During the past year there's been a practically non-stop cacophony over how the National Park Service's hierarchy is running the national park system. While the proposed rewrite of the agency's Management Policies has garnered most of the vitriol, protests have arisen over Director's Order 21 as well as the loyalty oaths being exacted from park managers.
Amid this din, one wonders if anyone is proposing any meaningful solutions, any new roads that can be followed to help the NPS not only get over its current public relations nightmare but actually move the national park system forward?
That's a question that should be asked not just of NPS's leadership team, but of members of Congress and advocacy groups such as the National Parks Conservation Association and the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.
It's a question that just might spur some interesting answers. Let me share what I've come to learn by asking that question.
There are some efforts aimed at solving some of the Park Service's woes. Not only is the agency taking a close look at its maintenance backlog with hopes of finding a way to pare it, but Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., has had his House parks subcommittee traveling the country to collect details on the park system's finances and needs.
Too, Rep. Souder, along with Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., have authored the National Park Centennial Act with hopes it can leverage the money needed to put the park system on firm footing.
How successful either of those efforts will be remains to be seen, and on top of that is the political rancor that is gnawing away at the Park Service.
The New York Times is a well-known advocate of the park system. Its opposition to the changes the Bush administration, via Interior Secretary Gale Norton and NPS Director Fran Mainella, are trying to push through is familiar with those who read the paper regularly.
Indeed, just last week, under an editorial titled Crossroads in the National Parks, the venerable newspaper assailed the Management Policies rewrites, in effect disrobing the king to show what really is behind the handiwork.
"The main problem with the proposed revisions is that, taken together, they shift the management focus from the Park Service's central, historic mission -- preserving natural resources for the enjoyment of future generations -- to commercial and recreational use of the park for today's generations," the paper opined. "As many members of the House and Senate have pointed out in letters to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, air quality and wilderness are especially at risk since the policy appears to invite greater use of snowmobiles and other off-road vehicles."
Last fall, Rick Smith, a Park Service retiree with a long and valued career in the agency, told the House Parks subcommittee during its stop in Flagstaff, Arizona, that perhaps the best solution to understanding what's gone wrong with the Park Service and how to correct it would be the creation of a blue-ribbon commission, one outside the government. It's an idea that I latched onto back then, and one that Smith and the Coalition of National Park Retirees continues to promote.
"We need to get some of the best thinkers in the country together to ponder the questions related to governance and financing of the system. Obviously, the model we are using now -- changes in political direction every four to eight years, annual appropriations, increasing reliance on external funding sources and volunteer labor -- isn't serving us well," Smith told me. "This blue-ribbon committee could examine a variety of governance models, including an independent agency.
"They could take a look at what it really costs to operate the system and make suggestions on how to finance these costs. They could look at how to eliminate the maintenance backlog -- what about National Park Servings Bonds?" he continued. "We financed a war that way; parks certainly should be an easier sell than a war. The idea here is to get recommendations to the president and the Congress that will be considered bipartisan or apolitical. No idea should be too radical to be considered."
Bill Wade, chairman of the coalition's executive council, says his organization has been mulling the Park Service's future and is working to put together a document that it thinks should spell out the agency's mission. Among the highlights are a system that:
*Preserves and enables visitors to enjoy the truly special places -- the vital and sacred common heritage -- of our nation, without confusion about its mission.
* Educates visitors through deep, profoundly moving personal experiences of these special places.
* Enables the United States to lead, encourage and assist all others in the world who pursue similar missions.
* Is free of burdens that impede accomplishment of its mission, and has leadership that is free of impeding constraints and conflicting goals.
* Is well-staffed, sophisticated, professional, value-driven, motivated, innovative, daring and excellent, within a context of long-term continuity.
"We believe that in order to achieve this, there needs to be a scholarly and scientific look at the National Park Service and what changes need to be made in terms of the optimum organizational model and institutional processes," Wade told me. "We're looking for ways to promote the idea and to do that foundational work needed to be in place before such a commission is convened."
Back in January I suggested that Congress perhaps should curb its appetite for new park properties until it adequately funds the ones we have. That suggestion wasn't welcomed by all, as some said we shouldn't let areas that deserve Park Service designation and protection fall by the wayside just because Congress doesn't adequately fund the agency. Perhaps not, but it just digs the agency's hole that much deeper.
Another idea is trimming off some units that don't really belong in the Park Service. That, too, is a controversial suggestion. While some see the Presido as nothing but a high-end commercial and real estate enclave, others see it as a valuable part of America's military history. Personally, I've always wondered why Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve is part of the system, but perhaps I haven't explored it enough.
Over at the NPCA, Senior Vice President Ron Tipton doesn't think we should even consider decommissioning any park properties. In fact, he thinks the agency could do a better job identifying new park properties, whether through creation of new units or expansion of existing boundaries.
"The boundary at Canyonlands is way too restrictive and I think that's been recognized by a lot of people," Tipton told me. "We ought to be looking at that. We ought to be looking at missing links, geographically, ecologically, historically."
The NPCA official agreed with one of my regular viewers that the Park Service perhaps could do a better job organizing its many properties. As it is, there are national parks, national monuments, national historic parks, national trails, national heritage areas, national seashores, national historical parks and on and on.
"I think that I have established that the NPS's methodology of establishing what constitutes a 'unit' is eminently confusing, which hampers any attempt at understanding the impact of Management Policies for units," John D. Giorgis told the Park Service in his comments on the proposed Management Policies revisions. "Moreover, since there seems to be little connection of what constitutes a unit to any on-the-ground reality, the NPS should strongly consider streamlining its designation of units, and clarify the distinction between what constitutes a unit and what constitutes the other types of parks..."
For his part, Tipton questions whether Cuyahoga Valley National Park really deserves the "national park" distinction, something it was upgraded to from being a national recreation area thanks to some congressional chicanery.
"It's a rare example of a national park that really doesn't belong in that category," he said. "Cuyahoga is sure different than Glacier in how it's used and how it's managed. I think we should be more rigorous in where parks fall in the spectrum."
While Tipton "would tend to agree" with Smith's and the coalition's call for a blue-ribbon commission, he would go a step further.
"I think some kind of national parks centennial commission should be established, and it probably makes more sense to be established outside of government," he said. "I wouldn't trust this administration with that kind of responsibility. ...I think this is a great time to step back and look at what we want the park system to be in its second century."
While NPCA hasn't officially taken a stand on that proposal, Tipton, perhaps thinking out loud, said that perhaps the Park Service could gain independence from the Interior Department.
"You want to look at models like the Smithsonian. The National Archives, interestingly, used to be part of the Department of Commerce, or maybe the GSA. Some years ago, I think it was ten years ago, Congress passed legislation that made the Archives an independent agency because they said the National Archives is there to manage, protect the most valuable documents this country has produced, and it ought to have a clear and independent mandate to do that," he said. "It shouldn't be done as part of a larger governmental agency that is not focused at all on this. You could make the same argument about the National Park Service."
After all, Tipton pointed out, the central mission of the Interior Department is resource management, not preservation, which is the Park Service's key mandate.
Also concerned about the future of the national parks is the Outdoor Industry Association, whose members make a living off of the outdoors. Myrna Johnson, the group's vice president for government affairs, told me that any discussion about the future of the national park system can't be conducted in isolation.
"America's public lands provide a wide variety of outdoor experiences and environments, and the national forests, national parks, BLM lands, and Fish and Wildlife Refuges are all a part of the mix," said Johnson. "What is the National Park Service's role in this mix? Is there another way to organize the various agencies and their roles to better manage for today's issues?"
In pursuing this issue, I questioned aloud whether I was being overly alarmist, whether my love for the national park system was coloring the way I perceived the current direction the Park Service's leadership was pursuing.
Tipton assured me I was not.
"My attitude is the national parks are one of the most valuable resources this country has ever created and you want to be very, very conscious of their status and well-being," he said. "It's so easy to inadvertently compromise away park values. ... We should be very concerned. We should be very concerned when we decide, arbitrarily, as this administration has, that it's time to rewrite the Management Policies.
"I don't think these things are being blown out of proportion. There's not a crisis, but there' s enough concerns that it's time to step back and assess as we approach the (Park Service's) centennial what's best for the parks.
That final comment from Tipton was echoed by Smith.
"The NPS is nearing the end of its first century of operations. It has been a grand experiment in setting aside land for its non-commercial values and expressing a bit of planetary modesty by restraining ourselves," he said. "We need to make sure that we are ready to move into the second century of NPS operations. Thinking critically about the future is healthy. I hope we have the will to do it."