Just when it looked like we'd ease into the year-end holidays without too much more to worry about, U.S. Representative Steve Pearce of New Mexico has decided to have the House Parks Subcommittee take a peek into how the National Park Service Organic Act is functioning these days.
This hearing originally was planned for October, but it got waylaid for some undisclosed reason. Now it's back on the calendar, set for this Wednesday, December 14th, and the witness list seems to be tilted more in favor of recreation on park lands than preservation of those lands.
The Organic Act was passed in 1916. It created the National Park Service and gave the agency its marching orders. Foremost among those orders was a mandate that the agency preserve the parks' landscape unimpaired for future generations. Second to that was providing recreational opportunities for the public.
The one-sentence public rationale Representative Pearce has given for Wednesday's hearing is to examine the Organic Act "and its implementation through daily park management."
Why should park advocates be concerned about this hearing? As the Organic Act currently is written, drastic changes to the National Park Service's Management Policies, such as those proposed earlier this year by Deputy Assistant Interior Secretary Paul Hoffman, wouldn't have legal legs to stand on.
However, if the Organic Act were rewritten to take away the foremost emphasis on land preservation and make recreation equal to, or more important than, preservation, well, it would be much easier for the Interior Department to open the parks to more motorized recreation and other activities that currently aren't allowed in parks.
Now, back to the witness list. It looks like the subcommittee will get a quick primer on the Organic Act from Steve Martin, the Park Service's deputy director for operations. Then the fireworks begin. He'll be followed by William Horn, a former Assistant Interior Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks under President Reagan and currently a lobbyist for the American Recreation Coalition, a big proponent of motorized recreation; Chuck Cushman, executive director of the American Land Rights Association, which favors public access to federal lands and protection of private property rights, and; Jerry Fruth of the American Horse Council, which wants more equestrian access to public lands, including national parks.
Advocating for the parks and the Organic Act will be Bill Wade, chairman of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees' s executive council, and Denis Galvin, a former NPS deputy director.
Horn, you might recall, was on the witness list in November when the Senate Parks Subcommittee took testimony into proposed changes to the National Park Service's Management Policies. During that hearing he 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 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."
Just from those comments alone you can probably guess what his message will be to the House subcommittee: let's rewrite the Organic Act so it's abundantly clear that recreation is just as important as preservation.
Fortunately, the senators weren't convinced by Horn's argument. But now Horn has a chance to sway the House subcommittee into his line of thinking.
Back in October I discussed the administration's views of how the NPS should be managed with Craig Manson, the deputy assistant Interior secretary for fish, wildlife and parks. In that interview Mr. Manson told me specifically that the administration sees no need to tinker with the National Park Service Organic Act. Hopefully that message will be delivered during Wednesday's hearing.