The Mount Desert Islander newspaper in Maine ran a pretty good editorial the other day examining how the Bush administration has infused politics into the National Park Service. I thought it was so timely that I've provided the entire piece for your reading.
Under President Bush there has been a fundamental, yet largely overlooked, shift in the point where politics inserts itself into the National Park Service. In previous administrations, the Secretary of the Interior was, as a cabinet position, a largely political appointee. The director of the National Park Service in previous administrations was usually a career officer who had come up through the ranks and who understood the park service's mission in great detail. Preserving America's greatest natural gifts to itself was the top priority.
Partisan politics now openly infiltrates the top levels of NPS, as manifest in recent subtle attempts to steer the service's mission away from resource protection and encourage uses that many who care about parks feel could be destructive in the long term. One would be naive to think high-level bureaucrats in the park service were immune from politics in the past, but the stain of political zealotry has soaked further down through the bureaucracy than ever before.
More and more officials, right down to the level of park superintendent, are being grilled on their commitment to the administration's policies. That sounds disturbingly similar to the loyalty oaths required during the red-baiting era of Senator Joe McCarthy.
Another disturbing shift in NPS policy involves proposed rules that would require cooperating private entities, such as Friends of Acadia, to make lists of prospective donors to joint public/private projects available to government officials for their review. It is too bad the administration's search to root out undesirables was not pursued with equal zeal when it came to identifying fat cat members of the House of Representatives who took money and favors from corrupt lobbyists, such as Jack Abramoff.
The proposed NPS rules also would require that all money be raised before any work actually begins, a directive that shows a disturbing ignorance of the way most private fundraising efforts are conducted.
If these changes are allowed to become policy, political flacks will, in effect, be tightening a noose around the neck of the golden goose that has come to NPS's rescue time and time again with money for a wide array of projects that enhance the visitor experience and protect fragile resources. It is bad enough that Congress and recent administrations, both Republican and Democrat, have failed to adequately fund the National Park Service. The last thing government should be doing now is putting roadblocks in the way of private citizens who are, in effect, fulfilling the government's responsibilities to the nation and doing their job for them.
Fortunately, a group of retired park service employees, concerned interest groups and forward-thinking legislators is fighting hard to push the political threshold in the National Park Service back up the political food chain. So far they have done so in a reasoned and soft-spoken manner.
But do not let the even-tempered exchanges in this debate fool you into underestimating the gravity of what is at stake. We applaud the efforts of those who are striving to make sure the velvet shackles of unwise policy and unneeded regulations do not get clamped down upon selfless groups such as Friends of Acadia.