A little noise, say that coming from a herd of ATVers or snowmobiles, in a national park isn't such a bad thing, according to Interior Secretary Gale Norton and her assistant, Craig Manson.
In a wide-ranging interview on environmental topics with the New York Times, the two laid bare their thoughts on how national parks could become, shall we say, more user-friendly.
"Sound is an instantaneous issue," Norton told the Times. "These are things that need to be dealt with in terms of enjoyment of current visitors. Clearly, current visitors are the ones impacted. But we tend to lump all of that under impairment."
And Manson once again pointed out that there's a difference between "impacts" on a park's landscape, and "impairments."
You can read the whole story here and reach your own conclusions.
But to me it seems inevitable that the Interior Department, aided by such politicians as California's Richard Pombo, doesn't plan to stop its attack on national parks until it rewrites the National Park Service's Management Policies to allow for more snowmobiles, ATVs and who knows what other forms of transportation, as well as more overflights, in the parks.
When Does an Impact Become an Impairment?
Take a look at Manson's words. How far do we let "impacts" go before they become impairments? Or do they ever? I mean, you can chop down a forest, and that will certainly have an impact on a park, but trees grow back, so does that equate with a lasting impairment? Park rangers can regrade hillsides torn up by ATVs, so is that a reasonable impact, or an impairment?
If you're standing by Old Faithful watching the geyser erupt, but can't hear the hissing and fuming and spitting of boiling water as it is hurled into the air because of the revving of ATV or snowmobile engines, is that merely an allowable impact?
From where Mr. Manson is sitting, the National Park Service Organic Act passed in 1916 seems to be an impairment standing in the way of the public's enjoyment of national parks. He told the Times that the act's provisions about "conserving" the scenery and natural and historic objects and wildlife of parklands for future generations while also allowing for the public's "enjoyment" of parks are out of balance.
"It's important that there be a balance between the two aspects of the mandate," he says.
Isn't There Already a Balance on Public Lands?
I would suggest that a balance already exists in how we manage our public lands. There are 191 million acres of national forest lands across this country, and most are open to snowmobile and ATV traffic. There also are 261 million acres of Bureau of Land Management lands, and, again, most are open to motorized recreational traffic.
Yet there are only 83.6 million acres of national park lands, and 4.3 million of those acres are held by private in-holdings. Must those, too, be overrun by motorized recreationalists?
Nearly a century ago a great Republican by the name of Teddy Roosevelt had the following to say about how this country should steward its lands:
"Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us, and training them into a better race to inhabit the land and pass it on."
More recently, in 1965, an Interior Secretary by the name of Stewart Udall had the great foresight to state that, "All park managers face the dilemma of striking a balance between preservation and use. Within our park concept there can be no question of locking up the wilderness. The wilderness proper serves all park visitors."
What will be said in the years ahead of Gale Norton and Craig Manson if they succeed in redefining what constitutes an impact or an impairment on our national parks?