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Listening Sessions: Will the NPS Be Listening?
In the not-too-distant future we're going to learn the dates and cities that the National Park Service has committed to in order to collect the public's input for how the agency's centennial in 2016 should be celebrated.
What will be more interesting to learn is whether the agency has learned from past experiences how better to handle public input.
The current administration has a poor track record for paying attention to the public when it comes to the national parks. Most notoriously, the administration has turned its back on public opinion, and science, when it comes to snowmobile use in Yellowstone National Park. More recently, the agency stumbled more than once during the public comment period on the revisions to its 2006 Management Policies.
Of course, that happened under the previous Interior secretary and the previous Park Service director. The incumbents, Dirk and Mary, so far seem to have shown a keen attentiveness to detail and much more desire than their predecessors to see both the agency and the national park system flourish.
Just the same, the agency's track record under the current administration when it comes to public opinion has been shoddy. And so, will it be any wonder if the pronouncements by Dirk and Mary last week that the upcoming listening sessions will be taken to heart are greeted with more than a little cynicism?
It was last August, during commemoration of the Park Service's 90th anniversary, when President Bush issued a call for "suggestions from those who desire to preserve the scenic, cultural, historical, geological, and recreational values of our national parks."
At the time I'm sure the irony was lost that the president's request was made public by Dirk during a trip to Yellowstone. What irony? The irony that during the last six years, since President Bush first overturned the Clinton administration's ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone, an estimated 500,000 Americans have taken time to comment on the question of snowmobiles in the park and by a ratio of 4-to-1 or better they've said ban the 'biles to best preserve the park's resources.
Yet time and again the administration has gone deaf to public opinion.
Back in 2002, when the Park Service was working on the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, more than 360,000 public comments were received, a record for any Park Service issue. Of that total, officials said, 80 percent opposed snowmobiles in the park.
And yet the administration ignored that tidal wave of opposition and even turned its back on four previous Park Service directors, one former assistant Interior secretary, one former NPS deputy director, and two former Yellowstone superintendents who strongly urged former Interior Secretary Gale Norton to abandon the push to put snowmobiles permanently in Yellowstone and Grand Teton.
Truth be told, this issue is no longer about science, nor economics as I'll explain in the coming week, nor what the public wants. It has taken on a hideous life under an administration somehow beholden to a relatively small cabal.
Indeed, back in the fall of 2002 Steve Iobst, then the assistant superintendent of Grand Teton who at the time was working full-time on the winter-use plan that would determine snowmobile access, told me the process had been hijacked by politicians and lawyers.
"It's no longer science and the professional park manager prevailing," he said. "It's managing through litigation. And how do you manage a major use and resource through litigation? You never really do, you go from one status quo to another."
More recently, in 2005 when scoping was being performed on yet another snowmobile EIS, 90 percent of the more than 33,000 comments received opposed snowmobiles in the park.
Interestingly, I'm told, the number of personally written, non-form comments from Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, ran 7-to-1 against snowmobiles. And yet this administration, which in August 2005 at an "invitation only" conference on "Cooperative Conservation" in St. Louis made clear it would listen more closely to those folks living on the landscape, those closer to the resources in question, is still spending millions of dollars studying snowmobiles in Yellowstone.
Does anyone know why anymore?
Yellowstone officials in the past have pooh-poohed the public opposition, saying the public comment process wasn't the equivalent of an election. OK. Then why not rely on what scientific study after scientific study have determined? The public sentiment exists, and the underlying science and the NEPA process and the Management Policies (as the EPA succinctly tried to point out), more than validate and justify a ban against snowmobiles in the two parks.
Yet no one seems to be listening. Why is that?
Not to be overlooked is how the Park Service last handled "listening sessions." Those were staged just about a year ago when the agency was working on revising its Management Policies.
At one session, outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park, not only didn't the park superintendent attend but the two junior staffers who did apparently weren't well-versed in the proposed revisions and ran shy of answers. At other sessions, I understand, there were no microphones for the public to use and no tape-recorders to get their comments.
This is some of the background against which the upcoming listening sessions will be measured.
Around the county there seems to be growing interest in the National Park Centennial Campaign, even if Congress hasn't yet fully embraced the president's funding vision. And what communities around the country, and specifically those closest to units of the national park system, will be curious to learn is how the celebration will be marked in their backyards.
Indeed, during last week's conference call with reporters Dirk was asked how will the "signature projects" -- the architectural wonders and behind-the-scenes programs intended to enhance the park system in honor of its birthday -- of the centennial initiative be selected? Will communities have input into those decisions? Will funds raised locally be spent locally?
"During the period of time between now and May 31st you will see that we're going to hold a variety of listening sessions around the United States so that we can ask those types of questions to the American public," the Interior secretary replied. "We'll get that input, we'll go back to the drawing board, but this is going to have tremendous input. These are America's parks so we want Americans to help us with these details."
"We're going to engage the American public in the listening sessions and hear their ideas," added Mary.
Hopefully those ideas will be acted upon, because in the wake of the Yellowstone snowmobile issue and the poorly handled Management Policies debate there's a need for consistent, sincere follow-through.
So what might we expect from the upcoming roadshow? Well, for starters it's one that appears to be focused on major metropolitan areas somewhat removed from the parks.
Though details are still coming together, a series of 20 meetings has been proposed to be held by the end of March. Those meetings, no doubt due to logistics, are tentatively planned to be held in: Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Atlanta, Asheville, North Carolina, or Knoxville, Tennessee, Miami, Washington, D.C., Cleveland, St. Louis, Minneapolis, San Antonio, Albuquerque, Denver, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Honolulu, Phoenix, Puerto Rico, and Anchorage.
No Jackson, Wyoming, the gateway to Grand Teton and Yellowstone; no Kalispell, the front door to Glacier; no Moab, the gateway to Arches and Canyonlands; no Fresno, on the way to Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon, and; no Bar Harbor, Maine, outside Acadia.
Now, to its credit, the Park Service is thinking of arranging some separate focus group sessions in various parts of the country "to understand the motivation and ideas of potential future visitors, volunteers and philanthropists."
While this sounds encouraging, in the wake of the Yellowstone snowmobile debacle and the Management Policies fiasco, how high is the public's confidence that its voice will be heard?