With the Bush administration's "Cooperative Conservation" conference on tap for next week in St. Louie, not too mention the National Park Service's 89th birthday on Thursday, I thought it'd be apropos to take a look at some of the brush fires in the national park system.
Of course, perhaps the most visible smoke these days comes from the ongoing debate over snowmobiles in Yellowstone. That one just refuses to die a noble death.
But that's just the appetizer.
Soon to be released is the administration's revised version of the National Park Service's Management Policies. Those are the guidelines the Park Service tries to adhere to in managing the parks. While NPS Director Fran Mainella has said the revisions will be minor, the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees points out that the changes are being authored by DOI's Paul Hoffman, who has publicly expressed a desire to reverse the current policy's emphasis on park protection. He'd rather see more public use.
As the coalition's Rick Smith tells me, "any revisions authored by him will be anything but minor and will not be altered by the opinions of park professionals."
Read on for most distressing news.
Among the scuttlebutt out of Washington is that U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, a Republican from New Mexico, wants to reopen the National Park Service Organic Act to address what he considers to be its undue emphasis on "unimpaired for future generations."
Heck, Steve, that provision has worked pretty darn well for the past 89 years. What's wrong with it?
And then there's the obvious -- the longstanding problem with funding our national parks.
"This is not a Bush administration problem; it has existed for years," says Smith, who should know, as he spent 31 years with the Park Service, working in the field, in regional offices, and in the Washington headquarters. Oh yeah, he also was the superintendent of two parks.
"This is the first administration, however, that misleads the American people by claiming that 'there is more money per acre, per visitor, and per employee than ever before,'" Smith tells me. "Every park professional knows that this is true only in the narrowest technical terms -- there are fewer visitors after 9/11, there are fewer NPS employees than when the administration assumed power, and the acreage of the park system has remained essentially static.
"In fact, in FY 2004, fully 80 percent of park service areas had less money than in FY 2003. Homeland security and border control issues have exacerbated the problem and stretched the service's protection and law enforcement abilities beyond the breaking point in many areas."
I've previously spoken out about what I perceive to be the Bush administration's ill-conceived and short-sighted energy policy. Well, Smith points out that that policy has "pushed oil and gas leasing right up to the borders of areas such as Dinosaur National Monument and into the very heart of areas such as Padre Island and Glen Canyon."
Finally, despite the best efforts of non-governmental organizations and the Congress to slow the process, the administration seems determined to outsource NPS jobs.
"Their claim is always that it is only non-essential jobs like maintenance or administration that are being targeted for competitive sourcing studies," says Smith. "First of all, these jobs are absolutely essential for the effective operation of the parks of our system. Moreover, the carpenter or the budget analyst may also be a member of the park's search and rescue team, the park's structural fire brigade, or a red-carded wild land fire fighter.
"It strains one's credibility to suspect that a private contractor, hired as the lowest bidder, would be able to field employees with this variety of skills," says Smith. "Additionally, is managing our national parks something we want to contract out to the lowest bidder anyway."
That's a great question, one that should be posed to Gale Norton and Fran Mainella.