While top officials at the Interior Department and National Park Service might have thought they were in the clear with their revisions to the Park Service's Management Policies, they now know there is some significant bipartisan opposition in the U.S. Senate to their proposals for running the national park system.
Last week a group of six moderate Republican senators told Interior Secretary Gale Norton that they didn't understand why the Park Service's Management Policies had to be rewritten. And on November first, during a hearing by the Senate Subcommittee on National Parks, more senators went on record to say the revisions went too far.
Senator Craig Thomas, the Wyoming Republican who chairs the subcommittee, told me after the hearing that he expects changes in the document before it is finalized. And he believes the Interior Department should extend the current 90-day period for public comment on the document.
I won't regurgitate all that transpired in the hearing, since I've already detailed that in a lengthy post. Instead I'll focus on what senators on the committee had to say about the revisions, because their comments will carry a good deal of weight with the Interior Department.
While Senator Thomas told me that the latest version differs "substantially" from the one that was leaked to the media earlier this summer, he indicated he wasn't entirely comfortable with this draft. Specifically, the senator said he wants to make sure that park preservation remains the Park Service's chief priority. A few things "need to be done with this policy before it is put in place," he said.
Thomas stressed that "if there's a problem between the visitation and protecting the resource, instead of making a bunch of changes in both priorities, you have to make the changes primarily in the visitation aspect to ensure that the first priority (preservation) stays there."
That comment is a breath of fresh air after listening to Interior Department and Park Service officials say preservation of the resource and enjoyment of the resource are on equal footing and that their subtle wording changes concerning "impairment" and "impacts" were nothing to be alarmed about.
Other senators on the committee, Republican and Democratic, made it clear that they, too, aren't happy with the current draft of the Management Policies.
"There's no reason to do this when you're going to diminish what's in the parks," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennesse, who previously had expressed his unhappiness with the revisions in a letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton.
While Democratic Senator Daniel Akaka of Hawaii worried that the current version could provide less protection of cultural resources in the parks, Senator Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat from New Mexico, was worried about commercialization of the parks.
"I've always thought of the parks as a commercial-free zone," said Bingaman. "Strikes me this is a slippery slope and a very major change."
Members of the committee are sending written questions to the Park Service officials concerning the revision, and we should start to see some of the administration's answers in the next two to three weeks.
In the meantime, perhaps a campaign to get the Park Service to stage meetings around the country to gather public input on the Management Policies would be a good thing.