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Slowly Starving the Parks
How do you cook a frog? You place it into a pot of cold water and slowly heat the water until it's boiling. The frog doesn't realize how hot the water is becoming until it's too late.
Can a similar scenario be applied to our national park system and corporate underwriting? I'm not suggesting that the parks are being killed. Rather, I'm questioning whether Congress's indifferent support, and the Interior Department's drive to generate private dollars to fund the parks, coupled with the department's outsourcing initiative, isn't slowly turning our parks over to private enterprises right before our eyes.
Public support of the parks has long been an important funding tier, one that shouldn't be diminished, discouraged or belittled.
However, with Director's Order 21, National Park Service Director Fran Mainella's new take on encouraging corporate sponsorships of the parks, there's a concerted effort to drive up private giving. It's a perceived solution to the funding woes that some believe could quite steadily convince Congress that the Park Service's funding needs aren't so critical, and one that could lead to a greater commercialization, if not outright privatization, of our national park system.
Listen to the Message Washington Is Sending
With Director's Order 21 set to take effect soon after the public comment period ends December 5th, Park Service personnel in Washington are sounding like this is the perfect solution to the parks' funding woes, and a tasteful one at that.
The Yosemite Fund is a good example of how much money corporate America can be talked into donating. Since 1988 the fund has worked to generate private dollars to help pay for public projects in the parks. It has tapped the likes of Bank of America, Chevron and Wells Fargo en route to raising $23 million, according to a story filed by the Modesto Bee's Washington office.
While in the past corporate donors haven't sought much publicity -- Ford Motor Co. contributed $4.5 million a few years ago to help refurbish the Red Jammer fleet at Glacier National Park and was given a plaque to take back to Detroit -- Director's Order 21 is about to change that.
"We do want to celebrate the role of philanthropy in the national parks," John Piltzecker, chief of the NPS's partnership office, told the Bee. "Philanthropy actually has a very long tradition in the national parks."
Indeed it does, and I don't think anyone is suggesting it be done away with. However, what we need to be very aware of, and extremely concerned about, is the prevailing attitude in Washington, D.C., that our parks can be reduced to a commodity to be brokered. And with that brokering comes the threat of quid pro quos.
Director's Order 21 is so controversial that I've been unable to get the folks at the National Park Foundation, which was created by Congress in 1967 specifically to court corporate America for donations to support the national park system, to comment on it.
Others around the country haven't been so hesitant. Editorials have questioned whether our parks are for sale and whether the National Park Service won't feel compelled to return that support when it the time is right.
One writer, Gary Ruskin of Commercial Alert, a non-profit determined to keep commercialism within its appropriate realm and out of inappropriate areas, such as the national parks, points out that the parks "do not exist to help companies make money. Rather, they exist for our enjoyment and edification, and to preserve their contents for future generations."
Conspiracy Theorist, Or Astute Observer?
Scott Silver is executive director of Wild Wilderness, a non-profit formed in 1991 to examine and, when appropriate, protest U.S. Forest Service actions in Oregon. But his purview extends beyond Forest Service lands to include all public lands.
Outspoken on public lands management, Silver is a diligent student of how our public lands are being administered by Washington. He takes particular exception to the Bush administration’s actions. I don't always agree with Scott, and his take on the matters that have transpired with the Park Service in the past six months could be defined as coming from a conspiracy theorist, but there are tracks that support his view on what's occurring within the Interior Department in regard to how our parks are managed.
Regarding the drastic revisions of the National Park Service’s Management Policies by Assistant Deputy Interior Secretary Paul Hoffman, Silver says bluntly that he believes “Hoffman undertook this rewrite project at the specific behest of various special interest groups and individuals.”
Those groups would include the American Recreation Coalition, an organization that supports motorized recreation and which Hoffman appeared before in September to explain his views on rewriting the Management Policies. Another would be the snowmobile lobby, and the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a big proponent of motorized recreation on public lands. Beyond Hoffman, Silver pegs Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett as the motivating force behind the policies’ rewrite.
“As I see it, Scarlett runs the show specifically to advance a personal ideology and to benefit the 'partner' organizations who are privatizing the parks,” says Silver. “And as I see it, Hoffman is Scarlett's lieutenant and he was commissioned to produce the precise NPS-rules re-write that the partner organizations requested.
“As for Scarlett herself, do recall her words --- 'The organization that I came from invented the word 'privatization,' a little-known fact.' -- Lynn Scarlett, May 2, 2002," Silver points out. "I hate to sound as if I honestly think that the NPS has, at its uppermost rungs, been taken over by ideologues intent upon commercializing, privatizing and motorizing the National Parks ---- but that is exactly what I believe.
"And believing as I do, I no longer look upon the NPS as a functional organization serving the democratic purposes and need of the people of this nation or honoring the mission for which the NPS was established," he adds. “I see the NPS and the Crown Jewels themselves as the hijacked victims of Libertarian, Free-Market and wreckreation terrorists.”
An Argument That Points to the Privatization of Our Parks
In 1974, the environmental writer Michael Frome crafted a wonderful book for the University of Utah Press titled "Battle for Wilderness." In it he examined how conservation has been addressed throughout our country's history. Here's a wonderful snippet from that book that deserves much thought and reflection as the Bush administration moves ahead with its handling of not just our national parks but our national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands.
"How much wilderness does it take to fulfill the needs of civilization? That really isn't the key question. What counts more is whether each succeeding generation must settle for an increasingly degraded world and know the experience of the past from books and pictures only. Must the future be satisfied with mediocrity because nothing better will be known?" -- Michael Frome.
Could we be stalking mediocrity with our national parks if we warmly embrace the proposed revisions of the Management Policies, endorse Director's Order 21, and support Interior Secretary Gale Norton's outsourcing initiative for the parks?
There's a wonderful, and powerful, overview of the threat privatization poses to our national parks in the George Wright Forum, a quarterly publication of the George Wright Society, a self-described non-profit association of "researchers, managers, administrators, educators, and other professionals who work on behalf of the scientific and heritage values of protected areas." The fall edition of the Forum is dedicated to the issue of privatization and includes thoughtful articles from Silver as well as Bill Wade, chairman of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees' executive council.
In his article, Wade puts forth the argument that the Interior Department is indeed pushing the commercialization --and its corollary, privatization-- of the parks.
"During the past four years, the political leaders of the DOI (and the NPS) have made a concerted effort to promote 'partnerships,' to 'contract out' certain NPS functions, to increase opportunities for private, commercial interests to become involved in park activities and to expand recreational (especially motorized) uses in NPS areas -- promoting what they call the 'proper balance between public access and resource protection," writes Wade.
"There is no question that declining budgets in the national parks have provoked increasing pressure to privatize. This seems to be playing right into the hands of those in Congress, DOI and NPS who are currently leading the privatization movement," he adds. "Some even suggest that 'starving the NPS budget' is intentional, designed to make it more justifiable to increase reliance on private interests to manage the nation's heritage (my emphasis)."
Wade also quotes Frome: "Public parks are like art galleries, museums and libraries, meant to enrich society by enlightening and elevating individuals who come to them. There is no way to place a dollar value on a 'park experience' or a 'wilderness experience,' and yet the simple act of visiting the natural world has become a commercial transaction. Worst of all, the agencies in charge, the National Park Service and Forest Service, make 'partnerships' with profit-driven entrepreneurs bent on introducing motorized forms of recreation and commercializing wilderness."
Visit the George Wright Forum, read the privatization articles (22:2, 2005), and think about what's transpiring in Washington. Then ask your congressional representatives if they share that vision.