Canyon received top-level approval to close to the public only days after a resident of the housing complex at the South Rim tested positive for covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus --- and only after asking officials in Washington twice for permission to shut the gates.

Phil Francis, chair of the Coalition to Protect America's National Parks and former superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway, said that, based on what he knows of his background, Keable doesn't have the experience to manage a park as complex as the Grand Canyon.

"It takes a lot of skill to lead a park like that," Francis said, "and still takes experience."

Or as one current park ranger, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, put it: "It does not make much sense to me to appoint someone who cannot hit the ground running."

Keable does come to the job after a long tenure at the Park Service's parent agency. A graduate of Vermont Law School, Keable has been a lawyer in the Interior's solicitor office for 23 years, recently working closely with Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to oversee public-records request and employee ethics.

That experience, said Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) in a statement, gives Keable "a breadth of experience and leadership know-how" to help address the park's ongoing workplace harassment issues.

In a statement, Keable said he was honored by the appointment. "I have long thought the Grand Canyon is the most beautiful place on earth," he said.

The park service didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Along with Yellowstone and Yosemite, the sprawling 1.2 million-acre park, which receives nearly 6 million annual visitors, is among the most complicated Park Service site to manage. Most managers of the major parks such as the Grand Canyon work their way up the ranks by first running smaller Park Service sites. Arnberger, for example, ran four other parks before taking the reins of Grand Canyon.

"That developmental experience was essential for increasing my chances of success," Arnberger said.

Besides its size, Grand Canyon has struggled with a revolving door of top leaders and a longstanding culture of workplace harassment.

In 2016, the department's internal watchdog outlined how male employees preyed on female colleagues during long trips down the Colorado River amid a wider scandal of workplace harassment across the parks.

The superintendent brought in to purge the park of its culture of sexual harassment, Christine Lehnertz, spent three months in bureaucratic limbo after facing accusations of mismanaging money and creating a hostile work environment. In the end, the Office of Inspector General completely cleared her of any wrongdoing.

Keable's appointment comes as the administration considers greenlighting development long opposed by conservationists --- including opening areas near the canyon to new uranium mining and allowing the town of Tusayan to build homes and hotels near the park.

Bernhardt's former lobbying firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, once worked on behalf of Tusayan to press the Interior Department and other agencies to allow the construction.