Last week the National Park Service's two deputy directors, Steve Martin and Don Murphy, held a video-conference with NPS employees across the nation so they could field questions pertaining to the proposed revisions to the agency's Management Policies.
While there were some questionable comments made during the hour-long affair, two points came across: the employees are most definitely concerned by aspects of the proposed revisions, and the deputy directors seem committed to endorsing preservation as the Park Service's chief mandate.
What was a bit disconcerting, however, was that while the message from Washington has been that the revisions were needed to provide clarity in how the national parks are to be managed, during the video-conference Deputy Director Martin more than once acknowledged that the revisions themselves could be muddled from time to time and that needs to be corrected.
Martin, the deputy director for operations, and Murphy, deputy director for support services, entertained questions from coast-to-coast. And while their answers didn't always answer those questions, the two tried to calm fears that the proposed revisions were intended to elevate recreation in the national parks either above preservation of the parks or at least to an equal standing. Whether they succeeded remains to be seen.
Here's a look at some of the questions and answers:
1. Why are revisions to the policies needed?
While the long-standing canned answer has been that the Park Service and Interior Department have received many requests for updating the 2001 Management Policies, Deputy Director Martin answered simply that Director Fran Mainella more than a year ago had made a commitment to Interior Secretary Gale Norton to review the policies.
2. Why is the Park Service requiring top managers to pledge a "loyalty oath" to the Bush administration's philosophies?
Good question. The answer from Deputy Director Martin wasn't so good. While pointing out that all appointments for GS15 positions go to the assistant Interior secretary's office for approval, Martin added that, "We use this to get the best pool of candidates possible." Hmmmm.
3. How are the restoration projects in Everglades National Park, where efforts are focusing on maintaining water resources, and Olympic National Park, where the work revolves around removal of dams on the Elwha River, proceeding?
While Deputy Director Martin had no information on either project, Deputy Director Murphy said the agency is committed to the Everglades work so that park, a World Heritage Site recognized by UNESCO, can have its "threatened" tag removed.
4. Why in the latest version of the Management Policies revisions are the words "conserve, preserve and protect" used interchangeably?
Another very good question, to which Deputy Director Martin answered: "We want to put aside debate over which is a higher standard" and focus on preserving resources. He added, as well, that "this is a draft, and if there's inappropriate use of words we'll change it."
5. Why have the revisions seemingly lessened the importance of "natural quiet" in parks?
Deputy Director Martin replied that natural quiet is indeed extremely important. In the draft, he said, this section is being reviewed and it "looks like one of the sections that needs to be clarified." He added, too, that many of the revised sections could require a close review.
6. What is the Park Service's budget outlook for the next couple of years?
Deputy Director Martin noted that these are tough financial times for the country, what with the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita and that "discretionary funds are going to be leaned on." While he added that he thinks the Park Service will continue to succeed to obtain operational funding, the agency could have some of its current appropriation rescinded. "We have to prove to Congress that money that goes to the national parks is some of the best-spent money," said Martin.
7. There seem to be subliminal and not so subliminal messages in the proposed revisions that would put use of the resources in national parks ahead of preservation of those resources.
"There is no intent to water that mission down," responded Deputy Director Martin, adding that one of the things that's always been clear down through the decades is that protection of resources had to be the agency's predominant mission. "If we need to straighten that out in certain places (of the revisions), we'll do that."
While a followup question asked how the current revision of the Park Service's "impairment standard" had changed the version in the 2001 Management Policies, neither deputy director clearly answered that question. But again they emphasized that resource preservation would remain the agency's utmost priority under the revised language.
"When we talk about passing our resources on unimpaired, that is something that is the baseline, it's how we manage," said Deputy Director Martin. "The key is that we don't have that as our only standard. We need to be managing well before impacts get there....Our job is to pass the parks on in better condition to future generations."
Deputy Director Murphy added that the proposed revisions are intended to provide management guidance to park superintendents "so they don't get close to impairment."
8. Why did the revisions remove language that specifically barred "base jumping," in which parachutists jump from bridges, buildings and cliffs? Base-jumping advocates, the questioner pointed out, seem to be taking removal of that language as approval of their sport in national parks.
Deputy Director Martin assured his audience that the Park Service certainly didn't intend to give that impression. Rather, he said, the agency didn't want to prohibit a specific activity when there are regulations elsewhere that prohibit that activity. Martin added that the agency didn't want to get to the point where it had to specifically single out each and every activity that wasn't permitted in the parks.
(Of course, that could remove some of the very clarity those in the agency's Washington headquarters have been claiming they are seeking through the revisions.)
9. How will the Park Service handle comments being made on the proposed revisions?
Deputy Director Martin opened his response by stressing that "debate and passion is good. We can't become complacent." He then proceeded to say that the agency planned to form a group with a broad mix of NPS employees to work on the revisions and that possibly an advisory board of unbiased individuals, perhaps including former NPS directors, would be created to review the work.
Absent, perhaps conspicuously, from this video-conference was Director Mainella. While neither deputy director explained her absence, she had asked them to extend holiday greetings to the employees.