I've known for a few weeks that today marks the 90th birthday of the National Park Service, and that Dirk would be in Yellowstone along with Fran to honor the celebration. But in light of what I've long termed the "plight of the parks," I really wonder how happy this birthday is?
It's been just about a year since I launched this blog, intent on raising awareness and dialog over how our national park system is being managed. In that year we've seen a futile (fortunately) effort to drastically overhaul the Park Service's Management Policies, which guide on-the-ground decisions by superintendents; declining park budgets that have resulted in shrinking ranks of rangers; continued deterioration of the system's infrastructure, and; determined efforts by those in the motorized recreation industry to erase the truly unique nature of these landscapes.
In dispatching Dirk to Yellowstone, President Bush directed him to announce a "National Park Centennial Challenge" aimed at moving the park system forward as it nears its centennial in 2016. Unfortunately, Dirk's message is largely empty rhetoric that sounds good as the words are spoken, but which contains no real help for the park system.
"National parks preserve majestic natural wonders. They keep watch over battlefields hallowed by red badges of courage," said the Interior secretary. "They keep culture alive at sites dedicated to the performing arts, poetry and music. Parks offer recreation and discovery through spectacular backcountry hiking and climbing. They honor great leaders like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglas, Chief Joseph, John Muir, Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr.
"As havens of enjoyment, recreation, learning and personal renewal, national parks must endure."
Not to be outdone even though he couldn't be present, President Bush had Dirk share this message with those who attended the festivities in Yellowstone:
"Americans take great pride in our country’s natural and historic treasures, and the National Park Service plays an important role in ensuring our rich heritage is preserved and enjoyed for generations to come,” said the president. “I call on all Americans to help in these efforts and to enhance our parks as we get ready for the National Park Service’s centennial celebration.”
Along those lines, President Bush suggested the Park Service hang out a suggestion box to collect ideas "from those who desire to preserve the scenic, cultural, historical, geological and recreational values of our national parks."
Gee, now there's a great idea!
Though I'm doubtful that they'll be acted upon, here are a few suggestions:
* Fully fund the Park Service, which has an annual maintenance backlog of some $600 million and an overall maintenance backlog somewhere beyond $5 billion.
* Instead of sapping Park Service funding, let's see some meaningful budget increases so visitors can actually talk to a ranger and not have to run up their cell phone charges while trying to glean some meaningful interpretation from a canned recording.
* Oh yeah, how about pushing for strong air-quality regulations so the pollution that is stealing the parks' views, killing their vegetation, and harming park visitors is brought under control.
Of course, instead of addressing any of those issues, the president and Dirk merely asked Fran to recommend some individuals who could lead this "Centennial Challenge" effort. Just what we need, another committee to study the problem.
Over at the National Parks Conservation Association, President Tom Kiernan says his organization stands ready to help, but also notes that the country needs to invest more than rhetoric into stabilizing the park system.
"A significant investment in our national parks during the next 10 years, leading to the parks' centennial in 2016, would help the National Park Service address some of the parks' most pressing needs. New money could ensure that these natural and cultural treasures are protected and that national park rangers are no longer an endangered species," says Mr. Kiernan.
"Our national parks today are facing crippling funding needs in excess of $600 million annually -- a shortfall that we know is getting larger every day. We need seasonal rangers to tell America's stories, and year-round park staff to ensure visitor safety and the preservation of our natural and cultural heritage," he adds. "We need funding to maintain trails and visitor facilities, restore historic sites and natural landscapes, and protect cultural artifacts and wildlife. It is time for a significant investment in our national parks as we embark on this 10-year challenge leading up to their 100th anniversary."
Don't get me wrong. There is progress being made in some parks. Sequoia's roads are being refurbished, there's work in Glacier to essentially rebuild the Going-to-the-Sun Road, and Yellowstone has a brand-spanking new visitor center at Canyon (thanks largely to private donations).
But let's not be deluded, folks. Much, much more work remains to be addressed. Many parks face maintenance backlogs in the tens of millions of dollars. More and more parks are turning to volunteers to handle interpretive positions. Key staff positions are going unfilled. The list goes on and on. Simply rolling out a new campaign while ignoring the obvious is not the solution.
Here's hoping that the 100th birthday is happier than the 90th....