In a few short hours on the first day of November, the gist of the battle over proposed revisions to the National Park Service's Management Policies was clearly distilled:
Should the agency be open to "new ways to enjoy parks," or, must "special interests ... give way to the national interest if the parks are to flourish in the future?"
While I couldn't make it to Washington for the hearing before the Senate Subcommittee on National Parks, the testimony laid out the battle lines that likely will be fought over in the coming months.
Officially, public comment on the revised guidelines will be taken through mid-January. Then the Interior Department will decide whether to implement the changes or return to the drawing board. However, the Senate hearing could impact that scenario, as the senators have oversight on the NPS and could have significant say in how the final revision turns out.
Already, six Republican senators have expressed displeasure with the proposed revisions, saying they stray from the Park Service's "primary mandate ... to err on the side of preservation."
Furthermore, in a letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, the six added that, "We still question ... the need for requiring the Park Service to change its policies so quickly after publication of the last revision in 2001. The department's first principle in rewriting the Park Service policies should be to do no harm."
Signing the letter were Senators Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, John Warner of Virginia, Mel Martinez of Florida, Olympia Snowe of Maine, Susan Collins of Maine, and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island.
Are the 2001 Management Policies Fatally Flawed?
The subcommittee hearing was rich in rhetoric, and each camp took time to parse the language in the National Park Organic Act of 1916, which handed down the Park Service's marching orders.
William Horn, a former Interior Department Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks under President Reagan, charged that the proposed rewrite is necessary to correct fatal flaws in the 2001 version. He told the senators that that set of guidelines "misrepresented the Organic Act from the outset and irretrievably set those policies on a wrong and illegal course."
Specifically, Horn, who these days lobbies for the motorized recreation industries, said the 2001 version upset the Organic Act's intended balance between preservation of the parks and the public's enjoyment of the parks by placing preservation above enjoyment.
"Public use and enjoyment is inextricably embedded in the single fundamental purpose of our park system," said Horn. "Moreover, ensuring future use is the underlying purpose of the non-impairment standard.
"To argue that 'resource preservation' is the single, dominant overarching purpose of the 1916 Act, to the detriment of visitor use and enjoyment, is simply wrong and not borne out by a close reading of the actual statutory language."
Defining the Organic Act
Time and again Horn provided his interpretation of the Organic Act, arguing that "those seeking to restrict public use and enjoyment invariably define 'impairment' so broadly that a vast array of traditional park visitor activities can be deemed to cause impairment and, therefore, be prohibited."
A more "appropriate" definition, he suggested, "would recognize that some adverse effects are acceptable to facilitate use and enjoyment so long as those effects do not materially or significantly alter ecological processes or have appreciable adverse impacts on scenery, wildlife and other natural resources."
That didn't square with Don Castleberry, a member of the executive council of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees and a former Midwest Region director for the Park Service. The Organic Act, he pointed out, clearly states that the Park Service's prime directive is to provide for public enjoyment of the parks "in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."
Furthermore, Castleberry noted that Congress amended the act in 1978 with the so-called Redwoods Act to clarify "that when use conflicts with preservation for future generations, preservation must prevail."
"Since 1916, nine Republican and seven Democratic administrations have followed these directions in reasonably consistent and evenhanded ways," he continued, while the current draft "is a drastic and dangerous departure from a longstanding national consensus. It is driven neither by law, by any conservation need, or by any failure of practical application."
I would be remiss if I didn't note that the proposed revisions deleted reference to the Redwoods Amendment.
No One Is Debating That Parks Exist for Enjoyment
A key point, one that seems to be getting lost in the rhetoric, was made by Denis Galvin, a former deputy director of the NPS.
"It is crucial to this discussion ... to note that there is no credible debate over whether parks should be used by the American people," he told the senators. "The debate centers on how the use occurs, or sometimes when or where."
I couldn't agree more. As I've pointed out several times, the U.S. Forest Service oversees 191 million acres of public lands, most of which are open to the uses that Deputy Assistant Interior Secretary Paul Hoffman wants to allow in national parks through his revisions to the management policies. And the U.S. Bureau of Land Management oversees another 261 million acres, most of which also are open to motorized recreation and cell phone towers and overflights.
So if we truly need balance in how we manage our public lands, as top Interior Department officials contend, should we open more of the Park Service's 84 million acres to these uses, or set them off for preservation?
That point was carried to the committee by Galvin, who said:
"Viable alternatives to expanded use and commercial development in parks should be provided outside the parks, on other public lands, or in gateway communities. Natural and cultural resources of the units of the National Park System must be maintained and in some cases improved. Preservation is the key to continued success of the NPS in fulfilling its statutory mandate, and also to sustaining the core destinations that fuel the tourism industry."
Where Do We Go From Here?
So now what?
I struggle with the notion put forth to the senators by Steve Martin, the Park Service's deputy director, who said the "revised policies have been updated by taking into account changing demographics, improving technology, new ways to enjoy parks, and better science to inform decision-making."
For Martin to touch on "better science" is curious. In the case of the Yellowstone-snowmobile debacle "better science" at least twice has deduced that the park and its wildlife, soundscapes, environment, visitors and employees would be better off without snowmobiles, yet still the Bush administration trudges on, demanding costly new studies, no doubt hoping that one day "better science" will endorse snowmobiles in the park.
More importantly, though, it seems that we as a nation need to preserve the parks as they have always been, with as little impact as possible. There certainly is a need for roads and accommodations so the public can enjoy the parks, but only at a bare minimum.
Don Castleberry pretty much hit the nail on the head with this statement to the senators:
"The parks are often called national treasures -- the crown jewels of our republic -- but they are far more than that. They are repositories of information against which human progress -- or its opposite -- can be gauged. They are touchstones of who we are as a people and even as members of the human race.
"They are the best hope for preserving the cultural record that defines American civilization and the biological diversity upon which life itself depends."
That, I believe, is a pretty good summation.