Fran Mainella has responded to claims that proposed revisions to the National Park Service's Management Policies would open up the parks to more motorized recreation. But her rebuttal leaves much to be desired.
On Monday, the Knoxville News-Sentinel in Tennessee printed a "letter to the editor" from Director Mainella in which she takes issue with one of the paper's columnists, who disagreed with the approach being taken in rewriting the Management Policies.
In her letter, the director writes that "the revised draft management policies, which were written with the participation of nearly 100 professional National Park Service employees, do not increase the likelihood of more motorized equipment, off-road vehicles, commercial activities, reduced air quality, noise, cell towers or other activities currently governed by law or regulation in the national parks.
"There is strong language throughout the draft policies, stating: 'when there are concerns as to whether an activity or action will cause an impairment, the Service will protect the resources,'" she adds. "We couldn't be more clear."
Unfortunately, the rewrite that supposedly was conducted to clarify how our parks should be managed has thrown confusion into the mix. For one thing, it doesn't clearly define what an "impact" is nor explain when a temporary "impact" becomes a permanent "impairment."
And, as I pointed out in October, 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 188.8.131.52 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."
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.
In her letter to the Knoxville paper Director Mainella maintains that there is "strong language" in the draft policies. That may be so, but I wonder why the revised version now open to public comment took out even stronger language?
Stricken from the current revision is wording specifying that "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.
"This is how courts have consistently interpreted the Organic Act..."
As I mentioned back in early October, once upon a time Director Mainella believed that resource protection and preservation came before the public's enjoyment of that resource. It was during a 2002 House subcommittee hearing on parks that the director testified that "the 1916 Organic Act, as I read it, it always has been existing that the enjoyment (of parks) was always under the contingency of the fact that it had to be that the resources were still always protected, or go unimpaired."
A bit later she added that, "you are always doing a balancing act, but your erring always has to be on the side of the resource."
Now it seems she doesn't want to worry too much about erring. Am I parsing the director's words too closely? Perhaps. Although, some prominent U.S. senators also have taken exception to the current revision and voiced concerns that it could weaken the preservation of our national parks.
I'd love to discuss this issue with Director Mainella, but all of a sudden she seems to have developed an aversion to the press. Today her spokesman informed me that the director would not agree to an interview, adding that "it's important to recognize that during the comment period we are in a listening mode."
"We honestly want the public's comments on our draft. We want people to actually read the draft, not try to react to press stories," added David Barna. "We are a little shy about doing press during this comment period. At this point we are not in a selling mode, but in a listening mode. That's what civic engagement is all about."
Huh? Wasn't the director "reacting to press stories" and wasn't she in a "selling mode" when she wrote the Knoxville newspaper?