Looking Back on 2006 and the National Park System
The curtains are all but closed on 2006, and sifting back through the months shows it was quite a year for the national park system.
A change in power atop the Interior Department and National Park Service certainly generated noise, as did the release of the latest edition of the NPS's Management Policies. Talk of higher fees to get into the parks also drew attention, not to mention debate over how that might impact park visitation.
Then, too, there were the fall storms that raked Olympic, Mount Rainier, and Glacier national parks.
Flip the e-page and I'll list, in no specific order, some of the bigger stories that impacted the national park system in 2006.
1. Gale leaves the Interior Department.
The departure of Ms. Norton came none too soon. The former Interior secretary seemed only too happy to drastically revise the Park Service's Management Policies at a time when it seemed the only ones calling for such revisions were those in the motorized recreation sector and concessions industry. Her past ties to the extractive industries seemed to play a substantial role in her decision-making during her tenure in Washington. And while in her parting announcement she lamented the philosophical rift between Westerners and Easterners, her words seemed to reflect a narrowness in her approach to managing not only U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands but also the national park system.
2. Fran leaves the Park Service.
This departure did come too late. Fran quite simply proved to be one of the worst, if not the worst, director of the Park Service. She certainly seemed to kowtow to the American Recreation Coalition and its vision for operating the national parks; long was a staunch supporter of drastic revisions to her agency's Management Policies, changing direction only when she saw the revisions wouldn't be tolerated; accepted the president's poor budget proposals for her agency rather than advocating stronger support; spent outrageous amounts on travel, and; often relied on her deputy directors to deal with congressional committees and employees.
3. Management Policy Revisions
This story, which erupted during the summer of 2005, roiled for months before cooler NPS heads prevailed under lobbying from the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, National Parks Conservation Association, The Wilderness Society, members of Congress, and countless others. In the end, after more than 45,000 public comments were received on the revisions, the NPS adopted a version that, by and large, keeps the agency following the founding mandates of the National Park Service Organic Act.
4. The America the Beautiful Pass.
Though this pass doesn't become a reality until Jan. 1, 2007, its arrival was announced late in 2006. Peel away all the rhetoric and this pass simply represents a $30 increase in the cost of the now-obsolete National Parks Pass. Does it still represent a bargain for visiting national parks? You bet, if you visit a lot. But on its heels many parks are announcing higher daily and weekly entrance fees. Are these new fees too high? Probably not on their face, but fee creep is very much alive and well in the national park system and that's not a good thing.
5. Fall storms.
Powerful storms raked Olympic, Mount Rainier, and Glacier national parks in early November, washing out roads, campgrounds and trails and running up tens of millions of dollars in unexpected bills for the cash-strapped Park Service. By year's end the parks were still recovering, and access to Mount Rainier specifically was very limited on the park's west side.
6. Mary Bomar.
Late in September Mary became not just the second woman to ever head the Park Service, but also the first naturalized U.S. citizen to get the job. But what's she been up to since then? That's a very good question, for she has kept a decidedly low profile this past three months. We do know that she supports snowmobiles in Yellowstone, but little else, which is disappointing for an official who promised transparency.
7. Yellowstone snowmobiles.
Yellowstone officials seemed to thumb their noses at science when they announced early in December that they thought it would be a good thing to have as many as 720 snowmobiles a day running through the park. "A pox on those studies that show snowmobiles generate noise and air pollution and impact wildlife, visitors and park employees!" The joke around the journalism world is to "never let the facts get in the way of a good story." In Yellowstone, it seems to be "never let science get in the way of snowmobiling." Though this is not yet a done deal, it will be interesting to see if the new, Democratically controlled Congress, can get saner heads to prevail in this long-running debate.
8. Leasing the Parks.
In the Gateway National Recreation Area, officials are evidently so strapped for money that they believe the best way to preserve parts of historic Fort Hancock is to lease out three dozen buildings for commercial purposes because they can't afford to maintain them. Precedent setting? Perhaps not when you consider the business plan for running the Presidio. Ominous? Definitely. If this proposal flies, how long before funding-impaired parks around the country turn historic buildings over to concessionaires to operate as B&Bs, restaurants, and the like?
9. The November elections.
The electorate's decision to remove U.S. Reps. Richard Pombo and Charles Taylor along with U.s. Sen. Conrad Burns was a good thing for the national park system. But it will mean little if those heading back to Congress don't pay more attention, and provide more support, for the parks.
10. Red Ink.
When President Bush campaigned for president seven years ago he pledged to wipe out the Park Service's humongous maintenance backlog. Sadly, he hasn't come close. Not only hasn't he come close, but the Park Service's annual funding shortfall has surpassed $800 million, according to the NPCA.
We can only hope 2007 will be kinder on the national park system.