Centennial Listening: First Impressions

I attended yesterday's National Park Service first "listening session" on the needs and goals for the 2016 NPS centennial. The meeting was held at the Mills Auditorium near the Gatlinburg Convention Center in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a major gateway community to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Despite the very short public notice for this meeting given in the media, there were about 300 persons in attendance, 40 of whom were out-of-uniform superintendents from other parks who were attending a special conference for park superintendents. These high-level NPS employees mostly stood in the back of the room that appeared to be filled to capacity.
Most of the NPS uniformed staff in attendance were from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, with the exception of Southeast Regional Director Patricia Hooks, who was in attendance and in uniform.
Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne and NPS Director Mary Bomar, along with Great Smoky Superintendent Dale Ditmanson, facilitator Steve Whiteshell, superintendent of San Antonio Mission on detail for this project, and a court reporter were at the front of the room.
Contrary to what I had been informed of prior to the meeting, the NPS "listening session" format was not one of multiple workstation break-out sessions, but one that more resembled a town-hall meeting in which each pre-registered attendee desiring to make a statement was given two minutes to speak. Steve Whiteshell, enforced the time limits.
It was readily apparent that Director Bomar and Secretary Kempthorne made a dedicated effort to listen to each and every commentator. They often responded directly to the comments made. I was impressed with their demeanor and their exceptional demonstration of listening skills.

I was also impressed with the general underlying theme of most commentators, which was "Keep parks unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations," "Keep privatization and commercialization out of our parks, there's enough of that in Gatlinburg!," "Parks are primarily there for inspiration, contemplation, education and recreation and belong to all of the public," "The NPS needs to minimize conflicts between the primary objectives of preservation and protection of cultural and natural resources while providing access to park visitors."
I believe that three speakers were National Parks Conservation Association staffers from the Southeast Region of NPCA. These included Don Barger, NPCA regional representative, Emily Jones, and Gregg Kidd.
Both Mary and Secretary Kempthorne mentioned that the NPS and NPCA had a tradition and legacy of a close working relationship. Secretary Kempthorne said that NPCA promised him that they would stand up and applaud if the Bush administration could raise an additional $250 million for our parks. He countered that the Bush administration was developing an inititiative for FY'08 that would increase the Park Service budget by $258 million.
At this meeting, the educational value of national parks and the educational role of the national park ranger was given a high priority by many speakers, and this value was acknowledged by those in sitting in front of the room who were charged with doing the "listening."
The principal of the Gatlinburg elementary school was in attendance. He and a group of his students had been on a hike earlier in the day with Secretary Kempthorne. They were in attendance to support the educational values of the park and the importance of the park for their school curriculum.
Because this meeting was organized for about 40 registered participants to give two minutes of oral comment, there was not an opportunity to discuss details of the president's 2008 budget initiative, nor to debate or elaborate on specific issues.
The overall atmosphere of this meeting was definitely upbeat and an improvement over what I witnessed over one year ago in Sevierville, Tennessee, when I attended an ill-fated and poorly organized NPS "listening session" that was intended to introduce the public to the details of the proposed draft re-write of the NPS Management Policy Guidelines.
Surprisingly, at last night's meeting I did not hear much from pro-development interests, although there were many in attendance. A few mentioned the historic value of the controversial North Shore Road on the North Carolina side of the park and were long-time supporters for its completion.
Lynn Faust of Knoxville, Tennessee, made an impassioned plea for the preservation of the historic developments and lodge inside the park at Elkmont, including the need to restore the now demolished Wonderland Hotel.
One mountain biker made a plea for more mountain bike access inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He received a direct acknowledgment from Secretary Kempthorne that President Bush himself is a mountain biker and would be sympathetic to his request. The mountain biker claimed to be a conservationist and preservationist, and often performs volunteer trail maintenance when riding on trails.
Two of us in attendance are active members of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, Warren Bielenberg, and myself. Warren stated that without more permanent NPS positions, increasing the park staffing through additional volunteers and more seasonals amounts to even more work for existing staff who must recruit, train, and supervise part-time employees. Warren said that this would be most definitely the case with a proposed increase of 300 seasonals.
Secretary Kempthorne said that the proposed increase was not 300 additional seasonals but 3000. The secretary promised that increases would also occur among NPS permanent positions as well.
I found myself totally unprepared to deliver my thoughts within a two-minute time period. I had no idea that this was going to be the operational format of this meeting. So, when called to the mic, I had to think very fast and prioritize my comments. I basically made a plea for the U.S. government to support basic park operations directly and that parks should not have to rely on private funding to operate.
I voiced my concern that when visiting parks in recent times, it is very rare to find someone wearing the green and grey. We see mostly volunteers and natural history association employees in our park visitor centers. As a park visitor, we seldom see anyone in the park wearing the uniform of a real ranger, unless it happens to be a law enforcement ranger in a patrol car.
I made a plea for the protection of "the other half of the park," by promoting the aesthetic awareness and cultural values of the dark and starry night, and I made a plea for consideration of an NPS Ranger Reserve composed of past NPS employees who could potentially serve the NPS in times of special need.
As I talked, I observed Mary taking notes. As I finished, I was amazed at how stressful and difficult it was to make an articulate presentation in just a two-minute period of time.
Park staff, Director Bomar, and Secretary Kempthorne remained in the room for almost an hour after the conclusion of the listening session. In all, 40 individuals had spoken, and no additional persons came forward at the conclusion of nearly two hours of public commentary.
The overall impression was positive, but I felt somewhat concerned that there was no real opportunity to get into details. Certainly, Director Bomar and Secretary Kempthorne and all others in attendance at this meeting got the message loud and clear: That there are many Americans who value our parks highly and want these special places kept unimpaired for future generations to come.
It was only today that I read the official NPS brochure distributed from last night on the National Park Centennial Initiative having to do with "Signature projects and programs." In this brochure it is firmly stated that such projects will:
(i) rely on leveraging of philanthropic, partnership, and government investments for the benefit of the parks and the park visitor;
(ii) provide for a margin of excellence;
(iii) capture the imagination of the public;
(iv) secure at least a 1:1 philanthropic match;
(v) use current staffing, unless additional staff is provided through endowed positions or partners;
(vi) be sustainable in design, material, and location Among the items stated above.
I am most concerned about item (v) above. This written statement appears to be in conflict with the answers given to Warren Bielenberg by Secretary Kempthorne. It also reminds me of the situation currently faced by major urban symphony orchestra's whose principal chairs are filled through private endowments.

Owen Hoffman, Ph.D., is president and director of the Center for Risk Analysis SENES Oak Ridge, Inc., in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a director of the Crater Lake Institute, and a member of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.

Comments

Owen! Glad to see you and your wise voice was there. Even if only for 2 minutes. Keep up the good work. I'm relieved to see that someone has taken up the cause for Elkmont. I remember visiting there when I was a kid. I discovered the sad state of Elkmont and the Wonderland Hotel while I was researching my book. The situation disappointed me, to say the least. I must say that if a private endowment/investment would save some structures at Elkmont/Wonderland, it may be one of those times when the ends justify the means. andy
Owen, thanks much for the detailed comments. I hope they allow more 2 minute statements at the remaining listening sessions. I can understand the need to prevent grandstanding on pet issues, but getting the chance to hear how others envision the Centennial Initiative is important. I am glad to read that both Bomar and Kempthorne were actively listening to their constituency.
Thank you, Owen, for this very interesting and detailed account of the Smokies "listening session." And thank you for standing up for government support of park operations and for raising a voice of caution against over-reliance upon private funding. This is crucial for Kempthorne, Bomar, Bush, and Congress to hear.