Washington, D.C. -- Leaving the dry, sunny skies of Utah for the gray, sodden skies of Washington, D.C., is definitely a change of pace. It takes some time to get used to all the rain. And it certainly presents a different perspective on life.
Behind me I left a gorgeous fall, with the golden aspen leaves clattering in the wind and the early morning bugling of elk hanging in the air. A day or so before I left, a cow moose and her calf came to the yard to browse some of my currant bushes, and the calf even took a chance on a rose bush.
Here in Washington, the only wildlife is pedestrian. And vehicular.
And the perspective on life is certainly different, as I mentioned above. For instance, Interior Department officials have a vastly different perspective than me on how their unveiling of the latest National Park Service Management Policies was received.
"The coverage was diffused and tempered," Tina Kreisher, the agency's communications chief boasted to her colleagues. "The opposition was having a hard time finding things to complain about and that means those who worked on the policies did an extraordinary job."
I must admit that I was somewhat disappointed with some of the national coverage of the revised policy. Many of those stories failed to take note that the revisions still tried to water down the historic, and intended, Park Service mandate to preserve resources above all else.
No doubt, part of the media's initial problem in dissecting the 200+-page document on Tuesday was the fact that it was released only a few hours before Interior held press conferences on the document. But given some additional time, the flaws in the document stand out. Read on and I'll point them out.
As I noted Tuesday, the biggest, but not the only, area of concern is the agency's insistence that preservation of parks and enjoyment of parks be equally weighted when it comes to Park Service decisions on how to manage the parks. Never mind that courts have consistently ruled that the Park Service's No. 1 mandate is preservation of the parks.
"Protection is kind of put second to motorized uses and other uses," Carl Schneebeck of the Bluewater Network told me after going through the voluminous document. "Basically, they're putting those second to maintaining those uses. ... This whole thing kind of ignores the congressional and legal precedents that have been set for 90 years. It's always been natural resources and cultural resources.
Time and time again the officials at Tuesday's press conferences -- Assistant Deputy Interior Secretary Paul Hoffman, who suggested most of the changes; Steve Martin, the Park Service's deputy director for operations; the agency's chief ranger; and several regional officials and park superintendents -- said the resource would always come first, even under the new policies. But Washington is a city where people -- politicians, specifically -- choose their words carefully, and how they worded the revised Management Policies is significant.
Without a doubt, Hoffman and others no longer want preservation of resources to be the Park Service's main concern.
What's Wrong With Enjoyment?
One of the problems park advocacy groups will have in lobbying against these changes is that they're going up against "enjoyment." "Are you guys against enjoyment of the parks?" surely will be one of the many questions that arise. And the answer is an emphatic "no."
In fact, park advocates who oppose this wording are against it precisely because they value enjoyment of the parks. They want visitors to be able to hear the whoosh of the Old Faithful Geyser without having to strain their ears above the whine of snowmobiles. They want you to be able to hike into Yosemite's backcountry without having to leap out of the way of ATVs or mountain bikers. They want you to be able to swim or kayak in the waters of Key Biscayne National Park without having to dodge personal watercraft.
Basically, "enjoying" the national parks should be centered around the parks themselves, their incredible vistas, their rich wildlife, their natural solitude. You shouldn't need to be gunning a snowmobile or ATV or Skidoo to be able to enjoy the parks. Our national parks have a very different mission than our national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands, places where there are millions of acres open for snowmobiling and off-roading.
And the parks have been wildly successful with that mission. According to visitor satisfaction surveys conducted under the Government Performance and Results Act, between 1998 and 2004 visitor satisfaction with our parks has scored consistently between 94% and 96%. While Mr. Hoffman on Tuesday dubbed the 2001 Management Policies that he insists be rewritten as "anti-enjoyment," those statistics seem to contradict that contention.
There Are Other Problems With the Policy Rewrite, Tina
Other problems with the rewrite? There are lots of 'em. By dropping a tiny four-letter word, "only," the rewrite makes it easier for park officials to open up their landscapes to off-road vehicles and snowmobiles.
The language under Section 184.108.40.206 previously said that "routes and areas may 'only' be designated for off-road vehicle use by special regulation within national recreation areas, national seashores, national lakeshores, and national preserves, and then only when determined to be an appropriate use." Now that tiny four-letter word is missing, and the entire meaning of the sentence changes to one that implies that off-roading may be allowed.
Air quality also could suffer, as the new version at times defines "natural conditions" as conditions that exist "not necessarily (in) the absence of humans," whereas the old standard was conditions that occurred "in the absence of humans."
While Hoffman et. al made a big deal that they had to rewrite the policies in part to accommodate Homeland Security needs, that inserted provision is pretty small compared to the overall length of the document. And that section could further exacerbate the funding plight of the Park Service by requiring the agency to "maintain a capacity to rapidly move law enforcement personnel" to Homeland Security targets. How the Park Service will afford that requirement is not addressed.
There are countless other subtle changes that have been inserted into the document that should raise concern for anyone who loves our parks in their current condition. There are sections that lessen the standards for what constitutes impairment of the resources, sections that make it easier to allow personal watercraft in the parks, and sections that could make it easier for livestock to be grazed in the parks.
Is this what Americans want? I guess it's all a matter of perspective.