Is our system for managing public lands broken? Has it become so cumbersome and susceptible to pushing and pulling by special interests that it is incapable of properly protecting the environment and all its resources? Can the National Park Service no longer properly manage the national park system as directed by the National Park Service Organic Act?
The National Center for Policy Analysis would have you think so. It's just released a paper arguing that it's time a new management blueprint be cobbled together using a mix of non-profit organizations as well as private ownership of some of the public lands and ocean acreage managed by the Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the National Marine Fisheries Service.
"...government has poorly managed the public's natural resources," writes Sterling Burnett, a senior fellow for NCPA. "It has been unable to balance public land uses, such as logging and recreation, with preservation of lands in their original state. Because of shifting priorities, national parks and forests have at times been either overused or neglected. As a result, public lands have been degraded and the wildlife that depends on them destroyed."
Tough statements, but are they deserving? Perhaps in some instances.
Is there truly a need to replace the current land-management agencies, at least the Park Service and the Forest Service in this instance? Are they doing such a poor job that the country's public domain would be better off in private hands or non-profits such as The Nature Conservancy or the The National Audubon Society? Should the National Parks Conservation Association add actually managing parks to its current job of advocating for them?
"...Some federal lands could be sold or auctioned off to private parties (individuals, companies or non-profit organizations). Or management could be transferred to congressionally approved boards or to states or counties that have demonstrated superior economic and environmental performance," writes Burnett.
Now, the organization that Burnett writes for has a self-stated goal "to develop and promote private alternatives to government regulation and control, solving problems by relying on the strength of the competitive, entrepreneurial private sector."
Simply put, it favors private enterprise, believing the entrepreneurial spirit is better at managing things than government bureaucrats.
In the case at hand, Burnett isn't suggesting that there be a land sale of national parks. He realizes that iconic parks such as Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon the public simply would never agree to sell off.
But he does believe there are quite a few units of the park system that "don't deserve to be parks in the first place" and could be better managed in the private sector, places like Abraham Lincoln's birthplace, which is managed by the NPS as a national historic site, or any of the 10 railroad-related historic sites also in the system.
"George Washington's home is not a national park, it's run by a private organization," Burnett told me from his Dallas, Texas, office. "Thomas Jefferson's home, the same. Andrew Jackson's home, the same. ... (The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum at) Cooperstown is privately run, it's not run by the federal government."
To a degree, Burnett has a point. Congressmen and women like to have NPS units -- it doesn't matter if they're actual parks or historic sites or battlefields or monuments or preserves or memorials -- back home in their districts. They just have a hard time funding them.
But selling park units to the highest bidder? True, it could raise some money for the NPS and, really, the agency already is doing that to a certain degree, taking $95 million in return for a 60-year lease to Fort Baker in Golden Gate National Recreation Area and planning to take more money in return for a long-term lease to 36 historic buildings at Fort Hancock in Gateway National Recreation Area on the East Coast.
Why not sell off some properties?
"We think the report’s recommendations are not at all what the majority of the American people would like to have happen to their public lands, especially the national parks," says Bill Wade of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.
And over at the National Parks Conservation Association, Andrea Keller, the group's senior director of media relations, tells me that "Congress and the American people have firmly repudiated the idea of selling off or privatizing public lands and the national parks."
"Moreover," she adds, "while private philanthropy has and continues to play a key role in creating and maintaining national parks, these are national, cultural, and historic resources held in public trust. NPCA will continue leading the charge to have the federal government provide sufficient funding to sustain these American treasures."
Private philanthropy has indeed a long, and vital, history with supporting the national park system. And part of what Burnett is proposing doesn't seem too far removed from that history, or the Park Service's latest decisions involving Fort Baker and Fort Hancock.
Specifically, in some instances he envisions congressionally chartered non-profit organizations whose members would not only be approved by Congress but also given "a narrowly defined fiduciary duty to protect and enhance the natural values of the land under their charge."
"If you want to protect the environmental values (of a park), that's fine, just establish that that's going to be the primary purpose," he explained. "To take an absurd example, if Yellowstone was sold and if they set up a geothermal plant to drain Old Faithful, I think it’d be hard for anyone to argue that they’re protecting the environmental values.
"If you put a McDonalds in next to the great falls of the Yellowstone (River), it wouldn't pass the laugh test in court that that protects the environmental values."
I don't know about you, but I'd much rather have seen such nonprofit groups set up to manage Fort Baker and Fort Hancock rather than turning them over to private developers for commercial ventures.
While Burnett said there was no ulterior motive in the timing of his paper's release, Scott Silver over at Wild Wilderness isn't so sure.
"The timing," Scott tells me, "is probably a combination of:
"1) the timing is quite simply right;
"2) the (NPS) centennial can easily be turned into their privatization vehicle;
"3) the public has been suitably conditioned;
"4) the public has been made to feel suitably hopeless;
"5) the war in Iraq provides both a distraction and a mechanism for sucking up every available tax dollar, and thus precluding all solutions other than privatization.
"So, while I saw nothing new in that NCPA news release, I don't look upon it as being merely an idle repetition of the same old, same old," Scott adds. "Clearly these privatization matadors see an opportunity. The bull's neck muscles have been sufficiently cut and the beast made sufficiently tired that it's head is hanging low. It's time for the kill."
If nothing else, the NCPA paper and Mary's recently announced intention to seek more private funding for the park system seems to be generating some concern across the country, at least in a few newspapers.
At the Tribune-Chronicle in Warren, Ohio, the editorial board came out in support of additional private funding for the parks, "providing the possibility (that) it is not used as an excuse for Congress to underfund the parks. And, we would add, providing that the mission of the National Park Service remains conserving our country's natural and historic heritage - not salesmanship. We find distasteful the vision of a park ranger gesturing to a stand of redwoods, for example, and proclaiming, ''Got a great set of trees, here, only walked through on Sundays. What am I bid?'''
And at the Palladium-Item in Richmond, Indiana, the board not only endorses private funding, but believes Burnett's suggestion to sell off "some of the least-visited parks seems sensible enough, especially where revenues can be used to strengthen remaining parks."
But, and this is a big but, the newspaper also believes it's time for the owners of the national park system -- Americans -- to step up.
"As the National Park Service approaches its 'centennial challenge,' its 100th anniversary in the year 2016, it is the parks' owners and caretakers, the American people, who will decide how much responsibility they will take and the cost they will bear for these national treasures," writes the paper's editorial board. "For the parks' sake, and the public's sake, we hope the connection between them can be preserved and strengthened."
Is Burnett's proposal likely to fly? It's highly doubtful. But at the very least, I hope it spurs more and more people across the country to start thinking about what's becoming of this country's heritage.