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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.

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Ah, so many issues, so little time......


For three and a half years I served as general manager for a $105MM family of 7-8 units. Annual budget reveiw and approval was one of my main respnsibilities, and I wasn't above rewriting them based on the annual planning stratagies discussed in our corporate planning meetings. I would allocate additional funds for certain areas while eliminating from others based on the focus that we at corporate dictated that each unit pursue for the upcomming fiscal year. Through what some might label as micro-managing, I would then closely track the expenditures of each entity to ensure that our focus was being implemented and properly administrated by the unit managers. I have since embarked on a career in the sciences, and have been placed in charge of establishing a research laboratory. In both cases, total responsibility for all things related to how and why monies are allocated fall directly onto my shoulders. Maybe due to this forced accountability, and the level of ethical pride that was instilled in me years ago, I cannot sanction, condone, or understand the concept of "misused" funds. To say otherwise would, like yourself, be untrue to my principles. You're correct in stating that I don't know you......nor do I know any of the regular contributors to this site. I trust that you are all intelligent, decent, respectable folk, since I have no evidence to the contrary. I just might, as you suggest, enjoy you as a person. And you would be most welcome to join me on my next trans-canyon trek across the Colorado, along the Appalachian Trail, into the Narrows, across some Civil War battlefield site or elsewhere. But after some period of days, you're likely to hear more comments that would confirm my position as your "troll", as I don't suffer fools lightly in any aspect of life, and sooner or later, I'm sure I'd commit another faux pax regarding some issue you hold dear. But no personal affront was then or is now intended, I assure you.


I apologize for taking much longer to reply than did yourself, and thank you to both you and Beamis for the biographical data. My intent was to determine the extent of the level of interaction that you both allude to in various posts, and what level of management you have been influenced by and interacted with during your tenure. It is most unfortunate that mediocraty is the rule rather than the exception, but as I mentioned to Beamis, the few good people in federal offices seem to have little staying power due the tolerance and in some cases fostering nature of building and maintaining a staff with the sole intention of surrounding one's self with people of lesser talents, abilities and ambitions solely to make yourself appear "larger than life", thus solidifying your future within the department. Unfortunately, our current governing bodies are ripe with these types of management at more levels in more departments that you would care to believe. Rangers hired at less than GS-5? No wonder they can't find enough good people. It's hard to get by on $24K annually, even single and living at home! The adage regarding government work is as old as the hills, and as true. But when you don't empower people such that they have no role in determining their future, what can you expect? I'm not attempting to rationalize, just overstating the obvious I guess.

I'm familiar with Rauch's work. I gather not too many people are due to their inability to understand I can take the stance that I do regarding our politcal system, being a proud member of NEITHER side, both losers in my opinion. Those of us who project independence are too often labeled "libertarian", another term invented by the media.
When I stress the term INDEPENDENT, I'm usually confronted with "independent Dem or independent Rep?". Jeez, get a clue folks, independent means INDEPENDENT! As in, not dependent on EITHER side. Next they'll be calling me a Separatist, God forbid.

My plan centered around the "Public Land in Public Hands" mantra actually came to me some 6-7 years ago, and unfortunately I've yet to find the time to start the organization process. But you're quite correct, the current state of affairs isn't worthy of much besides the scrap pile, as it hasn't worked, and it's progression has been one of regression of late. The federal government obviously isn't concerned with the current state of affairs, only with the opportunity to generate further profits from the "public" lands without the monies going to public cuncerns. Ah, the continued raping of a nation, what WILL they think of next? As I mentioned previously, there are indeed methods of legally taking back what is ours, as a people of this nation, and turning they system around to work for us as members of this society. Unfortuantely, it will take quite some time and there will be legal battles, probably up to the Supreme Court level. Fortunately, the Constitution has some mentions that can be used to build a case around, making this a bit less tedious a fight as one might believe. After winning that approval, the dominos fall fairly easily into place, in terms of consolidation of current resources. Management, administration, and new funding sources are the major hurdles that will require much for intense planning and execution in order to realign the current system into a fully functioning entity. More exacting details to come, I promise.............

I have always wondered why we don't have an option on our federal tax returns to donate $1 of our refund to the National Parks similar to the option to fund the presidential campaigns. I would think most folks would donate and it's a very efficient way to solicit donations to our national treasures. I would be much more inclined to donate to our parks than to more campaign ads on TV.

Thank you for your well wishes. "i'd like to see some further activity on your blog, it seems like a more appropriate place for the tenor of your comments as well as a more suitable location". I enjoy participating in discussion on NPT because it's the best NPS discussion site on the web. Dissent and criticism are necessary to democratic discussions, and this post, due largely to those few who challenge the status quo, has received more comments than any other currently on the front page. Without critics, the site would be silent of significant discussion and debate, and only sycophants would remain; what's the point in that? Until Jeremy or Kurt directly tell me to buzz off, I'll remain a gadfly who presents an opposing view.

The test of democracy is freedom of criticism. --David Ben-Gurion

There's much to address here, and this is the Haunted Hiker's busiest time of year. But I want to take the time to say a few things.

One: Beamis was an brilliant interpreter and dedicated employee. I don't know Frank (at least I don't think I do) but I wish I did. But then I do have a weakness for crushed idealists. Especially the funny ones.

Two: To dismiss someone's opinions, statements, or rationales because they are "disgruntled" is an ad hominem attack. In other words, lazy logic. I saw supervisors do this over and over again during my 12 years with the NPS. We are all guilty of it from time to time, just like we are all guilty of slouching. Regardless, the NPS is long over due for some well-spoken challenges to the conventional wisdom. Let's straighten our backs and be strong enough to contemplate the insights offered by so-called "disgruntleds"!!!

Three: You can do more (or at least as much) for the parks and the visitors from the outside than you can from the inside.

Gotta go. Spooky Trails y'all!

lone hiker- i was the one who posted "misused" and i can tell you, aside from the entity that i run, i see misused and hear about misused funds everywhere. from public radio stations to large corporations, it happens... let's not split semantical hairs here, i meant what i wrote. to deny it is to deny reality.

and as for having me on your payroll? you don't really know me, nor my perspective, so why make a flaming, trollish comment like that here? you don't even know me, so please, take a nicer tone. you'd probably like me, maybe even take a hike in a park with me! (unless you really are a "lone" hiker!) ;)

frank- honestly, i'd like to see some further activity on your blog, it seems like a more appropriate place for the tenor of your comments as well as a more suitable location, perhaps, than one who focuses more on parks *overall* than simply reform. additionally, i'm glad you aren't working for the nps system and are now teaching... you're probably making a greater impact on society in general anyway and we need intelligent, competent, award winning teachers.

Lone Hiker,
I was a seasonal national park ranger for ten summers starting out in fire management for three summers and finally working my way up to a GS-5 and an interp job. (My first season in interp, one of this blog's editors was my room mate.) As a park ranger, I earned the NPS Special Achievement Award and was considered highly capable by my supervisors. I worked directly with the public in high-volume parks and VCs on the front lines while trying to work my way into a permanent position, which never happened. I just re-read my journal from 7 years ago, and the frustration was apparent. I gave myself until 30 to get a permanent job or get out of the service (due to lack of health care, money, and stability). I dragged it out until age 32 and am now (very happily) teaching (I am so relieved not to be a seasonal ranger). I worked directly with other "grunts", especially those in resource management. Often, as a seasonal, I was separated from upper management, especially in larger parks. Upper management, I felt by their treatment of us, viewed seasonals with contempt and disdain. I still remember the chief ranger at one park screaming at his subordinate over the radio to "Keep the seasonals off the radio!" during an emergency situation in which we (seasonals) were involved. I also remember many workers saying things like, "Good 'nuff for gov'rment work!"

For a time, I was bitter and disgruntled about not getting the permanent job, about having my life put at risk because of profit and incompetence, about the severe disorganization, about the power hungry Gestapo, and so on. I broke down and freaked out. Later, I wanted to understand more about why government doesn't function and discovered the book "Goverment's End" by Jonathan Rauch. It's not leftist or rightist or even completely libertarian. It opened my eyes, and since reading the book, I've spoken out against the calcification of our government, the NPS included. No longer bitter, I simply want what's best for the places I consider sacred, and I don't think political management and funding of national parks is what's best.

A big distinction that needs to be made is that in a business the "misused" funds were obtained through voluntary transactions. The government, on the other hand, gets their monies through coercion. Every April 15th you had better be paid up to Big Brother or face the seizure of your assets or sent to a federal prison. Doesn't exactly build a basis for accountability, now does it?

Also, continued "misuse" of funds in the private sector will ultimately result in the failure and insolvency of the business in question. In the government "misusing" funds usually brings about a multiplicity of non-consequential responses such as, but not limited to: oversight hearings, threats of funding cut-offs and suggestions for more stringent guidelines concerning the oversight of the given spending. Why just in today's headlines we can read: Millions Wasted on Government Travel

Does anyone really expect these misused funds to be recovered? Will anyone lose their job over this? I know I'm tossing softballs but bear with me.

The point is that what we see in the NPS is part of a much larger systemic rot and corruption that pervades the entire framework of the federal government. People like Anon have come to accept the coercive theft and then the misuse of this ill gotten wealth as if it were par for the course in the accepted norms of human behavior. I beg to differ and am sure that this person does not accept the persistent misuse of their own private wealth. Anon certainly can't afford too. None of us can.

Just a clarification.

By the way, what's this garbage?

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.

Mismanagement is inevitable? Poor accounting practices are inevitable? Lack of accountability in inevitable?

Boy am I glad I never had you in MY employ! Maybe the author intended to use the term misguided or misdirected, but I can't stand behind the term misused. Since often times priorities become realigned between the times budgets are submitted and receive final approval and are actually funded, it could be possible that some line items were "reprioritized" in favor of preceived more immediate or more critical concerns, but that's not misuse in my neighborhood. I'd appreciate a bit more of specific definition and notable instances of where monies were misused. Then we can dissect the beast.

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