For more than a century the United States has been in the national park business, and for nearly a century the National Park Service has been guided in managing those parks by the National Park Service Organic Act. Some groups, though, question whether another road map of sorts, a declaration of principles, should also be referred to when managing the parks.
When this declaration was first approved -- I think it was nearly two years ago -- I questioned its need, believing that the Organic Act, if adhered to, was all the NPS needed to successfully manage our parks. But now I'm beginning to wonder if I was too hasty in dismissing these principles.
Crafted by a coalition of groups from Canada and the United States, and posted at the Valhalla Wilderness Society web site, the principles best fit with America's 58 "national parks" and not all 391 units of the Park Service, as they aim to preserve the natural resources that many of us cling so tenaciously to.
Originally created for their scenic grandeur and wilderness, these parks are now the last refuges for many native species. Today, scientists warn that major damage to ecosystems endangers life on this planet, including human life. Science recognizes that fully protected areas play a critical role in the survival of species. Ecologists urge that parks be kept as natural as possible, with natural ecological processes, because they are living textbooks on the science of ecosystem health.
Today, the dissonance and alienation of a troubled world, dominated by the pursuit of economic gain, encroach upon the peace and sanity of individuals and societies. Parks have become sanctuaries where the human spirit can refresh itself amidst the space, beauty, and solitude of a fully natural world. There, uninjured by industrial inroads, or the intrusions of entrepreneurial- or entertainment-based uses, nature — left undivided — teaches wholeness by the experience, itself.
These facts are the basis for the profound determination of the public — born of a sense of urgency, and asserted many times over the years — to create ample protected areas and to hold them sacred for the survival of species, and for the appreciation of future generations of humanity.
There have always been those who claim that the purpose of parks is economic gain. But these views misrepresent the higher human imperatives that have fought for parks, paid for them, and defended them for nearly 100 years. Society has spent many years, at great cost, weighing the economic values versus the preservation values of every park proposal. Each park represents a decision that preservation best serves the public interest. The value of living things, of their ecological life support system, of the human experience of nature and wilderness, must never again be weighed against the dollar in these sanctuaries.
There are ten points to this set of principles, ranging from the most obvious -- the need to preserve these special places -- to how they should be managed -- transparently. These principles speak out against leasing of park facilities and against privatization of park lands, and voice the belief that they should be fully funded through taxes.
When we look around the national park system today, it's obvious we could use some, if not all, of the guidance these principles provide. There are thorny issues with leasing in places such as Gateway National Recreation Area, of questionable special uses at places such as Alcatraz Island and the Charlestown Navy Yard, and, of course, of the inability of annual federal appropriations to sufficiently fund the parks.
Today the Park Service relies on a number of section-heavy documents -- Management Policies, Director's Orders, and Reference Manuals -- to sort out how best to manage the park system. And to further muddy the waters, more than a dash of politics is tossed in.
Perhaps, rather than complicating things so, a 10-step approach to managing the parks isn't such a bad idea. Perhaps, less could actually be more.