OK, the other day I promised not to regurgitate all three hours of the House parks subcommittee hearing into the National Park Service Organic Act.
Well, I'm still not going to do that. But there were some tidbits that are just too wonderful to let die on my tape-recorder.
For instance, Chuck Cushman, executive director of the American Land Rights Association, offered during his opening comments that preservationists -- that's right, those dastardly preservationists! -- have infiltrated the National Park Service. And not just recently.
"For 40 years the preservationists have really infiltrated the national parks and the park system, taking the NPS over and the users and recreationists have systematically lost over that period," Cushman told the committee.
He added, when talked turned to the Organic Act's "unimpairment" provision, that snowmobiles traveling on groomed roads and personal watercraft rooster-tailing through lakes do not impair the environment.
"I guess if you're disturbed about noise, then these are a problem. These are again a case of values, but certainly not impairment in the literal sense," said Cushman.
Unless, of course, you're concerned about air or water pollution from the emissions those machines crank out.
In his prepared testimony, Mr. Cushman charged that the Park Service "is consistently driving people away from our parks and often doing the best it can to limit access."
Whoa. Pretty strong words. Unfortunately, the statistics don't exactly back him up.
During 2004, the national park system recorded 276,908,337 recreation visits. That was an increase of nearly 11 million people from 2003. True, if you go back to 2000 there were 285,891,275 visits and visitation dropped for three straight years before rebounding strongly in 2004. But if you take a good look at the visitation numbers for the park system, you'll notice that they have fluctuated pretty much like a yo-yo, so I'm not sure Mr. Cushman's argument passes the test.
If, as he claimed, the preservationists have been in charge of the Park Service these past 40 years, they've done a miserable job of keeping folks out of the parks. Back in 1979 recreation visits for the entire park system numbered 205,369,795, and so over the past 27 years visitation has actually increased by more than 71 million visits.
Now, to his credit, Mr. Cushman corrected himself later in the hearing.
"It's nonsense to say that people are shut out," he said, changing tack for a moment. "We're in a process of shutting people out. If you took a map of all the national parks, put it up on the wall and threw darts at it, and the parks closest to 20 darts, pick 20 parks, and then asked for a report from the Park Service (on) how many parking places, how many campgrounds and other aspects here that they had 25 years ago versus how many they have now, what you would see is a downward trend toward access.
"Every planning process, every look at these issues by the Park Service, always results in a gradual downward trend where people lose a parking place here, a parking place there, a campground here, a campground there, the end result is people are in the process of being locked out of their parks. That's going on and it's provable and it's documentable."
Well, if that's the case, then how did the park system manage to log a 71-million-visitor-increase between 1979 and 2004, not to mention that 11 million increase in 2004 alone?
Finally, towards the end of the hearing Mr. Cushman argued that the nation's increased population alone should dictate that more roads and hotels be built in the national parks and laughed when asked when the last time was that the Park Service allowed a hotel to be built in a park.
"I can't remember. They solve the visitor problem by locking the visitor out, not by improving the accommodations," he said, adding that while California's population has steadily grown the Park Service has not responded to it with improved infrastructure. "There's not an additional road, I don't think there are any additional campgrounds, far less campgrounds. They're not providing the services, they're not keeping up with the public, they're not providing any enjoyment. And I think that they're allowing this 'unimpaired' to get in the way of making free and open decisions.
"Frankly, I've never seen the agency or the advocacy groups support substantial changes that would have been positive for visitor support in various parks," Cushman continued, "but I never saw a regulation or a rule or intimidating basis that they didn't just wrap their arms around and love in their support groups that would have blocked these sorts of things."
OK. Appearances before congressional committees no doubt spawn hyperbole. How else to colorfully make your point in testimony? But the facts are a little different. For starters, within the last six or seven years at least two hotels have been built in the park system -- the Snow Lodge in Yellowstone, a gorgeous facility at the Old Faithful complex that is open through the winter, and Wuksachi Lodge in Sequoia, which enables visitors to stay near Giant Forest inside the park. And the Grant Village complex in Yellowstone, if memory serves me correct, was built in the 1980s.
And currently, the Paradise Inn at Mount Rainier has been shuttered for two years so long-needed repairs and upgrades can be made to better serve visitors.
As for new roads, I know there are efforts -- controversial ones at that -- under way to see a new road punched into Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Plus, the folks in Yellowstone recently spent millions to rebuild the road over Dunraven Pass, in Sequoia some gorgeous roadwork is being done to improve the Generals Highway, and beginning in 2007 an extensive rebuilding of the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier is scheduled to commence.
Many other parks would love to do roadwork to improve aging and worn roads, but the Park Service has been unable to secure the funding to get the job done. As for new roads, I'm not sure a strong argument has been made for the need.
Is there a need for better access into Yellowstone? Should a road be punched east-to-west across Sequoia and Kings Canyon? Perhaps Olympic National Park should be bisected, neatly cut in half with a road from Port Angeles to Lake Quinault.
That line of thinking would do a tremendous disservice to future generations. As Deny Galvin, a long-tenured Park Service employee who now offers testimony on behalf of the National Parks Conservation Association, put it so elegantly to the House subcommittee, the National Park Service Organic Act is a "pact between generations."
"It is the duty of this generation to pass all that the parks contain today to our children, and subsequently to our children's children," he said. "Discussions of the legal language of the act can get philosophical and abstruse. But I like to view it as a promise to our kids."
Indeed, we should not be so greedy today that we need to punch more roads into the parks and build more hotels -- unless they are replacing antiquated facilities -- and campgrounds and, in the process, slowly but steadily erase what Congress, through the National Park Service Organic Act, resolutely determined in 1916 that we should "leave unimpaired for future generations."