Is the National Park Service's Centennial Initiative as "audacious" as Director Mary Bomar claims it to be? Will it truly prepare the agency for its second century, or is it lacking in its current form some critical aspects that are necessary for the Park Service to attain greatness as protector of arguably the world's best park system?
Dwight Pitcaithley served as chief historian for the Park Service from 1995 to 2005. In his insightful and thought-generating essay, On the Brink of Greatness: National Parks and the Next Century, written for the George Wright Society, Mr. Pitcaithley leaves us wondering whether there are areas that so far have glaringly been overlooked in the Park Service's centennial planning.
Indeed, he writes that the agency is drastically underfunded; is failing its employees by not providing opportunities for continuing education; is hamstrung by politics, and; is not adequately supporting its cultural and natural resource programs. Continuing to fail to adequately address those areas would be a critical mistake, one that would fail the national park system and, in tandem, our children and their children and their children's children.
The centennial will either begin a renaissance for this most American of American institutions or it will pass, as so many centennials pass, with much fanfare and celebration signifying nothing more than the banal mediocrity which unfortunately we have come to accept from important national anniversaries.
As has been pointed out on these pages before, the Centennial Initiative is a bold concept, but one that seemingly is missing some key elements. In introducing the initiative earlier this year, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and NPS Director Bomar spoke boldly of their vision for the Park Service's future:
* Stewardship and science will guide decisions, Mr. Kempthorne said in his cover letter to the president. An inventory of all wildlife in parks will be completed, a vital baseline to monitor change and adjust management. Strategic acquisitions will protect landscapes.
* Much has been accomplished and more remains to be done to fulfill a common American dream -- to leave things better for those who follow us, added Ms. Bomar in her own letter.
* This is not only a report to the president, but a pledge to the American people, who are the shareholders in the greatest system of parks and special places in the world ... a pledge that the men and women of the National Park Service will continue in preserving these wonderful places for the generations yet to come, Ms. Bomar added a bit later.
The two also said projects deemed worthy of helping the agency move strongly into its second century would revolve around stewardship, environmental leadership, recreational experience, education and professional excellence.
And yet, while the first 201 projects declared "eligible" for centennial funding touch on those five areas, what seems to be missing is a solid, underlying cohesion to them. Indeed, those projects were selected largely, if not entirely, on the merits of already having gained funding of some measure from private groups, not entirely because they embraced one of those five points or truly would strengthen the Park Service or park system.
In his essay, Mr. Pitcaithley calls for clearer, and more determined, foresight as the Park Service moves towards its centennial.
As this country begins to think about the centennial of the National Park Service, it is appropriate that we have a serious conversation about parks and their value to our society, and the role we want parks and the National Park Service to play in the future. What is our obligation, as the trustees of these magnificent places, to our children and their children? The upcoming centennial provides an opportunity to think creatively about the kind of National Park Service we want for the next century and envision systemic changes for its betterment and ours.
The 100th birthday of the National Park Service should be cause for a national celebration. It should prompt us to imagine a future for the agency and the magnificent collection of parks and programs it manages based not on the vision of a hundred years ago, but on the reality of today.
Mr. Pitcaithley's essay in its entirety (© 2007 The George Wright Society. Used by permission) can be found below. But here are some snippets:
* "As we envision a future for the National Park Service, we must logically consider the problems that currently plague it -- primarily those of inadequate budgets and increased politicization. While Congress is enamored with the idea of new parks, it has never felt obligated to support those parks with adequate and consistent funding."
* According to studies by the National Parks Conservation Association, the average budget shortfall among nearly 100 park units is 32 percent. Yellowstone's shortfall is 35 percent, Gettysburg's 35 percent, Everglades 32 percent, Valley Forge's 36 percent, Acadia's 53 percent, Fort Sumpter's 24 percent.
* The rapid turnover among Park Service directors in recent years "means that the essential relationships between the NPS and Congress and interested support organizations, not to mention funding priorities, change with the administrations and that the focus of the agency shifts with political winds. These changes at the very top of the agency create a degree of instability in an organization that can only be successful in a future characterized by certainty and consistency."
To that end, Mr. Pitcaithley suggests the agency's director no longer be a political appointee but rather an individual who serves a 15-year term, "on the model of the Government Accountability Office. This model has served GAO, and the American people, well by preventing politics from influencing that agency's decision-making process. Following the GAO's lead in this regard would also break the detrimental cycle of the NPS director tendering his or her resignation on January 20th upon the inauguration of a new administration."
* The Park Service must recommit to science in the parks.
* "A renewed vision for the future should also include authorization and funding ... for the National Park Service to send its employees -- in all disciplines -- back to institutions of higher learning to seek advanced degrees so the agency can manage its resources and programs with the very best of current science and scholarship."
* Annual funding for the agency, if it is to escape its hefty $8 billion maintenance backlog and move toward greatness, should be in the $5 billion-$6 billion range. "... funding the basic requirements of the National Park Service constitutes such a small fraction of the operations of the federal government that if the current budget were doubled to $5 billion, that figure would amount to less than 0.002 percent of the president's proposed 2008 budget! Proper funding of the National Park Service is not about money; it is about priorities. National parks are important to the ecological and civic health of this nation and should be funded with public monies."
* Do away with entrance fees to the parks. "This user fee is inherently inequitable. In a democracy such as ours, the educational and recreational benefits of the national park system should not be available only to those who can afford them. The riches of the national parks should be available to all without reference to economic status."
Mr. Pitcaithley's is a valuable essay, one whose message arrives in plenty of time for this administration and the next and the next to weigh, and act, if they truly want a great National Park Service and park system.