Take a healthy dose of changes to the National Park Service's Management Policies, toss in a heaping handful of Director's Order 21 and mix well with "loyalty oaths." That's the recipe for turning our national park system into a 21st-century themeland out in the country.
OK, there's just a pinch of hyperbole in that opening graf. But if you've been paying attention to the language coming out of Washington, D.C., and from recreation and economic development stalwarts elsewhere in the country, you might come to agree with me.
Back in October I wrote a post titled, "What did the National Park Service do to the GOP?" It's a question that's just as pertinent now as it was then, for it's the Bush administration that's trying to redesign our national park system. The general public didn't ask for these changes, nor did a majority in Congress.
Since that post, events around the national park system and within the halls of the Interior Department and NPS have continued to fuel the debate over what Americans really expect and want from their national park system.
How Entertaining Must Parks Be?
There was a story in the Richmond Times-Dispatch this week about declining visitation along the Blue Ridge Parkway the past three years. The story noted that this is the first time in the parkway's seven decades of existence that visitation has dropped three straight years.
In reviewing that drop, a Park Service spokesman wondered whether the decline is a reflection that "our scenic qualities have been compromised."
A bit further down in the story, Wayne Strickland, the executive director of the Roanoke Valley-Allegheny Regional Commission, said the drop might have been spurred by high gasoline prices, increasing development that's pinching the parkway and diminishing its scenic qualities, or a change in recreational tastes from generation to generation.
"The parkway may not appeal to the younger folks," he told the newspaper. "The baby boomers enjoyed it. The younger generation, they like to be entertained."
Entertained indeed. When I was growing up, we entertained ourselves by heading out into the country to fish ponds, catch frogs in creeks, paddle canoes, camp out forests, or take a hike.
There were a few initial toeholds being made by the then-fledgling theme-park industry, those industrialized playgrounds of concrete and steel. But back then they were seen as separate from our state and national parks. Today there seems to be a serious effort to blur that distinction, a move that threatens to lessen the significance and upkeep of our national parks.
Scott Silver, the executive director of the non-profit Wild Wilderness organization, read the Times-Dispatch story and noted that Strickland's quote about the younger generation wanting to be entertained meshes almost perfectly with the message promoted by Assistant Deputy Interior Secretary Paul Hoffman, the source of many of the proposed revisions to the NPS's Management Policies, and the American Recreation Coalition, a group heavily into motorized recreation.
"If that message is believed by Congress," says Silver, "then more development will likely be built in an effort to provide new opportunities for entertainment."
And, he continues, if Strickland's observation that development has impacted the natural beauty of the Blue Ridge Parkway is accurate, "then still more development will make the parkway even less desirable to those who have long appreciated it."
"I would suggest that the PURPOSE for the PR message Strickland dutifully espoused is to convince Congress that the Parkway needs to be made more 'relevant' for the different values being promoted by the tourism industry. By undermining the purposes for which parks were created, these commercial interests hope to permit the parks to be transmogrified so as to make them more profitable to the tourism industry," offers Silver.
Now, Back to Messages From Washington.
In a recent letter to the New York Times to respond to its recent editorial admonishing the Park Service for its efforts to revise the Management Policies, Deputy NPS Director Don Murphy shared this little tidbit:
"There is rapid population growth around parks, improved technology that provides new ways to enjoy parks and reduces negative effects on resources, and a new focus on civic engagement and cooperative conservation."
Frankly, I haven't seen much of that "improved technology." Not just yet. A few days ago I shared some thoughts on the snowmobile saga still being played out in Yellowstone National Park. The "improved technology" that the Bush administration had hoped would lessen snowmobile impacts on the park evidently hasn't arrived just yet.
And I wonder exactly how Murphy defines "civic engagement and cooperative conservation." Presumably that definition is behind the Park Service's five-year agreement with the International Mountain Bicycling Association to bring mountain bikes into more and more national parks, even though park superintendents are fully capable under the current rules to decide this issue.
For park advocates who long have battled to preserve our national parks, truly preserve them, they must be wondering why there was no buying into "civic engagement" by the Bush administration's NPS when vast, overwhelming majorities of Americans wanted a ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone?
Recreational Haves and Have Nots
Perhaps there are "haves" and "have nots" when it comes to civic engagement. Evidence of that might be found in Phoenix this week as the American Recreation Coalition stages its 2006 "Partners Outdoors" conference. Invited to address this conference, where the overriding goal is to "harness the power of new recreation tools to connect 21st Century Americans to public lands and to enhance the way great experiences for visitors are delivered," are none other than Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett and Fran Mainella, the Park Service director, two proponents of further commercializing the parks and getting the government out of managing the parks.
While the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are also represented at the conference, missing are representatives from The Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, and the National Parks Conservation Association, groups that all have vested interests in recreation on public lands.
To further the contention that a strong wind of change is threatening to sweep down on our national park system, let me share some of one person's comments regarding the Park Service's proposed revisions to the Management Policies:
* There's a shift going on from park "lands" to "units," which is a blatant attempt to depersonalize something that most Americans take quite personally -- land. Depersonalization is only used when one is either ignorant in general or bent on harming what is depersonalized. It is not appropriate in describing something Americans cherish.
* There's a shift being made from park "visitors" to "users," which is (or should be) an erroneous characterization of people who come to the parks. Visitors have an obligation of courtesy and respect toward what they visit. Users do not.
* There's a shift going on from "enjoyment" of the parks to "use" of them. ... Our forefathers recognized what the draft MP does not: that these places have such significant intrinsic value for America that they should be maintained in their natural state. The intent of our forefathers who created the national park system was that these places should be preserved, cherished and enjoyed. And this is what has happened. As Americans, we cherish these lands, and give them the protection they need to be available for present and succeeding generations to enjoy. Why would the draft MP want to change this?
Change for Change Sake?
I'm worried that there's a belief within the Interior Department's halls that there's a need to change the management philosophies governing our national parks ... simply for the sake of change. The cynic would say the change is being invented to pander to special interests.
For generations the national park system for large part has served as a haven from the craziness of the world, from traffic jams and 5 p.m. deadlines, from despair and weariness. The parks have served as retreats, as founts of nature where one could seek a measure of rejuvenation without the cacophony of the man-made world. There's as great a need for such a retreat today as much as there was 50 years ago.
Why is there a perceived need that parks must be everything to everybody or that they should be financially self-sufficient? Why can't they simply be what they were intended to be by the Park Service's founders?
I have nothing against a good mountain bike ride, exploring winter from the back of a snowmobile (OK, I prefer to explore winter from skis or snowshoes), or "leveraging" recreation on public lands, as the ARC puts it.
But when the national parks protect just 84 million acres, compared to the 191 million protected by the U.S. Forest Service and the 262 million protected by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, I see no reason or need to diminish or override the Park Service's long-held preservation mandate and allow those 84 million acres to be "leveraged" or laid open to "improved technology."