By Rick Smith
The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees had its beginning in 2003 when three former NPS employees appeared at a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. The purpose of the press conference was to draw public attention to several programs at the Department of the Interior that we felt were inconsistent with sound park management.
Following the press conference, we decided to send a letter to the President Bush, repeating our concerns about the department’s failure to properly care for the areas of the system. As other former employees heard about the letter, they asked if they could add their names.
After press reports of our letter, we were surprised to be contacted by additional retirees who asked if they could join our efforts to defend the parks of the system and the programs of the NPS. Apparently, many former employees were very worried about what was happening to the parks in which they had worked and to the agency which they had served.
They didn’t like the fact that the whine of snowmobiles shattered the natural quiet of Yellowstone, disturbed park wildlife, polluted the air, and posed a threat to employee and visitor health and safety.
They didn’t see how programs like outsourcing maintenance, resources management or science positions contributed to the effective management of parks.
They felt that park visitors were not being adequately served as parks were forced to reduce visitor center hours, curtail or eliminate interpretive programs, cut back on resource protection patrols, postpone cyclic maintenance programs, and leave key positions vacant to save money.
What troubled many the most was the attitude of the political leadership of the Interior Department and the Park Service who were fond of saying that there was more money per park, per visitor and per employee than ever, especially during the 2004 election campaign. No one in the Service believed that was true except in the most literal sense.
Oh, there was more money per employee. But that was because there were fewer employees. And there was more money per visitor because there were fewer visitors. And there was more money per acre because nothing had been added to the park system in the first four years of the Bush administration.
And the former employees were seriously disturbed by efforts to muzzle, or even to take punitive action against career employees who attempted to “tell it like it was.”
Membership in the Coalition continued to climb, rising by some 20 percent almost every year. We started to notice a new phenomenon: people began to join on the day they retired. There were even a few who joined before they retired. As of today, there are almost 600 people who have lent their name to the Coalition.
The obvious question is, what fuels this growth? We have never actively recruited new members. Remember, this is the first time in the 90-year history of the National Park Service that its retirees have ever felt the need to join together for any reason other than the social and education goals of the Employee and Alumni Association.
There are a couple obvious reasons. One has to do with the sorry record of the Bush administration regarding parks. Until his administration’s recent show of interest in the Centennial and his FY08 budget proposals—which aren’t quite as good as they appear to be -- there has been little to cheer about in the last six years. Another is attention that the national media has paid to the Coalition.
There is barely a week that goes by that one of us on the Executive Council is not contacted by someone from the media asking for our take on a park issue. They want our opinion for two reasons. First of all, the Coalition represents something like 17,000 years of park management experience. The media knows that we are the “voices of experience.” They know we’re different than most folks in the higher profile conservation organizations who have never managed a square meter of public land. We have. We know what we are talking about. The second reason is that we get out information from current employees.
We have a network of employees who keep us informed on critical park and program issues. They talk to us because of the climate of fear and intimidation that existed until recently. The media knows this and appreciates how current our inside information is. Another factor that has led to strong growth is that several major publications have published extensive articles on the Coalition and its work.
Articles in National Geographic, Vanity Fair, Men’s Journal, and High Country News have either featured the Coalition or contained extensive quotes from its members. Coalition spokespeople are routinely cited in major newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and in numerous local newspapers and we have been interviewed extensively on national and local public radio.
Perhaps, however, the most important motivation for former employees to join the Coalition has to do with their attitude. It is clear to me that most former employees consider their service to the NPS to have been an avocation, not a vocation. They care deeply about the traditions of the NPS and believe strongly in the management policies that have evolved over 90 years.
They think the National Park Service Organic Act is something to be respected, not an Act to be ignored when convenient to do so. They take seriously former Director Albright’s challenge to not let the National Park Service become “just another government bureau.” They don’t like it when the Park Service’s senior managers are ignored or bullied. They honestly believe that NPS decision-making should be transparent and based on the soundest science available.
They believe that the public should always be told the truth, even if it is inconvenient to do so. They truly believe that parks strive to be effective in three areas: preserve and protect resources; provide quality visitor services; and maintain productive relationships with park interest groups. They do not much care for the current emphasis that seems to prize efficiency over effectiveness.
Former Director Bill Mott used to say that the reason he believed in national parks is that they represented stability. He saw it this way: Each generation of Americans gets to add, speaking through their elected representatives, the places that they feel merit protection in perpetuity to the national park system. Our park areas represent an unmatched record of what generations of Americans, since 1872, have valued as places or ideas.
The National Park Service has the obligation to apply the highest standards of care to these places. In the first place, it’s a matter of generational equity; those who created these areas expected that they would be well taken care of. And the Park Service must take care of our park areas for future generations of Americans. The Coalition will continue to push the Park Service in that direction.
Rick Smith is a member of the Coalition's Executive Council. He spent 30 years with the Park Service, with stints in Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Everglades, Carlsbad Caverns, and Guadalupe Mountains national parks, as well as in the Washington headquarters and the Philadelphia and Santa Fe regional offices.