Craig Manson and I may differ on our interpretations of Paul Hoffman's thoughts for how national parks should be managed. But you have to give the Interior Department's assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks points for not ducking questions.
Just two business days after I emailed a list of questions to Mr. Manson revolving around Mr. Hoffman's proposed revisions to the National Park Service's Management Policies, Mr. Manson replied. Key among his answers is his belief that the National Park Service Organic Act, which has been the guiding force for how our parks have been managed since 1916, does not need to be revised. Furthermore, he said, "the administration has not proposed any changes to the Organic Act."
Read on to learn what else he had to tell me.
In a preface to his answers, Mr. Manson pointed out, quite correctly, that Mr. Hoffman's revisions are part of an ongoing process that will "culminate in a draft made available for public review and comment. To draw any conclusions from any document in the process before the public draft is released is premature."
But as long ago as 2002 some members of the U.S. House of Representatives were arguing that the Park Service wrongly had put preservation of parklands above the public's enjoyment of those lands. And they wondered if the Organic Act was being properly interpreted.
Then came Mr. Hoffman's revisions, which as written could easily allow for more snowmobiles in the parks, as well as ATVs and mountain bikes.
Most recently, Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., has proposed, supposedly tongue-in-cheek, that a number of national park units be sold off to offset any revenue the federal government would lose if the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge isn't opened to oil leasing.
With that background, it's easy to understand why there's concern about what the administration and the GOP-controlled Congress have envisioned for how our national parks are managed.
Which brings up my exchange with Mr. Manson.
In pointing out that Mr. Hoffman's proposal, if approved, would insert language allowing for traditional off-road vehicles, such as snowmobiles and ATVs, to use park roads normally used by automobile traffic, and that "off-road use on off-road routes or in off-road areas may be necessary, when consistent with park purposes, to provide opportunities for visitors to use and enjoy parks," Mr. Manson countered that that is not to suggest that Mr. Hoffman's work would open up parks to new off-road uses.
"This language, which may or may not be in the ultimate draft released by the National Park Service, allows park superintendents to consider off-road vehicle use (1) on roads used by automobiles and (2) on off-road routes when consistent with park purposes," Mr. Manson said. "This is subject to the bedrock standard of 'impairment.' It treats parks on a case-by-case basis and creates no new national rule either allowing or prohibiting the particular use. In this respect, this language is not a departure from the practical effect of current policy."
This is where he and I quibble, for while Mr. Hoffman's language might not establish a "new national rule" pertaining to recreational vehicle traffic in the parks, it would, as Mr. Manson points out, allow individual park superintendents to make that call. And with the ongoing laborious and expensive debate over snowmobiles in Yellowstone, one in which a far larger majority of Americans has spoken out in favor of a ban against snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton than has spoken against such a ban, it's not hard to decipher where Mr. Hoffman's rule would first be applied. After all, it's the Bush administration that has kept this issue alive.
Further, Mr. Hoffman's revisions, if left unchanged, also would chip away at "the bedrock standard of 'impairment'" by significantly raising the bar as to what qualifies as an impairment.
At this point, even Mr. Manson couldn't tell me the dividing line between what constitutes an "impact" and what constitutes an "impairment." For instance, I asked him, 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, I added, so is that a reasonable impact, or an impairment?
"This is an excellent question that the National Park Service will address in its draft," he replied.
Throughout the debate over Mr. Hoffman's proposals, there have been calls by his supporters for "balance" in how our national parks are managed. To me that begs the question of whether all public lands managed by the federal government should be considered when determining that balance. After all, as I pointed out in a previous post, there are 191 million acres of national forest lands in 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 just 83.6 million acres of national park lands. Must those, too, I asked Mr. Manson, be open to motorized recreation?
"The Organic Act requires conservation and present use and enjoyment of national parks, without regard to how other public lands may be managed. The Organic Act does not call for motorized recreation in every park unit and neither has any official of this administration," he told me. "Nor do we manage every park unit for motorized recreation. Instead, we believe that where motorized recreation is an appropriate use, consistent with park purposes, and not causing impairment, it should be considered."
Then, too, I broached the issue of the vocal outcry that rose up in the wake of Mr. Hoffman's proposal, noting that dozens of editorials, ranging from the LA Times and New York Times all the way down to the Journal Times of Racine, Wisconsin, had condemned the proposal. And I noted that the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees and the Outdoor Industry Association had voiced their outrage.
What weight, I wondered, do those comments have on Mr. Manson's position to allow for more motorized recreational use in the parks?
"I am aware of those comments," Mr. Manson replied. "I am also aware of comments from other points of view."
Finally, I asked about the Bush administration's struggle to wipe out the maintenance backlog in the national park system, a backlog that ranges anywhere from $4.5 billion to $9 billion, one that President Bush said he would eliminate during his first term in office.
How does the Interior Department plan to attack this problem?
"During the last four years, we've invested more than $4.9 billion in maintenance of the national parks," answered Mr. Manson. "At more than $1.74 billion for the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1, the National Park Service operations budget is almost 20 percent larger than in 2001. The overwhelming majority of visitors to national parks in the last four years have said that their experiences were good to excellent. This high level of satisfaction follows record funding for and investment in national parks under President Bush's leadership.
"Keeping the Management Policies finely tuned will ensure that America's investment continues to satisfy visitors with enjoyment of unimpaired resources for generations well into the future."
Well, again I'll have to differ with Mr. Manson. When operations at visitor centers are scaled back, when there are not enough rangers to provide interpretation, when parks have to cut back on backcountry patrols and the staffing of ranger stations because they can't afford to hire seasonal rangers, and when there remains a staggering maintenance backlog totaling billions of dollars, I question whether our current investment in national parks is something to tout.
An independent survey of national parks by National Geographic Traveler this past summer pointed out the problems with many of America's "crown jewels." That story, along with well-chronicled reports of air and water pollution affecting parks, of druglords growing marijuana in Sequoia and other parks, and of researchers having to go into the field supported by armed guards for their well-being, casts strong doubt of how well we're managing national parks today.