You are here

Will Greatness Mark the National Park Service's Next Century?

Toward the Centennial. National Parks Traveler illustration, Mather photo from NPS Historic Photograph Collection

Stephen T. Mather, the first National Park Service director, and Mary Bomar, the current director. Mather photo from NPS Historic Photograph Collection.

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.

Featured Article


Thanks for bring this article to our attention.

After reading it, I find that Pitcaithley makes no mention of cutting the bureaucratic waste in the NPS. There is only the familiar plea to throw more money at the problem.

The turnover rate in recent years has increased Biologists and geologists, archeologists and historians and others, whose collective experience and knowledge of park resources built over decades is critical to the "unimpaired" nature of parks, were slated to be replaced by private-sector contractors.

I'm glad Pitcaithley put unimpaired in quotes here. The federal government has done a lousy job keeping parks unimpaired, and the argument that we need government workers to continue the century-long job of overdeveloping our parks is laughable.

A budget of $5–6 billion does not seem unreasonable given the requirements and rising costs of maintaining 20,000 buildings, almost 1,000 campgrounds, 1,600 wastewater systems, 1,300 water systems...

So in one breath, Pitcaithley states we need government workers to continue keeping parks unimpaired, then in the next breath he lists all the "improvements" (impairments) to our national parks. Instead of considering that maybe the park service has attempted to do too much, Patcaithley asks for yet more handouts to placate the beast's ravenous appetite for tax dollars.

"No house or hotel or road of any sort should ever be built near this sea of silence."

Had only the NPS listened to Miller, Muir, and other conservationists of the time, we wouldn't need billions of dollars to maintain the impairment of our national treasures.

Greatness and government don't go together in the same sentence. Any "greatness" that people feel about the national parks is derived from the places themselves. There are few things truly great about a bureaucracy, except maybe its ability to persist in the face of its many obvious failures. The power to tax is a boon to perpetuated failure all over the globe.

Greatness is generally derived from the self-interested goals and ambitions that people produce voluntarily. Involuntary taxation is no way to go about producing greatness of any kind. When one thinks of the Department of the Interior does the word greatness immediately pop into your head? How about the Pentagon? Congress? The White House? The Postal Service? Public schools? The DMV?

When one thinks of greatness we tend to think of timeless works of art, inspiring architecture, literature, inventions, high mountains peaks and selfless sacrifice in the face of adversity. These are NOT the qualities of a self-perpetuating bureaucracy, even one that has offices in very pretty places.

lol... if you two market experts (frank, beams) are suggesting that smith's "invisible hand" is going to take better care of the parks than a government agency, i'd ask that you google "market externalities." the nps may not be the best, but they're better than the rest. misused funds are inevitable, whether an agency or a corporation or a small business. only the nps, successful or not, has the best intentions in managing our parks.

"Best intentions". Ha!

Consider a recent New York Times editorial. After noting Americans' overwhelming support for national parks, the Times opines: "Yet in the past two months we have seen two proposed revisions (of management policy). The first, written by Paul Hoffman, a deputy assistant secretary in the Interior Department, was a genuinely scandalous rewriting that would have destroyed the national park system."

The second draft was only somewhat better. According to the National Parks Conservation Association, "the proposed policies re-define the over-arching duty of the park service, eliminating references to longstanding legal mandates that clearly emphasize preservation of resources.... The replacement statement sets a dangerous precedent that could put enjoyment of resources, including motorized abuse, ahead of conservation." They warn it would foster increased air and noise pollution due to more jet skis and snowmobiles, as well as expanded livestock grazing: both "high-impact" uses. Source:

Even if I believed that NPS managers really had the "best intentions" (for which there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary), political pressures will continue to jeopardize their mission until the parks are depoliticized.

Beamis is right; government's golden age has passed. We're left with a calcified system where parasites fight it out for their slice of the pie. Today's government truly is incapable of anything great.

By the way, market externalities include monopolies, so why are you so adverse to competition in managing public lands?

And for your homework, try Googling "government monopoly". Let me help you. A government monopoly is a coercive monopoly. "Coercion is the practice of compelling a person to behave in an involuntary way (whether through action or inaction) by use of threats, intimidation or some other form of pressure or force." According to economist Murray Rothbard, "a coercive monopolist will tend to perform his service badly and inefficiently."

Let me spell it out: NPS = a coercive monopoly (i.e. poor service, high prices--entrance fees, and extremely inefficient).

Here's what I said back on August 5th in the "Setting Precedents in the Parks" thread.

Having the NPS pendulum sway back and forth from left to right, from administration to administration, is more of a problem than ANY of the superlatives I've seen mentioned here. No, that doesn't mean privatize it. It means create some buffers to protect the parks from the direct influence of a potential idiot in the oval office, whether left or right. In all their haste to make the president du jour happy, in the long run, NPS can easily wind up going nowhere and having spent a lot of money in the process. Perhaps consider installing NPS directors in the same way that Federal Reserve or CIA directors are... subject to approval by congress, and largely independent of the whims of politicians.

Glad the George Wright Society agrees with me! If I remember correctly from viewing the society's website about a month ago, there will be a series of reports/essays on the subject at hand, so I encourage everyone to bookmark the site and keep an eye on any updates.

Go on head which your bad self Frank, quoting Rothbard! I wonder if Mary Bomar has ever heard of him or the Austrian school of free market economics.

Why is the government constantly being judged by its intentions rather than its actions? Why does it seem that so many people who frequent this website are so dead set against the free market? I know that they all enjoy the fruits of this system but steadfastly claim that national parks are an antidote to the toxic ills that it creates and the parks could NEVER be run along these lines.

Whether these people want to admit it or not this thing we call wilderness is a commodity. It is something that is currently owned, managed and marketed by government (there are some privately held wild lands) and not very efficiently or wisely. Why do people so steadfastly believe that the demand for wilderness preservation could not be met by self-interested action through the free market to protect land for those wishing to experience nature in the raw?

I for one believe that it could be done and I daresay much better than the current crop of corrupt agencies that get their funds through theft (the IRS) and through legislated monopoly control of vast tracts of lands, especially in the West, that are plunder acquired through violated treaties, wars of aggression (Mexican War) and corporatist shenanigans (of which Grand Teton & Shenandoah are two good examples).

By the way where are the most polluted places in the country? How about government facilities like Hanford, WA; the Savannah River Plant SC (both filled with square miles of nuclear waste above and below ground), Rocky Flats, CO; Dugway Proving Grounds, UT (nerve gas depot); Area 51 (a major PCB and hazardous waste incinerator placed way out in the Mojave some distance from the prying eyes of the public); Los Alamos, NM; Livermore Labs, CA the list could go on and on. These places are also exempt from the environmental laws that everyone else has to abide by.

Again let's at least judge on actions and leave good intentions for get well cards.

Frank, could you explain to me what you mean? The way I'm reading you, you are guilty of the fallacy of denying the antecedent.

1. NPS managers have the best intentions.
2. Political pressures will continue to jeopardize their mission until the parks are depoliticized.

If (1. or ~1.), then 2.
(1. or ~1.)
Therefore, 2. (by modus ponens) - though, what this means is unclear (that is, what do the terms mean, how do they relate to each other; how is it that 2. came to be stated?)

3. Government's golden age has passed.
4. Government is incapable of anything great.
5. Market externalities include monopolies.
6. Government monopolies are coercive monopolies.
7. Coercion is the practice of compelling a person to behave in an involuntary way...
8. A coercive monopolist will tend to perform his service badly and inefficiently.
9. If the NPS (government) is a coercive monopoly, it will not be efficient.
10. The NPS (government) is a coercive monopoly.
10a. Therefore, the government is not efficient. (modus ponens 9., 10.)

But, in the context of this you seem also to be saying this unstated premise (11.),

11. If the government is efficient, it would be managing public lands well.
12. The government is not efficient (10a.)
13. Therefore, it does not manage public lands well. (fallacy of denying the antecedent).

Furthermore, you also seem to be saying something like:

14. Competition is more efficient than government, which is coercively monopolistic. (Competition is a better way to manage public lands - hence, "so why are you so adverse to competition in managing public lands")
15. That which is more efficient manages better. (But, that begs the question and also casts doubt on the premises connected by 11.).

Or, you are saying, government monopoly and market competition are the only ways to manage public lands (which seems unfair except I haven't ever seen you consider other possible options)?

As I think you know, Frank, I don't entirely disagree with you, especially your critique of government and government monopolies. What I think you have yet to show is how that leads us to your conclusion that parks should be managed by competing market forces. The connection between "efficiency" and "better" is unproven at best, derived by fallacy at worst. The reduction to these choices has not been established.

So, I for one would like greater clarity from you. I think some would deny that efficiency is the only value at stake in management. Others would question the notion that "management" should be the way we describe the human relationship with parks. And, still others would simply deny the argument that market forces are actually efficient enough to deal with competing economic wants. I think people like me can accept many of your premises without accepting the conclusions you seem to be drawing. Help us fill in the blanks. Perhaps, you've edited yourself too much!


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

I don't want to get into a long argument about the effectiveness of government bureaus. I will leave that to people like Beamis and Frank whose opinions about the subject are well known to NPT readers.

I am a former NPS employee. Most of the people with whom I worked always felt that they owed their loyalty to the National Park System, not to the National Park Service. At the end of my career, I wanted to be measured by what I had done for parks and not for my skill in budget execution or personnel management.

As I read Dwight's paper, I see him calling for the agency to be as good as the parks it manages. Instead of a budget exercise, let's make the next 9 years in the run up to the Centennial a time when we try to make the NPS into what Horace Albright had in mind when he said, "Don't let the Park Service become just another government bureau." Let's look at the question of governance. Should the NPS remain in Interior? Let's think about whether the Director should have a term in office other than the 4 to 6 year cycle that is so common today. Let's think about how to assure that information generated by scientific research forms the basis for planning and decision-making. Let's review how to offer the public a meaningful role in the decision-making process. Let's see if another budget cycle is appopriate for an agency that needs to do long term planning to assure resources protection and preservation. Let's rethink how parks do their three basic jobs: provide quality visitor services, preserve and protect resources, and maintain productive relationships with park interest groups. Let's examine the fee structure. Let's determine how to measure success in parks. It certainly isn't the number of visitors who come although this is getting a lot of attention now.

Each generation of Americans, speaking through its representatives in the Congress, has added areas to the National Park System that they believed merited protection in perpetuity. We owe these areas the highest standard of care possible, not only as a matter of generational respect, but also because our children and their children deserve the opportunity to visit these areas. The Centennial offers the NPS the chance to re-energize and reinvigorate itself. It will be still further on its way to becoming "just another government bureau" if it fails to respond to the kinds of issues that Dwight lays out in his paper.

Rick Smith

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide

Recent Forum Comments