U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee has closely followed the National Park Service efforts to rewrite its Management Policies, and throughout the process the Republican has questioned the need, and perhaps the wisdom, of the effort.
Back in November the senator, along with some of his colleagues, wrote Interior Secretary Gale Norton to express their concern that the rewrite was not clarifying the Management Policies, as the NPS leadership has maintained, but rather blurring the guidelines park managers rely on in making on-the-ground decisions.
Earlier this month, Senator Alexander continued to voice his opposition, writing in an op-ed piece that he believes the changes will weaken air quality and soundscapes and even preservation of the parks.
Well, Secretary Norton has responded, writing the senator a two-page letter in which she pretty much tells him the revisions pose no harm to the parks.
"I wanted ... to assure you that our disagreement with regard to the draft 2005 Management Policies was more a question of semantics than substance," she said.
"Both (NPS) Director Fran Mainella and Deputy Director Steve Martin, in public statements, including February 2006 testimony presented to the Congress, have stated, and I agree, that when there is a conflict between the protection of resources and use, conservation will be predominant," the secretary wrote in a letter Sen. Alexander received this past Tuesday.
"This recognizes that while we welcome public use and enjoyment in our parks, we will not allow uses that cause an unacceptable impact, are inconsistent with park purposes or values, unreasonably interfere with park programs or activities, disrupt the operation of park concessions or contractors, create an unsafe or unhealthful environment for visitors or employees, result in significant conflict with other appropriate uses, or diminish opportunities for current or future generations to enjoy park resources and values," added Secretary Norton.
Some might argue, though, that public statements don't strongly hew to the written word. Why else would there be such an uproar over the revisions? Why have groups such as the National Parks Conservation Association, The Wilderness Society, the Coalition for National Park Service Retirees and Public Employees for Environmental Ethics gone to such extents to highlight what they perceive to be weaknesses and loopholes in the revisions that will indeed lead to degradation of the national park system?
And let's not forget the letter a distinguished group of former NPS executive-level managers wrote Director Mainella back in December, asking that she abandon the rewrite because they could see no need for it.
In her letter to Senator Alexander, Secretary Norton points out that since the National Park Organic Act was passed by Congress in 1916, "our understanding of caring for parks has evolved. In the past, park managers erroneously allowed eradication of predators, feeding of wild animals, and building of visitor centers in sensitive areas that damaged resources."
"All of these today would be considered inconsistent with the Organic Act and conservation of the parks," she continued. "To make proper decisions we need policies that stress sustainable cooperative conservation that works for managing the birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King as well as managing the bison herd at Yellowstone, not a simple litmus test or bumper sticker phrase that lacks practical efficacy."
Now, while some might reply that "cooperative conservation" is a bumper sticker phrase, others get more to the heart of the matter with the proposed revisions. Senator Ken Salazaar of Colorado recently wrote Secretary Norton to express his concerns, and he came up with a pretty compelling list of weaknesses he perceives in the document.
According to the Democrat, the revisions, as they currently stand, would:
* End 100 Years of the Park Service's 'First Do No Harm' Principle: For nearly 100 years, whenever conflicts arise between use and protection of Park Service resources the overriding principle has been to 'first do no harm.' Under the National Parks Service's new proposal, this guiding principle is eliminated.
* Encompass Confusing Motorized Vehicle Use Rules: Currently, the Park Service provides park managers with specific guidelines regarding the use of motorized vehicles in our parks. Under the Park Service's new proposal, guidelines limiting the impact of motor vehicles on air quality, views, and soundscapes are eliminated.
* Would Undermine Parks' Scenic Beauty: Currently, protections exist regarding air and noise pollution in our parks. Under the Park Service's new proposal, these rules are weakened to allow greater levels of noise and air pollution by allowing some man-made forms of pollution to be considered a "natural characteristic."
* Contain a Wilderness Protections Shell Game: Currently, the Park Service manages more designated wilderness than any other federal or state agency and faces a significant backlog of reviewing potential wilderness areas. Under the Park Service's new proposal, individual park managers would be overwhelmed by this backlog, interim protections for lands that may soon be considered as wilderness are eliminated and, in the meantime, motorized vehicle use would be allowed on these lands, undermining their future eligibility for wilderness protections.
If, as Secretary Norton told Senator Alexander, she believes that "current and future enjoyment of the parks depends upon maintaining unimpaired park resources," then why is she so solidly behind a rewrite that so many believe would have such profound impacts on the parks?