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Setting Precedents in the Parks


A dozen tents with alcohol were set up at the Charlestown Navy Yard to cater to a special event held there earlier this summer.

There's a passage in Director's Order 53, one of the many documents that guide National Park Service management decisions, that warns of proverbial icebergs ready to assail superintendents who truly believe their mission 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."

The section really can't be missed, as it's right up front in the introduction to Director's Order 53, which governs special uses in the parks. Here's how it reads:

The approval or denial of requests to engage in special park uses is an important and continuing responsibility of superintendents. Superintendents should be aware that local decisions relating to permitting special park uses may have Service-wide implications, and set precedents that create difficulties for other superintendents. In such instances, the superintendent should consult with the regional or Service-wide specialist.

The key word in that paragraph, of course, is "precedents." If something is approved in one park, that approval very well could be used in a bid to open up another park to a similar use. And with the new breed of superintendents who are looking for ways to generate revenues to offset budget shortfalls, hosting special events just might be the key.

While there no doubt will be some special events that dovetail perfectly with a specific park's mission and history, there are others that seem highly questionable.

Already this summer there have been two special events that some have called into question: The Toyota Scion party at Alcatraz in Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and the McKesson bash at the Charlestown Navy Yard of the Boston National Historical Park. What some have found objectionable is that neither event meshed, culturally or historically, with their respective settings. Rather, the decisions to OK both events seem to be based simply on drawing crowds to the park units for after-hours affairs.

Will we see private parties on the boardwalk that wraps Old Faithful? I'm told not. But who knows? Whether the Alcatraz and Charlestown Navy Yard affairs were the only special-use events that have been at odds with their settings is not easy to ascertain, as the Park Service's Washington headquarters does not track special uses.

Indeed, in the case of the Alcatraz and Charlestown affairs, the Park Service's point person for special uses had no advance knowledge of the parties.

Were the Alcatraz and Charlestown parties big deals? Considered in a vacuum, probably not. But if they set precedents that will open other units of the national park system to similarly questionable uses, these bashes were very big deals.

Another concern is that while NPS Director Mary Bomar promised Congress that she would see that transparency is key in how her agency conducts business, that message does not seem to be trickling down to all units of the Park Service. While the folks at Golden Gate were more than willing to discuss how they handled the Toyota party, those at Boston National Historical Park largely have turned a deaf ear to questions about how they manage special uses in general and, more specifically, why they approved the McKesson party.

So far they refuse to discuss:

* The parameters of the contract with Amelia Occasions, a wedding and special events planner, and what it requires from Amelia in terms of payment for the use of the Navy Yard's Commandant's House or whether Amelia is responsible for maintenance of the house;

* How many special events they allow each year;

* How much revenue, if any, these events generate, and;

* Why the McKesson party, which required a dozen tents to dispense alcohol to roughly 3,500 invitees, was permitted when Director's Order 53 clearly states that special uses that are contrary to the purposes for which a park was established or which unreasonably impair the atmosphere of peace and tranquility maintained in wilderness, natural, historic, or commemorative locations within the park should not be allowed.

They have said, though, that the best way to preserve a historic building is to use it.

"And that is what we are doing and will continue to do in the Charlestown Navy Yard. If we used the wrong instrument or authority to permit the special event that was held in the Navy Yard on July 10, it was unintentional and we will fix it," BNHP spokesman Sean Hennessey told me in an email. "But we will continue to hold special events that expose new audiences to the stories and resources associated with the birth and growth of America, and we will continue to collaborate with arts and cultural organizations to interpret our resources in new and exciting ways."

While efforts to lure new audiences are laudable, there are some within the Park Service who question how these efforts are being carried out.

"My feeling is that this is out of control. I think the message from (Director) Bomar and others is see if you can make money," one ranger told me. "I think you can do these events without desecrating or bastardizing the resource or the image. But we're not."

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Excellent article. I can think of one other major example of just what you are talking about.

Rocky Mountain NP and Theodore Roosevelt NP both have an overpopulations of elk. Both are trying to survive public comment on how best to cutback on the overpopulation which is damaging the park.

Around 40-50 years ago there was a huge controversy on who had the "right" to conduct wildlife management activities in National Park Areas. After a decade of fights with various state wildlife agencies, individuals, and numerous studies it was generally accepted that the NPS could and should control their wildlife populations.

Recently we had the decision come under question when a NPS Regional Official suggested "the NPS will consider public hunting as a means to control wildlife". Immediately the media picked up on that statement and all hell broke loose. Now we have both Colorado and North Dakota legislators involved with trying to allow public hunting.

Yes it is very true - Unlike Las Vegas, What happens in One Park doesn't stay there! It affects all the parks.

That Park Service officials, who work for the American people, refuse to disclose what should be public information is not shocking. It's symptomatic of the larger problem of the calcification of government under the pressure of transfer-seeking interest groups who permeate government. During the last decade, the NPS has been lobbied by 30-50 interest groups per year representing a plethora of interests waving the banner of altruism while they, like all of us, look to secure their individual interests. There's an association of museums, mountain bike and ATV groups, "hospitality" groups, and even hiking groups (who lobbied for and got a million dollars for an outhouse in Glacier's backcountry in the late 80s).

To cut political interest, it is necessary to depoliticize national parks, and to do that, we need to overhaul or disband the NPS bureaucracy. The Organic Act, written almost 100 years ago, is anachronistic and was heavily altered by interest groups of the time (such as railroads, hotel owners, and the National Park Transportation Association, a government-sanctioned monopoly that promised no visitors to Yellowstone would be "subjected to the hazard and inconvenience of walking ... through the park"). Special interests shaped the Organic Act by forcing rhetorical changes from the word "preserve" to "conserve" and by redefining "unimpaired".

We need a new charter for the management of our national parks, a charter that shuns interests groups and mandates preservation and scientific management of our national parks. Parks should remain public trusts but should be administered by non-government organizations.

I understand this idea will upset many, especially those who have a financial interest in perpetuating the status quo. However, people should ask themselves what it really is that they love: national parks or the national park service?

Frank, you could not have stated the case any better. The sooner the parks are administered by non-governmental entities the better. I'll also answer your question: it's the parks that we love, not the dysfunctional self-perpetuating bureaucracy that pretends to be in charge of them. The days of the green and gray should be fast be coming to an end because there's a brighter vision for these lands just over the horizon. I have every reason to feel great optimism that a completely new era of management and stewardship will emerge from the old and outdated methods of top down incompetence emanating from Washington, DC.

I await the coming evolution of the national parks with great anticipation.

There are parks, that put an application form for special events on their website.

Redwood NP -> Plan Your Visit -> Fees & Reservations:
(contrary to the file name this is not only about weddings but also athletic and other events)

I have read several references to Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO's) with the idea that somehow they could do better than the National Park Service. Do you compare their possible success with the abundance of NGO's operating in Iraq?

OK, let's get specific.... Who are these NGO's that could move into the parks and do it better? Do you have an organization/ company in mind? Where would the managers, maintenance specialists, cultural and resource managers, architects, landscape architects, planners, Law Enforcement, Interpreters, administrators that are working in the parks come from?

IMHO, the problems we all bemoan usually derive from folks without adequate background in the natural sciences or history or training in resources management. The NPS has been recruiting people from career fields far removed from park operations, and this lack of understanding is beginning to show up.

The NPS (like all other federal agencies and bureaus) takes its marching orders from the top. The precedent is being set by the administration, not the NPS. They are simply doing as they are told - the same thing everyone else here would do if they were in that position. When the adminstration changes over and new politically appointed leadership makes its way to the NPS, USFS, BLM, etc. is when things (hopefully) may change.

The NPS has it a lot better than the USFS, though - at least the Park Service doesn't have to answer to Mark Rey!

First, I wouldn't compare apples and oranges.

Secondly, cooperative associations are NGOs, and they have a good track record in national parks.

I think every park should be managed locally, not by the Soviet-style bureaucracy that the NPS has become. I think local NGOs, currently formed or yet to be created, could do a better job of managing local resources and responding quickly to changing needs than the bureaucrats thousands of miles away in the petrified government who have never even been to places like Crater Lake. Speaking of Crater Lake, I think the non-profit Crater Lake Institute could do a far better job than the current sinecurists entrenched in the park.

Labor would come where labor comes from: the free market. Without federal red tape, local parks will be able to hire fairly according to the need of the individual park.

When the adminstration (sic) changes over and new politically appointed leadership makes its way to the NPS, USFS, BLM, etc. is when things (hopefully) may change.

Wishful thinking, Matt. The problem is systematic and not party-specific. Politicians, of any leaning, are beholden to the transfer-seeking parasitic economy. No reform will occur as long as every federal program is an entitlement, or at least behaves like it is. By removing parks management from the federal government, we can prevent or reduce interest groups' influence. By decentralizing park management, it becomes much more difficult and expensive for interest groups to operate (imagine the difficulty lobbies would face if they tried to get subsidies in each of the 50 states rather than from just DC).


Consider physicist Freeman Dyson, who urged us to:

"never sacrifice economies of speed to achieve economies of scale. . . . Judging by the experience of the last 50 years, it seems that major changes come roughly once in a decade. In this situation it makes an enormous difference whether we are able to react to change in three years or twelve. An industry which is able to react in three years will find the game stimulating and enjoyable, and the people who do the work will experience the pleasant sensation of being able to cope. An industry which takes twelve years to react will be perpetually too late, and the people running the industry will experience sensations of paralysis and demoralization (emphasis added).

That last line seem familiar? It describes the latest survey on NPS job satisfaction, which if I remember correctly, was below that of prison workers.

Finally, for those who take offense at the suggestion breaking up the NPS monopoly on park management, I quote David Osborne and Ted Gaebler, authors of "Reinventing Government":

"It is one of the enduring paradoxes of American ideology that we attack private monopolies so fervently but embrace public monopolies so warmly."


I just re-read an article by John A. Baden, Ph.D. who wrote "National Parks' Future Lies in Trusts".
You can read the full article here:

Baden argues that "A public treasure does not inherently require governmental management" and gives specific details on how we can eliminate government (mis)management.

Endowment boards, like those running museums, hospitals, and private schools, would operate under a legal charter to steward individual parks. After receiving a one-time Congressional endowment, each park’s individual trust would be "on its own." The board, established by local environmental groups, business leaders, and citizens, would promote ecologically sensitive economic activities as part of their trustee responsibility.

Creative mechanisms such as a "Friends of Old Faithful" program could entice membership, dues, and democratic feedback from park lovers everywhere. Park trusts would free our parks from their precarious dependency on national politics, encourage long-term planning, and reintroduce accountability in management.

Perhaps Hoffman’s [DOI deputy assistant secretary] recent assault is an aberration we can ignore. More likely, the dangers to our parks will become more obvious as the threat of commercialization looms larger. Should this occur, those who care most deeply will look for alternatives to political management. Think trusts.

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