Well, At Least DOI Was Pleased

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 8.2.3.1 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.

Comments

Right on, Kurt. Nothing wrong with enjoyment but parks cannot be expected to satisfy every type of use without suffering serious degradation. What gets me is that Interior has pressured park managers into saying that these new policies will provide more clarity for them and better direction on how to enforce park laws. Show me how. What better direction can you give a manager than telling him or her that if you come upon a conflict between conservation and use in a park, you should defer to conservation? Of course you should try to balance conservation and use but, in a tie, conservation wins. That sort of direction lets park managers know that someone at NPS in DC has got their back -- and that they are well protected in court. By the way, did you see today's NY Times editorial on this? Now that the press has had more time to dig into the details, perhaps we'll get some more complete analysis like this. Here it is: The New York Times October 21, 2005 Editorial: The National Parks Under Siege Year after year, Americans express greater satisfaction with the National Park Service than with almost any other aspect of the federal government. From the point of view of most visitors, there is no incentive to revise the basic management policy that guides park superintendents, a policy that was last revised in 2001 and is usually re-examined only every 10 or 15 years. Longtime park service employees feel much the same way. Yet in the past two months we have seen two proposed revisions. The first, written by Paul Hoffman, a deputy assistant secretary in the Interior Department, was a genuinely scandalous rewriting that would have destroyed the national park system. On Tuesday, the Interior Department released a new draft. The question isn't whether this revision is better than Mr. Hoffman's drastic rewrite. Almost anything would be better than his version, a glaring example of the zeal to dilute conservation with commercialism among political appointees in the Interior Department. But the new draft would still undermine the national parks. This entire exercise is unnecessary, driven by politics and ideology. The only reason for revisiting and revising the 2001 management policy was Mr. Hoffman's belief, expressed during a press conference earlier this week, that the 2001 policy is ''anti-enjoyment.'' This will surely come as news to the 96 percent of park visitors who year after year express approval of their experiences. The kind of enjoyment Mr. Hoffman has in mind -- as clearly evidenced by his draft and by remarks from Interior Secretary Gale Norton -- is opening up the parks to off-road vehicles, including snowmobiles. The ongoing effort to revise the 2001 policy betrays a powerful sense, shared by many top interior officials, that the national parks are resources not to be protected but to be exploited. This new policy document doesn't go as far as the earlier version. But it would eliminate the requirement that only motorized equipment with the least impact should be used in national parks. It would lower air-quality standards and strip away language about preserving the parks' natural soundscape -- language that currently makes it hard, for instance, to justify allowing snowmobiles into Yellowstone. It would also refer park superintendents to other management documents that have been revised to weaken fundamental standards and protections for the parks. Mr. Hoffman and National Park Service officials have tried to argue that this new policy revision offers greater clarity. What it really offers is greater flexibility to interpret the rules the way they want to. The thrust of these changes is to diminish the historical, and legally upheld, premise that preservation is the central mission of the park system. Here, for instance, is what this proposed policy revision would remove from the very heart of the park system's mission statement: ''Congress, recognizing that the enjoyment by future generations of the national parks can be ensured only if the superb quality of park resources and values is left unimpaired, has provided that when there is a conflict between conserving resources and values and providing for enjoyment of them, conservation is to be predominant.'' These unambiguous words contain the legal and legislative history that has protected the parks over the years from exactly the kind of change Mr. Hoffman has in mind, allowing all the rest of us to enjoy the national parks in ways that are more respectful of the future and of the parks themselves. One of the most troubling aspects of this revised policy is how it was produced. Instead of being shaped by park service professionals thinking in a timely way about how to do their jobs better, this is a defensive document that was rushed forward to head off the more sweeping damage that Mr. Hoffman's first draft threatened to do. It is a tribute to the National Park Service veterans who worked on it that they were able to mitigate so much of the harm, even though they, too, were working directly under Mr. Hoffman's eye. They risked their jobs to protect the parks from political appointees in the Interior Department. This is a measure of how distorted the department's policies have become. There is more potential damage on the way. At least two deeply worrying new directives have been handed down. One allows the National Park Service to solicit contributions from individuals and corporations instead of merely accepting them when they're offered. This is another way to further the privatization of the national parks and edge toward their commercialization. Privatizing the government's core responsibilities -- like the national parks -- is unacceptable, and so is the prospect of any greater commercial presence in the parks. More alarming still is a directive released last week that would require park personnel who hope to advance above the middle-manager level to go through what is essentially a political screening. What we are witnessing, in essence, is an effort to politicize the National Park Service -- to steer it away from its long-term mission of preserving much-loved national treasures and make it echo the same political mind-set that turned Mr. Hoffman, a former Congressional aide to Dick Cheney and a former head of the Cody, Wyo., chamber of commerce, into an architect of national park policy.