Fran Mainella, once criticized for her agency's large travel bill, is taking another trip, but not with the National Park Service. Nope, this time she's going alone, heading out the door for retirement.
In her resignation letter today to President Bush, Fran said the time had come to spend more time with her family, including her parents and in-laws who have had health problems.
No specific date has been attached to her leaving. Rather, Fran will depart at a "mutually agreeable date that is beneficial to the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior."
Depending on her successor, a quick departure could be most beneficial to the agency if you ask me.
What the Park Service needs more than ever is a strong leader, an advocate for the parks, and I think Fran has fallen short in both categories.
I mean, this is a director who last fall staunchly supported a rewrite of the agency's Management Policies that could have opened the park system's doors to more motorized recreation. It was a rewrite that weakened park standards for clean air, soundscapes, and night skies. It was a rewrite that pretty much gutted the "Foundation" chapter of the policies, the one that kept it in line with the agency's Organic Act.
Deleted from that section under the intial rewrite was wording that specified that "Congress, recognizing that the enjoyment by future generations of the national parks can be ensured only if the superb quality of park resources and values is left unimpaired, has provided that when there is a conflict between conserving resources and values and providing for enjoyment of them, conservation is to be predominant.
"This is how courts have consistently interpreted the Organic Act..."
Now, if Fran thought this draft was so swell and would do no harm to the parks, why did she support the deletion of that section? And why did she maintain that "100 career professionals" had a hand in crafting this version, and then admit that she didn't have a clue who they were?
Under her oversight the agency signed onto a five-year "pilot study" that could lead to mountain-bike trails being cut across national parks. She also proposed revisions to guidelines for commercial advertising in the parks, one that some feared would lead to advertising by alcohol, tobacco and firearms companies.
Yeah, Fran is leaving quite a legacy behind. Rather than tell congressional committees that her agency could use more funding, she said President Bush's $2.156 billion FY2007 budget request for her agency "supports the goals of protecting park resources, continuing improvements in asset management, and achieving efficiencies in the management of park programs within the administration's goal of cutting the federal budget deficit in half by 2009."
How could she possibly believe that a budget that saw a $100 million cut from current funding levels could support those goals, when current funding isn't even coming close?
In fact, at the same time that Fran was telling a House subcommittee examining NPS funding that, "There always will be challenges," she was well-aware of a Government Accountability Office report that cited case after case after case where a lack of funding had impeded national parks from carrying out their duties in terms of preserving the resource, facilities maintenance, and providing for the education and enjoyment of the general public.
Away from policy, Fran's travel drew the ire of Congress, as she was asked to appear before committees in March 2004 to explain how and why her agency had spent $94 million on travel the two previous years. I'm not sure that appearance convinced her to change her ways, as Fran last summer advertised a $62,000 position for an assistant to coordinate her travel.
In accepting Fran's resignation, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne remarked that, "perhaps your most important contribution, one that will endure long past your tenure as director, is your effort to foster a culture of partnership within the National Park Service."
Well, I obviously don't know how hard Fran worked to develop partnerships with gateway communities and advocacy groups. But, outwardly, she seemed to do little to foster partnerships and camaraderie within the agency.
When it came time to explaining the Management Policy revisions to the agency's rank-and-file, Fran was absent, leaving the task to her deputy directors. And often it was Deputy Director Steve Martin, not Fran, who shouldered congressional heat over the agency's direction.
Now, what remains to be seen is who replaces Fran? Will it be a strong parks advocate, or simply a mouthpiece? Will it be someone who works hard to see the agency's budget increased, or someone who will be willing to financially starve the agency and turn segments of the park system over to commercial interests, such as has been happening with campgrounds and even interpretation?
Whom Dirk selects to succeed Fran will be very telling as to the course the Bush administration plans to take with the parks in its final two years in office.