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Centennial Projects: Do They All Prepare the National Parks for the Next 100 Years?

National Park Service Centennial Logo
National Park Service Centennial Logo

A $12 million jazz museum. Marketing the parks for a specific industry. Installing composting toilets. These are some of the centennial projects that the National Park Service believes will "add sparkle to America's 'Crown Jewels.' "

Am I the only one wondering how?

The National Park Service's Centennial Initiative is a year old, and on its birthday Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and NPS Director Mary Bomar traveled to Yosemite National Park to roll out 201 projects viewed worthy of launching the NPS and its 391-unit park system into its second century.

"These proposals, and the ones to follow over the next 9 years, represent the cornerstones of a new century for the National Park Service and a new era of partnership with the American people," Mr. Kempthorne told reporters at a sun-drenched Yosemite on August 23.

Multi-use hiking and biking trails. Wayside exhibits. A new boat. Centennial parties for Glacier and Zion national parks. Installing utility connections. Shouldn't these projects be funded out of the Park Service's annual operations budget, and not considered bellwethers of the next century of America's national parks movement?

"When history is written, the Centennial Initiative will be second only to the creation of the National Park Service itself," proclaimed Ms. Bomar.

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Only history will determine if that statement rings true. At this point, with this list of projects, and with the existing guidelines, it's simply too early to say. Don't misunderstand. There are some very notable projects contained within the 201 the Interior secretary and Park Service director released:

* At Assateague Island National Seashore there's a proposal, in partnership with the Maryland Coastal Bays Foundation, to create a Partnership for Marine Resource Environmental Education and Conservation.

* At Biscayne National Park, a partnership with the University of Miami and South Florida National Parks Trust aspires to launch Coral Reef Rejuvenation: A Community Program.

* At Lake Mead National Recreation Area officials want to work with the Outside Las Vegas Foundation to create a "floating classroom" and "create Internet linkages with schools."

* At numerous park units there are proposals to foster future park advocates by working with today's students.

* At Mesa Verde National Park, a suggested project would Assess, Document, and Preserve Mesa Verde's Cliff Dwellings for Future Generations.

* At Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, the proposed Healthy Heart-Healthy Park initiative would use field trips to connect children physically, mentally, culturally and spiritually with the park.

But such projects are intermingled with ones to build toilets, connect utility lines, rebuild trails, and produce podcasts that, presumably, would be outdated by the time the Park Service celebrates its centennial in 2016. And what about the $1.5 million proposal to collaborate with the Alaska Travel Industry Association on a marketing program, one that seemingly would directly benefit Alaska's cruise-ship industry and not that state's national parks? How does that better the parks for the next century?

And then there's the $12 million "world-class jazz museum" proposed for the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park. We already have a National Jazz Museum in Chicago, the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, and jazz exhibits at the Smithsonian.

And even if this country needs yet another memorial to jazz, shouldn't the National Endowment for the Arts, and not the National Park Service, underwrite it?

Then, too, there are a handful of centennial projects that would aid wildlife: one to restore critical habitat for the endangered American crocodile and wading birds on Cape Sable in Everglades National Park; another to protect and restore rare bird habitat and seabird nesting colonies on Channel Islands National Park; one to evaluate the possibility of restoring fishers at Olympic National Park; another to restore the endangered Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtle at Padre Island National Seashore.

These wildlife projects are all worthy, but shouldn't the Park Service be addressing these issues now under both its mission to preserve natural resources and the Endangered Species Act, rather than banking on Congress's funding of the Centennial Initiative to get the job done?

Among my concerns with the lengthy list of projects is the fact that to even be considered for this list, a project needed to already have a partner lined up with funding. Which makes me wonder whether there were some great ideas, ideas that truly would help move the National Park Service into its second century, that didn't make the cut because they so far lack private-sector financial support?

I'm not the only one who noticed that requirement.

"The only parks to get on the list are ones that had partners ready to make written financial commitments, or so we were told. So we didn't have any such partners. It's interesting then to see at least one park on the list where their partner is 'donation box' monies they've already collected," says one park employee. "We're not supposed to be lobbying Congress but isn't that what this is, to create pressure to pass the public-private part of the budget?

Here's another comment, again from someone inside the NPS:

The problem with the whole centennial challenge thing is that you must have a commitment from another funder for 50% right now - not that you will commit to raise the 50%. It's obscene - I personally believe it is a way for Bush et al to say, "See, we offered to spend $100 million but you couldn't raise the match."

Many good and worthy (some much better than the ones PROPOSED) never got further because of that rule. The list that is being touted is not the final list - these are just the projects that have been certified as Centennial Challenge projects. There is no guarantee that any of them will be funded. Plus this is just 2008's list - could the NPS really obligate that many projects in one year? I doubt it.

As with much in this administration, it is just smoke and mirrors.

And therein lies a serious, potentially fatal flaw with the administration's approach to the Centennial Initiative. It's very possible that without private-sector partners no project, no matter how worthwhile, will go forward because the president's proposal requires a dollar-for-dollar match of the federal funding. So if no one wants to contribute to a Museum of the National Park Service, one proposal that is glaringly absent from the list unveiled in Yosemite, it won't get built in the near future. While the Park Service could try to fund it internally, the agency's current construction schedule is so deep that it could be years before such a facility is constructed.

That's one reason why the Centennial Initiative proposal forwarded by Representatives Nick Joe Rahall of West Virginia and Raul Grijalva of Arizona might be a better option: It would provide an additional $100 million annually for the next decade without need for a private match.

When Secretary Kempthorne and Director Bomar discussed the Centennial Initiative with reporters earlier this summer, they both talked about how the initiative would sweep across the national park system, touching all units, and that there would not be "haves" and "have nots." And yet, that is just what seems to have happened at this stage. Of the 201 projects deemed worthy, they touch only 116 park units, or less than a third of the total.

The biggest winner? Hands down that would be Yosemite, which has 16 projects among the 201. Why so many? Because The Yosemite Fund has some of the deepest, if not the deepest, pockets among the foundations that support America's national parks. Each of the 16 Yosemite projects carries The Yosemite Fund as a partner.

Among those parks shut out? Grand Canyon, which apparently has no friends with deep pockets.

True, more parks could become involved in the next nine years as more wish lists are rolled out ... if the Centennial Initiative is alive. Don't forget, Congress hasn't bought off entirely on this mission, and the next president could scuttle it long before 2016 arrives.

Beyond that, how much help would the Centennial Initiative provide towards whittling away the Park Service's $8 billion maintenance backlog? At first glance, the 201-project list would do little. That wasn't lost on the Tucson Citizen, which had this to say about the initiative:

The federal government needs to assess and address the most critical needs in our park system, which turns 100 on August 25, 2016. Instead, the Centennial Challenge is based not on the most dire circumstances but on whether parks were able to secure private partners.

The Centennial Initiative is a bold initiative, but it shouldn't be governed by money trails, nor focused solely on concrete projects. Not only should it look toward the future, it also should bolster today's NPS and national park system. And it should examine the organizational health of the National Park Service, its mission, and, dare I say, the appropriateness of each unit of the park system.

As I've previously noted, the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees long has suggested creation of a non-partisan National Park Service Centennial Commission that would be charged with, among other things, identifying an effective organizational model for the governance of the park system and Park Service.

“Enlightened national leadership must create the circumstances to begin this dialog on behalf of the broadest public interest. The commission will develop a report, or series of reports, on the status of the national park system, the issues the system faces, constraints that impact the system and challenges to be faced in the new century,” coalition member Rob Arnberger said recently.

“The commission’s work would examine alternatives for addressing these issues and constraints that must be engaged, including fiscal and human resources required to accomplish the mission of the system for the long term. The commission’s work will result in a plan…a template that the American people can look to in assuring that our most special places stay protected and special for a second century."

There remain nine years until the Park Service's centennial. While the Centennial Initiative to date has spurred interest in that celebration, much work remains to be done, both inside and outside the parameters of the initiative.

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Just a couple thoughts after looking back at some of the above responses. This is my first, foolish attempt at participating in one of these newfangled blogs. I look forward to the installation of my chip within a few years, so I won't have to use an external device to merge with the universe.

Planning is important to ensure that actions lead to the intended result. Sometimes planning documents are thick and you can stack them up in order to peer into the next cubicle. But sometimes they contain a wealth of thought, and examine the issues in depth, before working their way to a variety of solutions. In the Park Service, these possible solutions now include an environmentally preferred alternative.

Sometimes, arriving at the planned solution takes a long time. Horace Albright visited Chickamauga battlefield in 1915 when it was under the jurisdiction of the War Department. He found it difficult to understand without the aid of a guide or some sort of interpretation. He decided then that the battlefields and historic sites would fit in the national park system better than where they were. It wasn't until 1933 that Franklin Roosevelt reorganized the agencies and brought many historic sites into the National Park Service. A ranger or superintendent who works in a park for five or ten years may not have the time to accomplish some kinds of tasks. The questions for each are: what do they want to accomplish? And, does what they want to accomplish further the long range preservation and interpretation of the park?

Action without planning is easy. Sometimes it leads in the intended direction, but often it does not. Having been a field ranger, I can look back on my experience and some of the solutions that my coworkers and I suggested for problems without enough analysis. At my current park, visitors often ask where the restrooms are located. A common reaction is to suggest placing a sign that says "Restrooms" with an arrow pointing the way. That solution does help. But the solution that works when visitors don't see the sign is for our staff member to politely direct them to the restrooms.

I remember a sign I saw at the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park maybe 10 years ago that stated: "Visitors are responsible for knowing and obeying park regulations," or words to that effect. I recognize that sometimes federal magistrates have goofy ideas about the importance of signs to provide cover for enforcing regulations, but it's hard to imagine a more hostile greeting for someone entering a national park. On the other hand, it could be the perfect fundraising technique: require all visitors to buy copies of Title 36 Code of Federal Regulations and Titles 5, 16, and 18 of the United States Code and put the profits in the park donation box. And, when they get done reading them, they might know all of the laws they are supposed to obey. Well, except for the state laws. But that's another story. I bet that sign at Rocky Mountain was the product of a sign committee with a vocal ranger member who argued that it was necessary for the proper protection of the park. But it's a poor solution to the problem.

Mission 66 was the result of meticulous planning led by a man who had been preparing his whole life for such a task. Conrad Wirth's father Theodore was a park manager in Hartford and Minneapolis, where Conrad grew up. Theodore's plan was to provide a park within a half mile of every citizen in Minneapolis and he pretty well realized that goal. Conrad started with the Park Service in the early 1930s, and in 1933 managed to mobilize several hundred thousand CC' boys on the state side of the agency within just a couple months. By 1955, he was ready to lead the entire National Park Service to find ways for people to enjoy parks. The planners of Mission 66 invented the visitor center, and Conrad Wirth came up with the name. The visitor center is really just a tool to provide entry to the park and a offers a translator to help visitors "learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche."

I think we have yet to come up with a better tool than the visitor center or entrance station to get people into the parks. Money enables lots of things including trails, chain saws, pavement, velcro, goretex, light weight backpack gear, gps units, semiautomatic weapons, and ballistic vests. It also provides for planning and for visitor centers and interpretive media that help people learn about our national parks. We have to weigh the value of each and decide where our resources will go.

On the other hand, Mission 66 was quite the mess in Yellowstone in particular. I worked five summers in Grant Village - a Mission 66 debacle.

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

@Anne Mitchell Whisnant:
Thanks for your links and book recommendations. So everyone agrees, that the centennial initiative is nothing like Mission 66. That's sad.

Yet another reason to reclaim our public lands from the federal government.

Pardon my puritanical instincts, but I personally don't see the correlation between museum facilities and the NPS budget. On the other hand, if Yosemite is granted a disproportionate amount of the budget as suggested within the Centennial Initiative, all bets are off. I don't care WHO has the deepest pockets, and trust me, Grand Teton has about the deepest pockets you'll ever encounter. The entire fabric of this initiative was supposedly intended to bring about rapid and long overdue NEEDED improvements, as from what I've read regarding who gets what, the whole project is a farce. What can I say, just another shining example of your government in action.

The NPS has enough blueprints and acronym laden initiatives to clog Crater Lake and cover the Everglades. How many more studies, working groups, panels, visioning sessions, conferences and official reports does it take to see very clearly that NPS is a dysfunctional, self-perpetuating, politically befuddled bureaucratic morass. The parks and the visiting public deserve better!

Now don't go and jump on Arnsberger, he doesn't know any better. Reports and studies were the lifeblood of his career. He just can't countenance the awful truth that this agency is too broken to fix. More money will NOT help. It hasn't helped public education and it sure won't fix the systemic weakness that is inherent to all agencies of the federal government, especially those of the corrupt and ineptly run Department of Interior. The people writing these reports and initiatives are simply clinging to power and secure jobs.

To better serve the interests of the national parks in the future will require a whole new paradigm shift towards smaller more locally focused management that is both public and private and often will be a combination of the two. The 100 year-old model is officially dead. No one needs a WASO sanctioned report to tell us that the flat hatted green & gray has seen its final days of relevance.

Now, Haunted Hiker, before you can fix something you have to know what's wrong with it, no? And I agree, the NPS seems to have more than enough bureaucracy in it. But how can you fix something if you don't have a blueprint or know exactly what's wrong with it?

The agency's asset management program was long in coming, but we finally have a pretty good idea of what's wrong with the park system's infrastructure and a metric to determine where to start in fixing things. Shouldn't similar efforts go into, for instance, trying to assess how the regional offices function, whether there's a need for a full-fledged staff in each and every park unit (they share superintendents and staff in places like Sequoia and Kings Canyon and the Southern Utah Group, why not elsewhere?), and even whether the number of NPS units should be trimmed?

I don't like the sound of "reports and series of reports" any more than you, but how else can things get corrected? I like the idea of a free-standing committee that would assess things across the board and help guide the NPS. Of course, for that to happen I think we'd have to have a drastic makeover of the NPS hierarchy. Specifically, the NPS director could no longer be a political appointee, for such an individual would no doubt be quick to ignore a committee's recommendations.

Perhaps such reports have already been prepared. If so, let's give them some daylight.


You nailed it again. Could Arnberger's statement sound more bureaucratic? By God! This crisis calls for reports, reports and "a series of reports!" Reminds me of a scene in the movie Office Space where there's a bulletin board in the background with a flow chart titled "PLANNING TO PLAN."

Would some DOING TO DO be too much to ask for on this go around?

Anne, thanks for adding your studied perspective!!! I worriy less about where the funds come from as I do about how efficiently they will be managed. And will we remember and see the results of the Centennial Initiative more than 50 years later as we do the Mission 66 projects?

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