Is it appropriate for the National Park Service to transform portions of the prison on Alcatraz Island into a cabaret with scantily clad dancers, all in the name of luring younger generations to the parks? Should corporations be allowed to rent out portions of parks -- at no profit -- for lavish parties? These are hot-button topics to some, but elicit a shrug of the shoulder from others.
Within recent weeks there have been at least two "special events" in the national park system. I say "at least" because there's no way to say how many might have been held without calling each of the 391 units, as the NPS's Washington headquarters does not track these events or sign-off on them.
These two events were parties, complete with alcohol, music, and good times for those invited. One, at Alcatraz Island in Golden Gate National Recreation Area, was staged to benefit Toyota's San Francisco Bay area Scion owners. The other was across the country at the Charlestown Navy Yard, part of the Boston National Historical Park, and commemorated the end of a conference held by McKesson Corporation, a Fortune 500 (No. 18, actually) health-care company.
They've generated controversy on these pages because some folks are angry over how units of the national park system are being managed. Others say the Park Service should stage such events if they bring in dollars to help with the parks' upkeep. Still others say the parks should be available for folks to enjoy themselves in such fashion, and others say the Park Service could learn from the non-profits that run such places as Mount Vernon and Monticello.
While some parks turn to such events to help raise money -- the contract BNHP has with Amelia Occasions, the event organizer that brought the McKesson party to the Navy Yard, calls for Amelia to plow some money back into the Commandant's House -- others allow events because groups like to use the parks as a backdrop for various occasions.
Indeed, Golden Gate each year averages right around 1,000 special events at its many venues, from weddings and film projects to marathons and music festivals.
While some certainly seem fitting -- the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts would be oddly silent without its concerts, operas, and children's theater -- others can seem oddly out of place, such as the Alcatraz and McKesson parties, for reasons I'll get into in a minute.
Then, too, there are concerns that problems can creep into the park system with the private bashes staged on public property. Those concerns range from the threat that continued commercialization and special events will transform the parks, both subtly and not so subtly, into something they were never intended to be, to the very question of what's appropriate.
Take a good look at the accompanying picture (You can find others here). and ask yourself whether Alcatraz, once used to incarcerate 19 members of the Hopi Tribe because they refused to be "Americanized," and long a maximum security prison, is an appropriate venue for such a production. To get an even better of what transpired, check out the YouTube feed found on this page. Pay close attention and you'll hear one of the participants in the "art gallery" questioning the location: "We're having this celebration out here where so many people suffered. It's hard."
Even the folks at Golden Gate admit the "performance art" dance by the Vau de Vire Society, portions of which some might consider sexually suggestive, if not mildly obscene, staged in the prison's infirmary is controversial. But they don't think it was too much for Alcatraz Island, a venerable unit of the national park system, one whose stories revolve around pain, suffering and misery.
"From what I've been able to gather from some of the messages that we got, people thought the dance routine was too much, had too many burlesque elements," Rudy Evenson, Golden Gate's chief of special park uses, told me.
"There may be elements that pushed people's envelopes," agreed Rich Weideman, the park's public affairs chief. "But I can tell you that we did an out-briefing of this event with our superintendent. He is very, very much in support of events like because of the very reason this park was created was to attract urban audiences into the national park system.
"The bulk of these people had never set foot on Alcatraz, nor very few even knew the national park area existed in and around the Golden Gate. This is the core of our future potential audience for the National Park Service. Not necessarily party people, but young, diverse communities. "
Is it so important to attract Gen-Xers and Gen-Yers to the parks that they have to be lured with elaborate parties that don't really mesh -- at least in the case of Alcatraz, a National Historic Landmark -- with the backdrop and tramp upon the solemnity of the setting? You have to wonder if the 750 Gen-Xers and Gen-Yers who attended the event were impressed with Alcatraz itself or the nubile dancers, the fashion show staged in the shower room, the related art show, and the free drinks.
True, there was some park interpretation, but...did it stick?
"For all the events the Park Service permits on Alcatraz Island, we require that as part of the permit the event include an educational component," said Mr. Evenson. "So, for example, we had a park ranger who gave a talk about the clothing-issue area in the shower room and how prisoners were processed there as an introduction to the ecologically friendly fashion show that was part of this event."
Across the country, I can't tell you exactly how the folks at Boston National Historical Park felt about the McKesson party, as, after my initial contact, they haven't returned my phone calls. I do understand, though, that upwards of 50 complaints were received the night of the event and that higher-ups in the Park Service's regional and national offices have been looking into the event and the agreement with Amelia Occasions.
There is some concern that the Park Service's tight budgets are forcing park superintendents to become more entrepreneurial in how they manage their units. While being more business-like in terms of watching the bottom line is welcome, pushing the limits of how the overall business is run can lead to questionable decisions.
Rick Smith, a long-tenured NPS employee whose career took him from field locations to the Washington headquarters and included a stint as associate regional director for natural and cultural resources in the Park Service's Southwest Office, worried about a "new breed" of park managers in a story published last fall by CQ Researcher.
Overtime, Park Service veterans are beginning to worry that tight budgets and political pressures are producing a "not very attractive" evolutionary change in park managers, Mr. Smith told the publication. Now an official can rise through the Park Service ranks "if your park makes money because you're able to collect fees or you're a great fund-raiser, or if your park has a congressman or congresswoman on an appropriations committee you get palsy-walsy with," he says. "I would prefer a park manager who has real dedication to preserving and protecting the resource.
While the National Parks Conservation Association so far has been silent on the issue, that's not the case with the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. Bill Wade, who chairs the group's executive council, quickly questioned the propriety of the two events.
"These are likely to be instances that test the purpose and intent of the NPS Management Policies. While I’m sure that one can find specific permission in the Policies to justify these kinds of events, there are also provisions that would argue against them," he told me. "It comes down to the intent of the policies (and law) and the judgment of the authorizing superintendents. In these two instances, the judgment was faulty because the events clearly degrade the purposes for which the units were established."
At the Park Service's Washington headquarters, Lee Dickinson, the agency's program manager for special park uses, had no personal knowledge of either event. Nor would she express an opinion on whether the events were appropriate for the two settings.
And yet, Director's Order 53 clearly states that superintendents should not grant a special use permit if an event is "contrary to the purposes for which the park was established" or will "unreasonably impair the atmosphere of peace and tranquility maintained in wilderness, natural, historic, or commemorative locations within the park."
"Obviously, the superintendent decided that it was an appropriate use," Ms. Dickinson said in regard to the use of the Charlestown Navy Yard for a corporate party with an invitation list that numbered 3,500.
Now here's a kicker: the Park Service nets no profit from allowing special events on its grounds. Legally, all it's allowed to charge is "cost recovery" for overtime paid to rangers assigned to the event and any costs associated with the permitting process and managerial work, such as having maintenance crews outline where underground utilities and irrigation lines are so they aren't damaged by such things as stakes used to guy out tents.
In the case of the Alcatraz party, the FlavorGroup that arranged the affair for Toyota paid the Park Service a total of $23,000 -- $10,000 for administrative cost recovery and around $13,000 for management costs. The 750 party goers were not charged the normal $2 fee for setting foot on Alcatraz.