Meet NPCA’s New President and CEO: A Q&A with Innovator and Conservationist Clark Bunting
Earlier this week, NPCA named a new president and CEO to lead the organization during a time of political volatility, symbolic milestones, and strong public support for national parks. Innovator and conservationist Clark Bunting will take the helm next week after 26 years at the Discovery Channel, most recently as president and general manager, helping to pioneer such classic programs as Shark Week, Crocodile Hunter, and MythBusters.
In addition to his distinguished tenure at the Discovery Channel, Clark has been actively involved in the environmental community. Over the course of his career, he has held board and leadership advisory roles at the American Humane Society, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, World Wildlife Fund, Ocean Conservancy, Smithsonian National Zoo Advisory Board, Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, and Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival.
We asked him a few questions to get some of his initial thoughts on how he will put his experience to work advocating for national parks.
Q: How did you first form your appreciation for national parks? Do you have a favorite park?
A: My first connection was sandy and gritty—my parents took my sister and me to Sleeping Bear as children. The park is known for its dunes, including a 600-foot dune face that everybody climbs up and then runs and tumbles down. My parents’ station wagon had parts of Sleeping Bear in it for many, many months after our visits, because when my sister and I got in the back, we had sand in our bathing suits, towels, and shoes. This was the early 60s in Detroit, and our family didn’t fly on airplanes to exotic places. We drove four hours north from our home and enjoyed the lakes and glaciers of northern Michigan. Sleeping Bear is still my favorite park.
My second-favorite is Grand Teton, where my daughter lives. Katie worked for the Teton Science School in Kelly, Wyoming, and lived in a tiny cabin in the park for a year and a half with no running water. I spent a fair bit of time in Jackson Hole and the park itself, and it’s just gorgeous. I don’t think there are many places anywhere in the world that are more beautiful.
I have also spent a fair bit of time in Denali. If a place like that doesn’t take your breath away, you don’t have a heartbeat.
Q: You’re passionate about a range of causes. Can you share some of your interests?
A: At Discovery, I had a fascination with large critters such as pronghorn, bison, and moose. In my work with Animal Planet, I also helped advocate against killing African elephants for ivory and rhinos for their horns. I’ve also been very active advocating for whale conservation and protection of sharks. In 2010, we worked with Oceana and then-Senator John Kerry on legislation to help stop shark finning off the U.S. coast.
My wife and I are also very active in a parenting organization that, like NPCA, is full of focused and passionate people. We participate because we want to help people become better parents. With better parenting, children do better in school and have fewer social problems. Learning to work with a spirited child in a positive, pro-social way is a rewarding connection to make.
Q: What inspired you to take this role, after your accomplished career at Discovery Channel?
A: The legacy of the parks is inspiring, and we’re in a unique position now to build on that legacy, with the Park Service centennial coming up in 2016 and NPCA’s own centennial just three years later. As we consider these milestones, we need to figure out what that second century will look like for NPCA and the parks. We must respect the culture, history, and big risks that people took to set aside these important and inspirational places and create an ethic for how to manage them. I admire the scale, the scope, and the ambition. For me to play some small part in that tradition is incredibly important to me.
Q: How do you see NPCA playing a role in the Park Service centennial?
A: NPCA will be a hundred-year-old organization with a huge level of success and tradition behind it. As we approach the centennial, I think it’s critical that we take some time to think about the ambitious risks that folks took a hundred years ago and ask how we at NPCA and the Park Service can do that again. How can we be equally ambitious now? And how do you both honor that tradition and use that as a launch pad to do big things? I don’t have all the answers. The important first step is to ask the questions.
Q: I know reaching out to more diverse audiences is a major priority for you—and for NPCA. How can we make parks and park advocacy relevant for more people?
A: I think NPCA and the National Park System ought to be more or less reflective of America as a whole. We should look like the demography of America, with an emphasis on working with young people. We have cultural differences and regional differences, but these differences contribute to a greater whole. We at NPCA must recognize that diversity and lead by example. To me, being reflective of America means creating a culture where we are more responsive to the people we serve and we have a better understanding of how people experience the parks. We will ultimately be a better organization as a result. It’s not a theory. It’s something we must do.
Q: NPCA has supported expanding the park system to include more cultural and historic sites, such as the César Chávez and Harriet Tubman National Monuments, to help tell a fuller and more diverse story of America. How do you see these kinds of sites as playing a role in our park system?
A: I think that cultural sites are important in sharing the role that so many people have played in our collective history. It’s the fabric that makes up the tapestry of what the parks can be—America is not just about pretty mountains and lakes. We have a nuanced history with not-so-pretty things that happened. I think we’re better as a people if we understand our full history. It helps us not just in looking back at who we’ve been, but in looking forward to decide who we want to be. We must continue to expand the park system to mirror the changing demographic of our country and tell America’s story.
Q: What do you think the biggest issues are facing national parks today?
A: As I mentioned, diversity and engaging more young people in our work is critical. We must also look at how people use media differently and how we can be a leader in helping people use media to enhance their park experience. How can we stay on the cutting edge to reach new audiences?
I also think we have a dysfunctional Congress. I don’t know that NPCA or any individual is going to solve that issue anytime soon, but we must hold our representatives accountable and find ways to move our issues forward. One of the ways I think NPCA is well-suited to get things done is through our regional offices—so many of the issues important to parks are happening in communities around the country, not just on the Hill. Even as we engage in these political fights, we must continue to advance park protection issues and reach new people. Those are big challenges, but I know we’re up for those challenges.
Q: You are joining the organization at a time when national parks have been front-page news due to the federal government shutdown. How do you feel NPCA can sustain and build on the public support we’ve seen for national parks in recent weeks?
A: If you look at the poll on national parks that NPCA commissioned last year, you will see how strongly people love these places. I’ve never seen numbers that high—and part of my job at Discovery was to study polling numbers like these. I think this speaks to an untapped reservoir of goodwill that NPCA and the Park Service can use to move our issues forward. We have an opportunity to be smart policy advocates and we can put some amazing facts and figures in front of folks, but we also have the opportunity to tell stories that play on these strong feelings Americans have for our parks. Our stories help give the facts and figures around policy issues the kind of context that supporters can get behind. NPCA must continue to underscore for Americans why parks matter and give Americans a powerful, compelling advocacy argument for the parks.
Read Clark’s full bio on NPCA’s website.
-Jennifer Errick, Editor, Online Communications