I had an interesting conversation the other day with Tom Kiernan, president of the 400,000-member National Parks Conservation Association. He was just back home in Virginia and struggling a bit with the fatigue that comes from too much time spent in airports and airline seats that are just a tad too small for comfort.
But that vanished as we discussed a range of topics, from the underfunding of the parks and the impact urbanization is having on their natural landscapes to legislative chicanery in Congress and attempts in the Interior Department to twist the intent of the National Park Organic Act of 1916 away from preservation of the landscape.
It was a conversation I wish all 435 members of the House of Representatives and 100 members of the Senate could have sat in on.
The conversation comes at one of the more combustible and pivotal moments in the recent history of the National Park Service. It comes as Interior Department officials are trying to drive through a subtly worded, yet substantially impacting, rewrite of the Management Policies that guide how the Park Service interprets the Organic Act.
It comes as Interior Secretary Gale Norton is ready to throw open the parks to corporate sponsorships and as Representative Richard Pombo, the California Republican who chairs the House Resources Committee, seemingly is directing an all-out attack on the environment, pushing for more development of public lands, thinking of tinkering with the Organic Act, and even considering a rewrite of the National Environmental Policy Act.
All of this has upstaged the chronic underfunding of the national park system, which, at the same time politicians promote that system as the world's best, suffers from a substantial lack of investment in both infrastructure and manpower.
What's to Become of the Management Policies?
In the weeks ahead I expect the Interior Department to feel mounting pressure to retreat on its revisions of the Management Policies. Not only are newspapers across the country editorializing against the proposed changes, but Congress is beginning to chime in. Six GOP senators have written Secretary Norton with their opposition, and last week Rep. Nancy Johnson, a Republican from Connecticut, added her voice to the opposition.
Senator Craig Thomas, the chairman of the Senate Parks Subcommittee, told me not only that he disagrees with the way the revisions minimize the Park Service's long-understood mandate to preserve the resources above all else, but that he believes the Interior Department should extend its 90-day public comment period on the revisions. Mr. Kiernan went a step further, suggesting that perhaps the department should withdraw the revisions and start over with a "scoping" period to see if the public believes the existing Management Policies even need to be rewritten.
"We feel pretty strongly the public's going to say 'no,'" he said. "We're working to get the whole process set aside."
Short of that, Mr. Kiernan said the revisions need to be drastically rethought.
"This process doesn't seem needed and doesn't seem appropriate as how it's been run so far," he said. "The proposal that's out there now is notably -- when you look at it in aggregate, all of what's been deleted and added -- it's notably weaker than the existing policies. The fundamental issue of the importance of protecting the resources, that fundamental mandate for the parks, is weakened in the new draft. What they've done is increased the importance of enjoyment in the parks and reduced, in the guidance to the superintendents, the importance of protecting the resources first and foremost."
Time for Congress to Recommit to Bolstering the Park Service
Near the end of my conversation with Mr. Kiernan, I asked him what, in his opinion, was the greatest threat faced by the park system. In response, he wrapped his arms around the multitude of threats and explained how they were milling like parasites about the parks.
"The underlying funding shortfall for the parks -- caused by decades of inadequate appropriations -- is causing severe direct and indirect problems for the parks. Obviously, the funding shortfall is driving the reduction in ranger programs, the insufficient research and resource protection efforts, and the decline in visitor/ranger interaction," said Mr. Kiernan. "But these funding shortfalls are also inappropriately and indirectly driving some of the problematic initiatives by the Hill and (Bush) administration. Selling of parks proposed by Pombo, over-commercialization proposed by Pombo, broadening of the donation processes in (Director's Order) 21, are all striving to make up for decades of inadequate congressional funding."
To enable the National Park Service to overcome these challenges, he continued, the Congress needs to pass the National Park Centennial Act to help fully fund the agency and it needs to re-articulate "the role of our national parks as the crown jewels of this country."
As I noted earlier, our conversation was wide-ranging. In the days ahead, I'll take a closer look at some of the other specifics we discussed, from increases in park entrance fees to sponsorships in the parks.