For three hours the House Subcommittee on Parks, Recreation and Public Lands heard testimony that delved into the intent of the National Park Service Organic Act of 1916 and debated what should constitute the National Park Service's Management Policies.
And when it was over, Chairman Steven Pearce pretty clearly summed up the landscape by admitting that there's a deep divide among Americans on how our national parks should be run.
"I really don't know where I will end up, and I don't know where the committee will end up," the New Mexico Republican said at the end of Wednesday's hearing. "But I think the discussions are extremely important if, for nothing else, to get both sides a little bit more comfortable with why we have the viewpoints that we do."
A philosophical divide. It's a deep one here at the end of 2005, and it's likely to grow broader and deeper after the new year as the National Park Service leadership tries to come to terms with its revision of the 2001 Management Policies and as some on the Republican side of Congress, possibly feeling that their period of power is on the wane, make a grab for all they can get for their constituents.
On one side of the divide are those who value scenery for scenery's sake, who find nourishment and succor in the landscape as it was created. On the other are those who believe we need more snowmobiles and ATVs and more campgrounds and more parking lots to make that scenery accessible.
Two months ago I asked in a post, "What Should be Done With Our National Parks?" That question is as pertinent as ever and deserving of an answer. It's an answer that won't be easily, or quickly, attained, but you already know that.
But I think a good start to searching for that answer would be for Congress to take up the suggestion Rick Smith, a member of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, made to another congressional subcommittee when it met in Flagstaff, Arizona, back in mid-October. At the time Smith, a three-decade veteran of Park Service politics and battles, proposed that a blue-ribbon commission be appointed to sort out once and forever just what purpose our national parks serve.
Such a deliberative solution seems much more palatable, and much much efficient, than trotting out before congressional committees a predictable roster of "witnesses" who argue either for preservation of parks foremost or for more recreation.
That was the case at Representative Pearce's hearing. While the Republican side brought out William Horn, a former Interior Department deputy director during the Reagan administration and now a lobbyist for the motorized recreation industry, Chuck Cushman, executive director of the American Land Rights Association, and Jerry Fruth of the American Horse Council, all interested in more access to the parks, the Democrats countered with Deny Galvin, a Park Service veteran who at one point in his storied career was acting director of the agency, and Bill Wade, who ascended to chairman of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees' Coalition of National Park Service Retirees' executive council after his long and distinguished NPS career.
Combined, Galvin and Wade have 60+ years of actual Park Service experience, way more than their three counterparts. (You can read all of their prepared testimony here. Just click on their underlined names.)
While Representative Pearce maintained that no business interest asked for the hearing into the Organic Act, eight months ago he was given the subcommittee chairmanship by none other than Representative Richard Pombo, who is very pro-industry when it comes to public lands. And Mr. Horn counts among his clients the Blue Ribbon Coalition, which works to gain more snowmobile and ATV access on public lands, the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, and the American Recreation Coalition.
Opening the hearing was Steve Martin, the deputy director of the National Park Service. Director Fran Mainella has given him all the tough assignments of late. In the past week alone Deputy Director Martin has met in private with representatives from the likes of The Wilderness Society and the National Parks Conservation Association to discuss the ongoing rewrite of the Park Service's Management Policies, held an hour-long video-conference with Park Service employees on that rewrite, and now endured an hour of questions from a House subcommittee curious about the mechanics and intent of the National Park Service Organic Act.
Deputy Director Martin made it clear from the outset that the Park Service sees no need to rewrite or amend the Organic Act, saying the agency has plenty of other administrative tools it can turn to to satisfactorily manage the parks.
"Through the establishment of Yellowstone and other early park acts, Congress set the course for a rich American legacy," Deputy Director Martin said. "The Organic Act, enacted in 1916, secured this new conservation direction by creating a National Park Service with a resource protection goal. ... The Organic Act directs the National Park Service to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for their enjoyment in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."
Now, I won't try to regurgitate all three hours of testimony and questions and answers. Suffice it to say that Messers. Horn, Cushman and Fruth felt there should be more emphasis on recreation and access in the parks, while Messers. Galvin and Wade countered by saying the equivalent of "the system ain't broken so don't try to fix it."
In short the Republican committee members asked softball questions to enable the witnesses on their side of the table to get their views on the record, and the Democratic members did the same with their questions.
Though Chairman Pearce at the hearing's end said he had no preset agenda for the hearing, his take on whether the Organic Act needs a few amendments perhaps was revealed at the outset when he commented that the act "was not designed to protect parks from Americans." And time and again he asked various witnesses to define what exactly "impairment" means in the context of impacts to the parks and their resources and what does "conserve resources" mean? That question prompted Deputy Director Martin to respond that the Park Service has an "overriding obligation" to protect park resources.
Part of the testimony that expanded my knowledge was introduced by Mr. Galvin, who pointed to a paper written in 1997 by the late Dr. Robin Winks, a Yale University history dean and former chairman of both the National Park System Advisory Board and the NPCA Board of Trustees. In that paper, Dr. Winks dispelled the contention by some that the opening language of the Organic Act is contradictory because it directs the Park Service to both "conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein" and to "provide for the enjoyment of the same..."
Through heavily annotated and compelling research, Dr. Winks makes a strong argument that the founding fathers of the Organic Act did indeed intend for the Park Service to place preservation of the resources above recreation of them.
So where does that leave us? Representative Pearce plans to continue keeping tabs on the Park Service by holding another hearing in February to check into the status of the Management Policies rewrite. The Park Service will continue taking comments on the proposed revisions until mid-February.
After that things get a little blurry. While the Park Service plans to sift through the public comments and possibly arrange for a panel of former Park Service directors to review the resulting revisions to the Management Policies, it's quite possible that those in the Interior Department, not the NPS, will have final say on the final version.
And at this point in time, the Interior Department is pretty heavily pro-recreation.