Parties in the Parks: Much Ado About Nothing?

"Performance art" came to Alcatraz Island in the form of dancers in the prison infirmary. John Curley photo.

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.


I think this debate should be more about what kinds of units the NPS is forced to administer by a politically charged Congress. Is Alcatraz a "national treasure". Would Horace Albright and Stephen Mather have envisioned a federal prison as a part of America's "crown jewels"? A place that the author this article calls "a venerable unit of the national park system, one whose stories revolve around pain, suffering and misery."

Is a regional urban park for the S.F. Bay Area, paid for by the taxpayers of the entire U.S., something that should be shouldered onto the yoke of the NPS? Why can't the local governments of that region run thier own urban park? Why do folks in North Dakota and Alabama have to chip in for a park located in one of the wealthiest areas in the world?

As with Boston Navy Yard, another real "national treasure", the units being discussed, so far, are not the traditional types of places that were orginally designated as national parks. This includes the Santa Monica Mountains, a regional park for Southern California, that would not have been high on Mather's list of worthy inclusion. Maybe the discussion should be about whether there needs to be a house cleaning of sorts of the less than stellar sites that were put into the system for reasons like boosting tourism in a depressed area, saving open space in a rapidly expanding metropolitan region (not the job or proper role of the national government) or to designate something of local signifigance that a Congresperson can stick the national government with the tab for.

I think the confusion about the proper types of uses for the parks mentioned, so far, is more related to their nebulous status as national parks in the first place. This is maybe where the discussion needs to begin.

I wholeheartedly agree with Beamis' point that there are some questionable units of the national park system. Unfortunately, it seems more congressfolk want to have a park of any kind in their district than want to adequately fund the park system, which, really, is at the root of the problem.

As a result, we're stuck with the hand we're dealt. In that context, I would suggest that more scrutiny needs to be placed on the special-use permitting system if for no other reason than, as DO 53 points out, "superintendents should be aware that local decisions related to permitting special park uses may have service-wide implications, and set precedents that create difficulties for other superintendents."

It becomes confusing when what is allowed in a historic prison cell-block, by establishing a service-wide precedent, could be applied to Cades Cove or Hayden Valley. It's frrightening really.

this is a great subject and thanks for bringing it up, kurt. i am against these sort of events, but have to ask the question "what else are they going to do?" if the events do not net any profits, then dump them. but as far as fundraising park administrators rising through the ranks, in my estimation, the bathrooms have to get cleaned somehow. like it or not, i applaud them for at least doing *something*. if not through partnerships and "fundraising" what else are they going to do? anyone check the amount of benefits (medicare, prescription health, returning soldiers injured) paid out and budget deficit of the federal government lately? our government & nation certainly has the money, but the priority is definitely not taking care of our national parks.

Rocky Horror Picture Show was supposed to be fiction. This makes me ill. According to the news quotes and photos I've seen (there are lots on the web) there were a lot more than 750 people in attendance. According to the event organizer, he wished they had done a better job of restricting it to the people who were invited (he estimated over a thousand). He was quoted in the news saying people on the mainland were hearing about it as the night went on and somehow hopped on ferry boats to the island. What irks me more than anything is seeing these people climb all over the walls, bars, on top of furniture, shredding pillows and a mattress in some pictures. There are blogs that people have posted where they brag about doing drugs (ecstasy) at the "rave" on "the rock", the photos on the internet show that so many people ignored the regulations as set forth by the NPS. It's clear that once they let the cat out of the bag, there's no putting it back in. The concept of designated smoking areas was a joke. These Gen-whatevers aren't going to come back and bring their kids along for a history lesson... if they even have kids in the first place. And the Gateway reps calling it "educational" and environmentally sensitive and even being in a position of defending this crap really ticks me off too. I suppose if you're not wearing any clothes that's considered ecologically friendly? And no one outside of that party would ever consider buying clothes like the ones being modelled. And even if someone did, they'd probably be worn once if at all, then tossed by our throw-away society. How environmentally friendly is that?

-- Jon Merryman

Isn't the draw of a national park or area the national park or area itself? I think it is time to rethink where we are trying to go. We are a society that has learned to want "entertainment" at every moment hence our need for tvs in our suvs. Enough already. You don't need to draw in gen x with a Vegas night club act on historical and protected grounds. They have an outlet for that. If that is the plan, why not just add video games in each of Alcatraz's cells and a mini mall in the old cafeteria. What's next, McDonalds moves into Yosemite because some generations won't go for the granola or beef jerky? How about we let these places speak for themselves. Eventually some will wake up and realize there is beauty and history around them that they should see. If not, someone else will. Let's not sacrifice the raw beauty and and or the intrigue of our national parks and areas in the name of cheap thrills.

In my opinion there should be a certain amount of decorum, dignity, and reserve associated with the national park areas. One can have "fun and enjoyment" in an environment replete with education, inspiration, and respect. Parks should not try to be all things to all people; there are venues available for cocktail parties and performance art, but not within the parks.

When NPS management fails to respect the reason that a specific park area was set aside for preservation, then how can they expect the public to respect the site.

The natural and cultural resources of each park are sufficient to justify their existence, NPS managers need only to protect them in perpetuity and inspire and educate the public about them.

"I believe whenever we destroy beauty, or whenever we substitute something man-made and artificial for a natural feature of the earth, we have retarded some part of man's spiritual growth." ....Rachel Carson

I would rather see half naked men and women in Alcatraz than hear a car alarm in a giant sequoia grove.

It is ridiculous to say or think that the Charlestown Navy Yard is not nationally significant, and should not be in the System. It is a major piece of American history, both as a functioning, major navy base and shipbuilding site since 1800 and the home of the USN Constitution (one of the sensational frigates that stunned the world and England in the War of 1812).

It is more ridiculous and contradictory to first say the activities are inappropriate, and then that the sites themselves are not important. It is obvious that Mr. Beamis does not realize it is the specific political tactic of the enemies of the NPS that the way to undermine the system is to get rangers from one park to fight with those from other parks over the value of each of our units to the Nation.

Further, Superintendents are supposed to be able to differentiate between what is appropriate at one park and not at another, based on the specific resources and the purposes of the area. For example, even in the heart of Manhattan on Wall Street at Federal Hall they would never permit anyone to drink red wine, even in the urban setting. It would stain the marble. But other drinks are permitted, in accordance with a permit and a proposal. On the other hand, under the same management, no functions at all with alcohol are permitted at Grant's Tomb, because it would not be appropriate at a tomb. On the other hand, no one would get a permit for a party with alcohol in an Alaskan wilderness area.

Finally, as much as we all honor Mr. Mather, please remember that the first surge of historic sites and national monuments came in the System in the 1930's, first by executive order, later reinforced by law. As a result the NPS represents the very best of the cultural, scenic and natural areas representing the best of the American experience. The System would be pretty stagnant if we only had those sites from Stephen Mather's day. The American people yearn to protect and interpret the best of America, and these areas -- from the Teton's to Charlestown to the Wrangells -- are brought to the Congress, our representatives. Very few areas are included in the System if the NPS objects that the areas are not significant and not manageable.

As long as we fight with each other, and belittle and trivialize the significance of this or that park, rather than fight for enough funding in this rich country for all the parks, Congress has an excuse not to fund; and, the NPS is forced to lease sites to find the money needed to provide for the rest of visitor services.

You may have a good point with the party at Alcatraz. That park is receiving a lot in fees already and seems to have lost its way.

"As long as we fight with each other, and belittle and trivialize the significance of this or that park, rather than fight for enough funding in this rich country for all the parks, Congress has an excuse not to fund;"

Well the same could be said for welfare clients, Section 8 vouchers for housing assistance and agriculture subsidies for corporate farmers. Why quibble about who is truly in need of assistance when we are rich enough to fund all of it anyway? Bad argument all the way around.

I think it would be a very useful debate to look at ALL of the parks and determine if they really meet the criteria of national signifigance. The ability of temporarily elected members of Congress to saddle an agency in perpetuity with inappropriate and unecessary parks drains the system and makes it nothing more than a political spoils game.

I'll throw it out there again: is Keeweenaw (the cooper smelting historical park in Michigan), Steamtown, urban parks in NYC/NJ, S.F., L.A. and Cleveland, a former textile mill in Massachusetts and the Boston Navy Yard truly what constitute national treasures?

I'd be interested to hear some of your responses.

Speaking for the 'urban' park in L. A., that is the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. It is mountainous terrain between the San Fernando Valley and Malibu. One of it's 'sites' is the old Paramount movie ranch still used for filming today. It is home to cougars, deer, bobcats and many varieties of raptors. And it's needed badly as both a wildlife corridor and as valuable park and open space for the all too densely populated region. Is it on the same level of wilderness or scenery as Yosemite, Sequoia or the Channel Islands. No. But it should be maintained as a park, either county, state or national. The designation doesn't really matter, except for which group of taxpayers pay for it.

Our family loved Steamtown. I also think the Park Service should include a steel mill and lumber mill in its list of historic sites before they're all dismantled and the scrap parts sold off to the Chinese. The concrete lookout towers on the Delaware beaches and the gun emplacements in the dunes of Cape Henlopen, guarding the entrance to Delaware Bay during WWII are another aspect of American history that will disappear forever if they're not protected.

-- Jon Merryman

"I also think the Park Service should include a steel mill and lumber mill in its list of historic sites before they're all dismantled and the scrap parts sold off to the Chinese."

Who'd a thunk that in 1916, when the the NPS began, that Americans such as Merryland would be clamoring for the inclusion of such places as lumber mills and steel making plants? Why not an old GM plant while we're at it. I hear they're looking to unload a few for pretty cheap.

As for the Santa Monica Mountains I found kath's observation telling, "The designation doesn't really matter, except for which group of taxpayers pay for it." It sounds like this is a Southern Californian who wants a park in her area and if the local government is not willing to pay for it she doesn't mind sticking taxpayers in faraway states with the bill for the acquisition and upkeep. The saving of open space and preserving a "wildlife corridor" is more important than the essential fairness of the way federal money is allocated for strictly local uses. I do not think it is the federal government's job to preserve open space in Los Angeles County. Call me a Philistine but I think the use of federal funds should be used sparingly and for what we used refer to as the crown jewels.

The history of the Santa Monica Mountains park is one of local activists unable to preserve open space through free market purchases of land. So instead some powerful friends and donors of local Congresspeople turned to them to achieve their ends through the use of federal money. It didn't hurt that many of these powerful friends benefited greatly through the sale of lands at inflated prices to Uncle Sam and of also having their adjacent property skyrocket in value by having it border non-developable natio0nl park land. This distortion of the original intent of the National Park Service makes it possible for almost any white elephant to be considered for inclusion in the system. While I personally have enjoyed hiking iin the Santa Monica Mountains NRA I don't think it is the job of the entire nation to preserve something that is more properly done by people in California.

Call me old fashioned but I think that states and local communities should be responsible for their own lands and how they are used and developed. It is a slippery slope to say it's okay for national parks to be created in this way but then be upset at wasteful subsidies, enormous military expenditures and a federal government generally running amuck. It most are not willing question the power being used by the heavy hand of Washington if it's for something they personally approve of, like a new national park area. I'm asking everyone to step back and see the bigger picture.

Mr. Beamis -- you invite us to call you 'old fashioned.' Your view is pre-constitutional. Had we relied on local communities, we Tetons would not have been preserved, just to name one. You can be cynical if you want about how they pieced together Santa Monica, but the truth remains the nation is better because Santa Monica is civilizing and enhancing an iimportant region of America that needs to function effectively as a great and civilized place to live.

Elsewhere you belittle members of congress because they are temporary, which of course is another idea at the foundation of our Nation and constitution. James Watt initiated a search in 1981 to review all the parks established in the 1970's because he suspected, as you seem to, that the System was infiltrated with inappropriate areas. It was quickly demonstrated that site after site was, in fact, suitable and appropriate, even if he had not known enough in the first place about the american nation to understand significance and Meaning and value to the nation. He quickly buried the report, changed the subject, and focused instead on preventing the identification of new areas.

Yours is actually a larger argument, about the value of nationhood and "forming one union." On his tour around Britain in the early 1700's Daniel Defoe noted that in many ways Britain and Europe still had not caught up to the Romans. He speculates: "It is true that the Romans being the Lords of the World, had the Command of the People, their Persons and their work . . . even their armies were employ'd in these noble Undertakings.. . . .But now the CasE is alter'd, Labor is dear, Wages high . . . . . so that as rich as we are, it would exhaust the whole Nation to build the Edifices, the Causways, the Aqueducts, Lines, Castles, Fortifications and other publick Works, which the Romans built with very little Expence. . . . ' Even the speed of transportation during such a rich time in England had not yet caught up to the Romans, when demand, and not infrastructure, was the limit on trade.

One of the ways America has taken advantage of the leverage you get as "one union," as a Nation, was to establish national parks and national public works. Abraham Lincoln spent much of his career trying to establish national public works, but it wasn't until the Civil War disenfranchised the regionalists in the South who had consistently opposed national leverage that some of the great nation-building congressional enactments occurred, helping to make America the great country it is. The idea of national parks came very soon after. It is important for me to know a site at Santa Monica in southern california or in the Blackstone Valley and Lowell in Massachusetts or in Lower Manhattan in New York or on a Homestead in Nebraska are part of what makes me an American.

Every significant site in America is not self-sustaining. Some that could be self-sustaining with a robust marketing and economic development plan do sometimes risk trading the integrity of their prime resources for funding leverage. You site Mount Vernon, yet many preservationists are concerned that the new airconditioning system, installed to enhance visitation, may be undermining the integrity of the structure. It would be better if we could first do the best job with the best preservation treatment for a park site, and then provide for the best balance of public enjoyment.

america is a greater country because we think as a nation and act as a nation, and our national parks reflect what we tell our elected officials we think is the best of america.

"Who'd a thunk that in 1916, when the the NPS began, that Americans such as Merryland would be clamoring for the inclusion of such places as lumber mills and steel making plants?"

Sorry, but the act of 1916 creating the National Park Service specifically directed the NPS to preserve historic as well as natural resources, and the Historic Sites Act of 1935 clarified and reinforced this aspect of the Service's mission.

Sites relating to industrial history might not make good material for pretty postcards, but no one with an awareness of the nation's history could deny their significance.

The consensus, from the comments so far, is for a strong national government that is indespensible to our ability to "function effectively as a great and civilized place to live". What would we do without them? Devolve into barbarism? At least I'm beginning to understand that the majority of national park supporters are also supporters of BIG government and feel that the ends justify the means. I personally am ashamed of the criminal theft of places such as the Tetons (with the corporatist help and self-motivated cunning of the Rockefellers) and Shenandoah from the poor mountaineers who formerly occupied those hills. It is a shameful blot on our nation's history as are many other park areas too numerous to mention. To their credit the administration of Shenandoah has at least conceded, with an interpretive sign that the park was essentially stolen from its lawful landowners to boost tourism in a depressed area. Sorry folks, our bad but enjoy the park.

I'm glad most of you are comfortable with the current way our government runs its affairs especially since the way parks are designated is similar to the ways that other projects get funded and wars started. Again I don't think you wish to question the means as long as you are personally satisfied with the ends. In this case "civilizing and enhancing an important region of America." Sort of sounds like what we are supposed to be doing in Iraq.

I personally am ashamed of the criminal theft of places such as the Tetons ... and Shenandoah...

And I'm ashamed of the Fed's theft of the Modoc homeland (Lava Beds) so ranchers could graze cows, the theft of the Klamath's sacred Crater Lake, and the theft of the Black Hills so we could blast the images of our presidents into sacred stone.

Just because places have national historical significance, it does not mean they MUST or even SHOULD be administered by the NPS. There are many properties, locations, sites on the national register of historic places (a list maintained by the NPS) that are administered by city, county, state, and regional governments, and many of them do it better because they are not constrained by Washington's bloated bureaucracy.

I think one must also consider why the Feds stepped in to designate areas national parks. Are some done to bolster federal legislators' stature to their constituency? Absolutely.

Some, like Fire Island National Seashore (which I believe should be transferred to a different agency), were created to stop unwanted development (power broker Robert Moses' attempt to build a highway down the middle of the island). Sequoia was created to halt the logging of 3500 year old commercially worthless trees.

But do the Feds need to manage Fort Vancouver or its newly acquired McLoughlin House Unit? As a historian, I believe historical preservation is best left to the State Historic Preservation Office, not the National Park Service. If you want a local factory or mill preserved, let your state or local NGO foot the bill.

Since California sends much more to the federal government than we get back, having the Santa Monica Mountains preserved by the federal government is at least a drop in the bucket of having the taxes we send to Washington come back.

Beamis. God love ya. Keep it up. Your voice and perspective are refreshing!

Kath makes a good point about California sending more than it gets back, but I still think Santa Monica Mountains is not worthy of National Park Status. (I hike there. State or county park status would be plenty of protection for these lands.) On the other hand, nearby Channel Islands NP is an extraordinary landscape

In 1997, I played a role (as a set team member) in the "Big Park" "theft" of a portion of Santa Cruz Island. Trust me, and I've got photos of the gulleys lined with sheep carcasses (left by hunters) to prove it, Santa Cruz Island is profoundly better off in the hands of the NPS. In fact, I hate to think of the money and attention that goes to Santa Monica Mountains that should go to the Channel Islands.

Eminent Domain and its ilk (pork barrel government) has resulted in some wonderful things and some evil things. The difficult part is deciding which is which.
(BTW, I have written about a "haunting" related to the "taking over" of a homestead in Big South Fork. It's a cute if not eerie story that reveals the vague yet lasting guilt felt by rangers working on lands "stolen" by the NPS. If you are curious about the Blevins story, the excerpt is on my website. )

On the other hand, the Nature Conservancy protects it's portion of Santa Cruz Island so well that it's very difficult for the average person to visit. That part of Santa Cruz Island is no doubt in good hands but I've never been there although I go out to the Channel Islands at least once a year.

The cultural resources protected by the park are as important as its natural resources. I agree with an earlier comment that it is a pointless exercise to pit one park against another for a battle between national significance. When the parks were established, either through Presidential Proclamation or as an act of Congress, they were deemed to be important. As 'lepanto' points out, there have been times that park units have gone through a reevaluation of significance. And in fact, park units have left the national system over the years (to see which parks, look for the 'disbanded' headings on this list at wikipedia). Beamis, I wouldn't say I support "BIG" government, but I do support a Federal Government. There are things we can accomplish as a whole better than we can on a state-by-state or even municipality-by-municipality basis.

I'd like to bring the conversation back to the topic of the article though, which is, considering that the National Park Service does manage these places (Alcatraz and Boston Naval Yard), are these parties acting contrary to the purposes for which the parks were established? I think someone out there could make an argument that they were consistent with the mission. I'd love to hear it. But, I'm of the opinion that these events were nothing more than corporate parties totally out of character with the mission the Park Service has promised to uphold on our behalf.

My guess is that if you polled 100 different National Park Service supporters as to which units they feel do not belong in the NPS system, you could easily get 100 different answers, with nearly as many well-conceived supporting arguments. There are certainly park units that were set aside for reasons that may not resonate with the collective original vision for the preservation of national public lands, but as was pointed out in another post, reasoning should evolve as the nation evolves. How future units are created seems to be as relevant, if not more so, to the future of the NPS than squabbling over which units should not be administered at the federal level. I'm sure there are places that, it could be argued, should be in the system that presently are not, though I can't name any myself. There might be many legitimate arguments for and against the large number of National Monuments created in the last days of the Clinton administration. Do we really need to protect over a million acres of desolate land on the Arizona Strip north of the Grand Canyon (Grand Canyon-Parashant NM)? Do we need Sonoran Desert and Ironwood National Monuments? I'm not for or against any of them--I simply don't know enough about them to support an argument either way.

Perhaps one way the designation of public lands could be done by the federal government to the benefit of people at the local and regional level, is to have such designations be temporary, as might be the case to stop commercialization or to save a wildlife corridor, etc. Then the state, county or municipal bodies could decide whether to take on the responsibility. States already swap for federal land for other uses. I don't know if any existing state, county or municipal parks started out as federally protected lands, but it could be possible.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument in northeastern Arizona is an NPS unit composed entirely of Navajo tribal trust land, which is managed in partnership with the Navajo Nation. In the city of Phoenix, South Mountain Park & Preserve is listed as the largest desert municipal park in the world, at "over 16,000 acres," according to the city's website. The city also had the foresight to create the Phoenix Mountains Preserve, in part to slow and manage urban encroachment in and around the string of desert peaks that stretch across the north-central portion of the city. Were there behind-the-scenes political or commercially-backed motives for creating these parks? I don't know, but as a 35 year resident of the area, I can say the press has been more positive than negative over the years.

I guess the point is that no single solution will work across the entire National Park system, or for that matter, the whole national public land management system, including the BLM, Forest Service and other agencies. I don't mean to sound like a fence-sitter, but both sides of the general argument seem to have merit, if applied to specific instances, rather than the system as a whole.

I'm of the opinion that these events were nothing more than corporate parties totally out of character with the mission the Park Service has promised to uphold on our behalf.

The "mission" of the NPS is/was to leave places unimpaired, and they've failed miserably in keeping that promise.

Why do the writers of this blog seem to downplay and/or ignore the many violations (broken promises) of the Organic Act?

...are these parties acting contrary to the purposes for which the parks were established?

The authors' and some readers' focus on social functions at historic sites seems trite in comparison the larger issues of the broken bureaucracy of the NPS and its failure to protect natural places from impairment. I can see that this is a real issue, but it concerns me that people are more upset over some nudity in a prison than, say, a bulldozer being driven through wilderness. How come articles like that don't get 20+ posts? Why does it take race and sexy dancers to get people to speak out?


This is just the latest issue at hand. There have been plenty of posts over the months addressing practices that run contrary to the Organic Act. Just look at the many posts on snowmobiles in Yellowstone, personal watercraft in parks and seashores, ORVs in Big Cypress, and power boats in Everglades, just to name the ones that come immediately to mind.

The park system is huge and sprawling and comes packed with countless issues and controversies. For two guys driving this site for free while trying to juggle paying jobs, I'd counter that we're doing a pretty good job.

Kurt y'all are doing a great job of offering a ground breaking website to further much needed dialogue. It is much appreciated. Where can I send a contribution? Remember I'm a free market capitalist and would love to voluntarily support your efforts with a free will offering of monetary support.

On a separate tangent I have noticed that hardly any of the contributors to these discussions are actual employees of the NPS. Or at least they have not identified themselves as such. A pity because this website provides a rare opportunity for park professionals to exchange information and ideas that is badly needed in that closed off and insular agency. If any organization could use the doors to be opened to let in some fresh air it is the NPS!

Again I appreciate what you and Jeremy are doing and believe that most of the readers of this website are very glad you are in cyberspace.

Beamis, your comments are much appreciated. As for donating to the cause, we're not quite ready to go down that road, but that day might not be far off so stay tuned.

As for NPS folks and this site, quite a few across the system read it on a regular basis. Understandably, I believe some feel it would be risky to comment directly, and identifiably, on this site. I do believe they've taken a pledge not to undermine the service, though I could be wrong. We certainly welcome comments from active NPS staff and believe there are many non-controversial posts to which their thoughts would add a lot of insight and helpful information.

That said, it's entirely possibly that there are some nom de plumes out there.


I be quite cynical concerning the way the NPS is managing parks, but the NPS has NOT "failed miserably" as you suggest.

Let's provide the entire sentence of The Organic Act which establishes the "mission" of the NPS: "The service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations hereinafter specified by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purposes of the said parks, monuments, and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

This Act was signed in 1916. WE are the future generation, and we, by the millions, enjoy our parks which are well protected, despite the myriad of use and developement controversies we are discussing here.

Let's pull out a few verbs...PROMOTE, REGULATE, CONSERVE, PROVIDE FOR THE ENJOYMENT, LEAVE UNIMPAIRED...the mission paradox implied by these verbs is now a cliche. And certainly the NPS fails in little and sometimes not so little ways every day, but the NPS has not "failed miserably" at its mission. And when it does fail, those mistakes are made in the "provide for the enjoyment" arena as much as they are made in the "to conserve and leave unimpaired" arena.

To say that these parties and such are "totally out of character" with the NPS mission is sophomoric thinking. Alas, if only these decisions were that simple.

It's a pity the agency does not have the Haunted Hiker as its current director, God love her.

I too vote for Haunted Hiker as Director! Let's start a campaign :)

She's got it absolutely right, we ARE the future generation the Organic Act is talking about. We were given a special gift with a simple set of instructions. All we need to do is pass the gift of the parks on to the next generation in the same or better condition as it was given to us. Art Allen said something similar in his comments earlier in this thread -

The natural and cultural resources of each park are sufficient to justify their existence, NPS managers need only to protect them in perpetuity and inspire and educate the public about them.

Simple, right? When the "mission" describes providing for the enjoyment of the resources, I don't think the authors of the Organic Act had the type of corporate parties that took place at Alcatraz and the Charleston Naval Yard in mind. Scion and McKesson totally transformed these places into their own corporate playgrounds. I can appreciate that 'enjoyment of the resource' can mean different things for different people, but in the case of both parties, the resource was literally used as a billboard for corporate promotion. If that isn't out of character with the mission, it should be.

Thank you for covering the issues you mentioned (OHVs, snowmobiles, etc.). My comment was based on the articles on currently on the front page, and for that snapshot in time there didn't seem to be more than one or two articles with a primary focus on preservation. I'm not saying you're not doing a good job; I was just wondering: 1) Why there haven't been more articles on preservation (I appreciate the latest); and 2) Why do the readers of this blog get more outraged at parties in prisons and shipyards and a perceived lack of diversity in park visitation than environmental degradation (as evidenced by the number of reads/comments)? Is it because fighting booze and dancers in parks is somehow sexier than fighting to preserve wildness and natural settings?

Haunted Hiker,
Your comment is addressed to me, but I'd like to point out that I didn't make the "sophomoric" statement that "corporate parties totally out of character with the mission the Park Service".

I be quite cynical concerning the way the NPS is managing parks, but the NPS has NOT "failed miserably" as you suggest.

That is your opinion. My opinion is that it has failed miserably in leaving places unimpaired. There are countless examples in NPS (mis)management history where leaders could (should, in my opinion) have chosen to leave areas unimpaired, but instead they chose to provide for the enjoyment of people (those too lazy or too busy to walk). The Kolob Canyon Road in ZION, which obliterated the wilderness character of that part of the park, is an excellent example. Here's a big impairment: fire suppression; things are so out of whack, it'll take decades, maybe centuries, to return fire-dependent ecosystems to a more natural state. Thanks to NPS (mis)management, many predators were hunted to extinction, and extinction, to me, is a HUGE impairment. Sewage and gas spills at Crater Lake? Check. Introducing fish to Crater Lake? Check.

Stephen Mather said, "The primary duty of the National Park Service is to protect the national parks…and keep them as nearly in their natural state as this can be done in view of the fact that access to them must be provided in order that they may be used and enjoyed." Mather recognized that it is important to allow appropriate access to the parks, but it is of utmost importance to protect them. (THE PRIMARY MISSION IS TO LEAVE PARKS UNIMPAIRED.)

And what is appropriate access? In the early 20th century, the official stance of the DOI was that no automobiles would be allowed in the national parks. Early Yellowstone superintendents argued that allowing cars into the park would be "criminal". But the NPS built thousands of miles of roads and thousands of buildings, and in the process the natural sound scape, air quality, and wild character were permanently impaired.

So, yeah, given my experience, my bias, I think the NPS failed to leave parks unimpaired. I understand that many see roads, cars, buildings as "improvements", not impairments. But to me, someone who would like to experience Crater Lake in silence as it was experienced 100 years ago, these are impairments.

And before people go off saying I want to lock up the parks and prevent access, that's not what I'm advocating. There any many forms of access, and easy access by car should not be so pervasive and extensive.

Sorry for going off topic.

Excellent points Frank. I used to do an evening program about the fact that the NPS was probably the greatest scenic road building organization in world history. A short list of famous pavement ribbons brought to you by NPS planners: the Zion-Mt. Carmel Hwy., Going to the Sun Road, Blue Ridge Parkway, Natchez Trace, George Washington Parkway, Tioga Road, and the Rockefeller Parkway. Then there are the elaborately engineered roads without famous names that penetrate the wilderness of Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, Canyonlands, Crater Lake, Colorado N.M., Great Smoky Mountains, Capitol Reef, Lassen Volcanic and Death Valley just to name a few. If there is DEFINITE legacy of the NPS it is scenic highway construction.

I absolutely do not support privatization of the parks, either in the overt hand-it-over variety, or in the fascistic corporate/government partnerships (closer to Mussolini's definition of fascism) that have always been a part of park history.

However, even worse to me are stories like the one I'm about to post in the Jackson Hole News & Guide. - Jets to fly by Tetons - Angels draw crowds, roar over Jackson Hole

The Blue Angels roared passed the Tetons yesterday. Part of that was a photo op in front of the Tetons, which presumably will help with what the Angels do, which is military recruiting. I think this is disgusting. The sound first of all is deafening. Last summer, when I was hiking the Mt. Washburn spur trail, and the day before when I was hiking the nearby Seven Mile Hole trail, I heard the deafening roar of low flying fighter jets. The hikes were otherwise solitary. I saw hikers only once during those two days, but the boom of the jets let me know that I was living an illusion. I can only imagine what else it does, even for only a horrible moment, to the land around it. And, for what? To sell the military industrial complex? The very thing that drains money away from the poor of New Orleans, the parks, and keeps us focused on being afraid than on how better to live with each other and the land. It's disgusting to me. It doesn't even raise money for the parks. It's bad enough that there's that damn commercial airport in Grand Teton National Park.

I don't think we should frame this debate about private v. public; we shouldn't frame it as how to raise money for the parks given their budget shortfalls. It should be about the absolute absurdity of parks in the world we live in; how can any sane person look at this world and not think we've all gone completely nuts. It was nuts when French trappers were destroying beaver, strange when an oil tycoon was secretly buying up land to give to the government to protect the valley of Jackson Hole. It's no less strange now to have Blue "Angels" ripping through the sky so that they can sell their death machines with the Tetons in the background.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

Hey Jimmy boy...that's the sound of freedom...your park wouldn't even exist without it. "Death machines?" You need to wise up...that is so over the top it doesn't need further comment...judging from your past comments, you are a real piece of work.
I would love to see a fighter come up a drainage and scream overhead when I am on a ridge...I would hope I could see it coming soon enough to get an awesome picture!!
Love those Blue Angels...those guys are such great of the best!! If y'all ever get the chance to see 'em in your local area, do won't be sorry! Kids love 'em!

Since Mr. Macdonald is so dead set against privatization of any kind and believes that the federal government is the best steward for the national parks he'd better get used to the jets. They are part and parcel of the same outfit: the Executive Branch of the U.S. government.

Heck the Blue Angels may be just what the NPS needs to drum up support and interest in the parks by an increasingly jaded public bored with bears, geysers and Half Dome hikes. I can see it now, the Angels could mount a nationwide tour of the national parks and maybe cap it off with a calendar of this famous flying sqaudron soaring over twelve different parks, one for each month of the year. A January shot over a snow draped Grand Canyon, an April picture over the fog shrouded Smokies and, of course, a July photo of them buzzing Independence Hall. The sales of these calendars could go into a fund that would be split 50-50 between the military and the NPS.

I'm sure that the American public would turn out in droves to see the Blue Angels in our national parks. What better form of synergy in federal stewardship could there be? A win-win for everyone.

Take a look at this picture:
It's amazing!

How can they fly so close like that?! Just imagine if they crashed in the back country! The explosions would be amazing!

Thanks for the visual Frank. A great and tremendous fireball it would be!

Beamis and Ricky, knock off the good old boy fly crap. Insn't silence suppose to be golden in the National Parks and not a air corridor for hot rod fly boy's? Ricky, if you get excited and go wee-wee every time you hear jet noise, visit Edwards Air Force base, or the local drag strips and get your charge...but let's keep silence golden in the Nationa Parks.

Beamis, one of these days you'll learn the difference between an anarchist and a socialist. I never said the government is the best steward of land, but yes I am dead set against privatization. Actually, I have trouble seeing much difference between the two choices in your false dichotomy. That's in fact why I raised a disgraceful public use of land, but I was also a little clever to mention the public/private partnership that is the military. It was a way of signaling that the discussion isn't being framed correctly by either pro-government control or pro-privatization forces.

Anyhow, c'est la vie

*sticking my head back in the sand*

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

"I never said the government is the best steward of land, but yes I am dead set against privatization." Leave it to Professor Macdonald to be as clear as mud.

Oh, and I do know the difference between an anarchist and a socialist, since I didn't just fall of the back of the turnip truck yesterday, and I would definitely categorize myself as leaning much more towards the former rather than the latter. I subscribe wholeheartedly to the classical meaning of the word anarchy which is defined in the dictionary as " a theory that regards the absence of all direct or coercive government as a political ideal and that proposes the cooperative and voluntary association of individuals and groups as the principal mode of organized society."

Snowbird the NPS and the military-industrial complex are inextricalbly linked by virtue of their common Decider-In-Chief in Washington, DC. If he and his minions deem the Grand Teton range to be a suitable backdrop to promote the cause of militarism that is totally his perogative. He is after all the Decider and those mountains belong to the gov-mint he runs. So just settle down and enjoy the roar. There ain't nuthin' you can do to stop him. NUTHIN'!

Anonymous, you didn't mean "Decider-In-Chief", I assume you meant grand Messiah-In-Chief. Anonymous, you forgot one thing, what happens if he gets impeached...your Messiah!?

I guess the terrorists have won. We have to spoil our national parks just to keep up the recruitment effort. Very sad.

"If he get impeached" libs are so funni....
O.K., so then we have Dick Cheney as president! Yee-haw!...drop some bombs, babyyyyy!!!

No Merryland the terrorists haven't won, the lies and propoganda about terrorists that is swallowed by the American sheeple has won. The very same outfit dropping bombs on Mesopotamia is the very same one in charge of the national parks. Why shouldn't they fly their jets wherever they want to? You act so surprised. It's a work in progress, if I remember your words correctly. Maybe they'll make a park commerating the Blue Angels someday.

Your faith will be rewarded.

These kinds of events raise questions of compatibility and appropriateness. National parks are our national treasures, deserving respect and treatment as such.

Watching, need to check your sarcasm detector and not take my comments too seriously every time (most of the time, but not every time). Sorry to hit your eject button... PS - Your name no longer applies... ;-)

-- Jon Merryman