As I noted last month, so far the National Park Centennial Initiative and its proposed $3 billion cash barrel has a catchy title but little apparent substance. No clear mission statement, no definitions of what constitutes a "signature project," no clearly drawn parameters of what private funding can be spent on.
Indeed, that was part of the message that National Parks Conservation Association leadership delivered at last week's retreat in West Virginia.
"The National Park Service must articulate a vision for 2016 in the Centennial Initiative report that defines its own priorities based upon the mandates of the (National Park Service) Organic Act and its mission," the group says in a white paper posted on its web site today.
"Specific performance goals and objectives must be established to assess whether the vision has been achieved. Only after the goals and objectives are defined should specific projects and programs be selected through an objective process and input from the American people and the Congress that applies rigorous criteria."
With its 24-page paper, the NPCA has provided the Park Service with a solid blueprint on which to build the centennial initiative, one that would greatly benefit the park system. The fact that the organization urges the administration to develop a centennial initiative that is more than just a collection of new buildings is just part of the beauty of this position statement.
To that point, NPCA believes the centennial initiative should not focus primarily on brick-and-mortar projects but rather spawn programs and projects that "are integrated into a holistic vision for the national park system and take the parks to a higher standard of excellence."
"We are concerned that a byproduct of soliciting park-by-park projects that spark philanthropic interest, if not carefully managed by the NPS, could be a list of interesting concepts and ideas that do not adequately prepare the parks for their next century."
As I pointed out last week, it does seem top Interior and Park Service officials have had somewhat of an "edifice complex," as they've scoured the park system for projects ready to go and with potential partners in the wings.
What the centennial provides, NPCA points out, is an opportunity for the Park Service to perform more than just triage on the park system.
Indeed, the group outlines a five-step approach to bolster the park system, one that touches on restoring the health of the system's cultural and natural resources; developing reliable revenue streams via both the public and private sectors; reinvigorating the parks' management; promoting science and research in the parks, and; ensuring that the system "continues to grow and evolve to represent and interpret nationally significant landscapes, ecosystems, and the full range and diversity of American history and culture, and reflects and engages all Americans."
Regarding the administration's desire to see one-third of the $3 billion called for to bankroll the centennial initiative raised privately, NPCA downplayed that requirement and instead called for adequate federal funding to enable the park system to flourish.
"Once goals and objectives (for the centennial) are established, it should be relatively straightforward to identify and implement innovative programs. It must be understood that a significant number of the programs, especially large-scale initiatives, will depend upon sufficient increases in the Park Service's annual appropriations," says the group. "Private sector support through the centennial challenge can provide important additional funds but should not be looked upon as chief source of funding for the programs necessary to achieve the vision."
Indeed, NPCA believes the Park Service should become "financially capable" by August 2016 when the centennial will be celebrated. That goal, it adds, requires that the agency be receiving "at least $800 million per year above fixed costs in additional operating funds over FY07."
Of course, also key to the centennial initiative is convincing Congress that it's a worthy program, one that does more than simply green-wash this administration.
"The goals, objectives, tactics and measures in the appendices to this report can help guide the effort," NPCA's white paper says. "Within larger funding increases and other policy initiatives that help realize most of what we envision can be accomplished by 2016, Congress should include the proposed 10-year commitment for a $100 million annual match of appropriated funds, and do so in a way that fully justifies the need for these funds to be new money and not offset against existing levels of appropriations."
At the same time, Interior and Park Service officials intent on persuading a skeptical Congress to get behind the centennial initiative must develop "an objective selection process that is guided by standards for judging and prioritizing projects..."
To that point, in Appendix 3 to its white paper NPCA suggests the following standards be used in determining signature projects for the centennial:
* No project should be undertaken that does not clearly adhere to NPS Management Policies.
* No park level project should be undertaken that is either not already incorporated into an approved general management plan, or will have been by the time that it is actually implemented.
* NPS should first develop a set of significant thematic or programmatic needs, into which individual park projects can be fitted, in order to assure that the Challenge meets service-wide needs of the highest priority first.
* Except for parks authorized in the past 10 years that lack standard facilities and services, construction of new infrastructure (facilities) inside park boundaries should be the LOWEST priority for Challenge projects.
* Proposed restrictions on use of Challenge funds outside of park boundaries should be lifted under certain circumstances, such as in support of invasive species eradication programs in cooperation with state agencies, or for projects that support protection of wildlife corridors or critical habitats of park endemic species outside of park boundaries.
* Projects that produce multi-park benefits, such as thematic education initiatives, or invasive species controls, should have a higher priority.
Appendix 1 breaks down NPCA's five steps to invigorating the park system, listing both objectives and targets to be achieved by August 2016, while Appendix 2 offers some examples NPCA suggests for centennial initiative projects.
Appendix 3, in addition to laying out standards that should help govern selection of centennial projects, also contains questions the administration must answer before the first project is approved.
This white paper is a strong document that can benefit the national park system ... if it's read and many of its suggestions adopted.