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Leadership Summit: Building For the Future

Laura Bush addresses the National Park Foundation Leadership Summit. White House photo by Shealah Craighead.

Laura Bush addresses the National Park Foundation's Leadership Summit on Partnership and Philanthropy Inaugural Founders Award Dinner Monday, Oct. 15, 2007, in Austin, Texas. White House photo by Shealah Craighead.

Now the hard work begins. Congress needs to be cajoled to pass the president's Centennial Initiative, new-found friends need to cash-in, and the national park system needs some loving attention if the National Park Service's centennial nine years hence is to truly be noteworthy.

Two-and-a-half days of meetings in Austin, Texas, at the National Park Foundation's Leadership Summit on Partnership and Philanthropy were energizing and hope-inspiring. They produced excitement about the centennial, spawned thought-provoking panel discussions on how partnerships and philanthropy could provide a much-needed boost for the perpetually cash-strapped Park Service, and held out hope that, with some decidedly concerted efforts, the national parks won't begin to decay once the Baby Boom generation that loves them so dearly fades away.

First Lady Laura Bush spoke at the gathering, as did two cabinet secretaries -- Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, Jr. -- Park Service Director Mary Bomar, captains of industry, and purse holders of foundations intrigued, if not yet entirely persuaded, about the prospect of giving to the parks.

"There's nothing like being awed by the grandeur of Denali, overwhelmed by the vastness of Crater Lake, or humbled by the centuries of human history in the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde. We want everyone to have the opportunity to make memories in our national parks, especially our children," the First Lady said Monday during her keynote address. "Improvements to our national parks and historical sites benefit every state. ... I urge Congress to support, and that means fund, this very important (Centennial Initiative.)"

First Lady Laura Bush addresses Leadership Summit (1:26)
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Of course, the Centennial Initiative alone won't provide all the salve the national parks need. Most of the eligible products announced so far don't address long-standing problems. Most, if not all, parks are short-staffed; at Acadia National Park, for instance, one fifth of the 100 authorized full-time jobs are vacant due to funding woes. At other parks, positions of retiring personnel have been left vacant so the money for their salaries can be spent on operational costs. And, of course, there's the well-known $8 billion backlog in maintenance needs across the 391-unit park system.

Beyond that, questions hang over how partnerships and philanthropy will be married to benefit the parks. Where do you draw the line between helping the Park Service and replacing it with volunteers and concessionaires, and how do you engage common Americans to donate to the Centennial Initiative are just two.

Seemingly silencing that second concern is the fact that the American public is a very generous lot. One of the summit's speakers pointed out that $295 billion was donated to charitable causes in 2006 -- $222.9 billion from individuals. For fiscal 2007, that sum was projected to rise to $3.7 trillion. The trick for those supporting the Centennial Initiative is to corral just a fraction of those dollars for the parks.

Secretary Kempthorne told the conferees that he hopes the Centennial Initiative ignites a new era of philanthropy in the parks. At the same time, he and others stressed that philanthropic interests will not give to the parks if their dollars are used to replace, rather than supplement, federal funding. Too, they maintained that no corporation wants to advertise its presence in the parks, and that there are Park Service regulations in place to prevent that from happening anyway.

Mr. Kempthorne said the initiative, if passed, would provide funding to preserve lost Civil War battlefields, better protect cultural resources, and even create a fund dedicated to park land purchases, largely to close "holes" in parks created by inholdings.

"It's within our grasp to achieve excellence at all our national parks in America," he said.

Not everyone was convinced. Some of the smaller friends groups told me they worry they don't have the cachet to entice philanthropic funds to help pay for their needs. In response to that, however, was mention that if Congress approves the president's preferred funding proposal -- that private dollars be matched by federal dollars -- then whenever a dollar of federal funding is matched and released half be directed towards the project in question and half go into a discretionary fund for other parks' projects.

Beyond raising dollars for the parks, there must be successful efforts to entice the younger generations -- the Gen-Ys and their younger siblings -- into the parks.

"Our children have been seduced by the dark side of video games," Park Service Director Mary Bomar said at one point. "Is there anyone surprised that more Americans know Homer Simpson's home town than Abraham Lincoln's? Yes, Springfield (Ill.).

"... We are locked in battle to make sure that we get the hearts and minds of Americans back, to re-engage the American public with their national parks."

NPS Director Mary Bomar addresses Leadership Summit (1:45)
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As the centennial draws near, much work needs to be done. Strategies for raising public awareness of the centennial as well as for generating contributions will be necessary. Park friends groups will have to court philanthropies and convince them they have worthwhile projects. Urban, cultural, and historical parks must benefit as much as the Western landscape parks.

And then, of course, there's the issue of climate change. But that's fodder for another post.


"Our children have been seduced by the dark side of video games," Park Service Director Mary Bomar said at one point. "Is there anyone surprised that more Americans know Homer Simpson's home town than Abraham Lincoln's? Yes, Springfield (Ill.).

"... We are locked in battle to make sure that we get the hearts and minds of Americans back, to re-engage the American public with their national parks."

Since when is it the job of the NPS director to be "locked in battle" over the hearts and minds of anyone? Why doesn't she stick to the more mundane task of preserving and managing the resources under her agency's purview and leave the task of attracting visitors to the free market?

I also don't think it is Mary Bomar's role to fight the "dark" forces that are supposedly seducing America's young away from a wholesome frolic in Yosemite and resulting in more awareness of Homer Simpson than Abe Lincoln. If you want to point fingers Mary you might want to start with our wonderful government run schools.

I urge Ms. Bomar to refocus her energies on the less glamorous job of making sure that park roads are free of potholes, that hungry bears and raccoons are staying out of garbage dumps and that the toilets are clean and flushing properly along the Blue Ridge Parkway. You need to leave the winning of hearts and minds to someone else.

Mary, from where I sit it seems that you've got more than enough on your plate to keep you plenty busy. Before you start reaching into realms you have no business posturing on why don't you get your own house in order first!

I think it's wholly appropriate for the director of the National Park Service to be concerned about the youth of America in regard to the national parks. Frankly, I think all of us should be concerned about the younger generations and their tight focus on everything electronic and cartoons of mockery and disrespect.

I could understand castigating someone for endorsing such behavior, but why criticize a public official for their concern over younger generations growing more and more detached from the natural world around them? What's wrong with someone in Washington taking a stance on the importance of getting the younger generations away from their electronics and into nature, if only for a while?

After all, where there are no park advocates, there is no park system.

Damn Kurt, your so right! I see kids in the inner cities just starving for someone to thrown them into the woods. I mean that literally! I advocate more leadership academies for such a purpose. However, in the long run I don't endorse any of Bush's environmental, economic or war policies.

It is the legislated responsibility of the NPS to preserve and protect federally owned natural and historic areas that have been officially designated as such by Congress. The idea that this same agency is somehow duty bound to help wean young people from their "tight focus on everything electronic" is not, nor should it be, part of its mission. This is not the proper function of government.

The idea that a director of a federal agency is "doing battle" to win over young people is ludicrous. Just pick up the trash, lead the cave tours and burn out the underbrush when it gets dangerously thick. The free market will decide who comes to visit. This is not a social welfare agency responsible for individual moral uplift. That is the personal choice of each person in the free market place of ideas and products.

If the kids of today prefer a Gameboy to to a hike in the woods that is none of Ms. Bomar's business. All she needs to concern herself with is maintaining the integrity of the parks in her charge and the visitors will surely come. The Organic Act says nothing about doing battle to win hearts and minds, but only to provide for the enjoyment of whomever happens to come through the park entrance regardless of who they may happen to be.

I think you're reading too much into Director Bomar's rhetoric. Remember whom she was addressing. I didn't interpret her as saying the NPS needs to add one more duty to its roster, but rather that we as a society have to recognize a responsibility to, if you will, lead the youth of America into the woods and show them the wonderment that resides there.

Will "visitors surely come" if the NPS simply maintains the integrity of the park system? I wouldn't be so sure. Someone needs to tell the world what that system holds. In these days, maintaining a park is no guarantee that someone will come to visit.

I was at Mammoth Cave this past weekend and judging from the lines that I stood in there wasn't a shortage of visitors or young people. The same could be said of my trip to Zion, Yellowstone and Grand Teton in June or to Cape Canaveral National Seashore in April. I don't know what parks you've been visiting but I've seen plenty of kids enjoying the national parks. The ones on my cave tour were well mannered and asked good questions.

If the numbers are dropping some isn't that a good thing? I remember when I was a ranger back in the 1990's and the high-pitched whining screech constantly heard emanating from NPS management was that the public was "loving the parks to death". This was practically a mantra.

Why does the NPS always seem to see-saw back and forth from one crisis mode to another? I thought less visitation was good for the sake of the resource.

Go figure.

Beamis: your quote, "but Iv'e seen plenty of kids enjoying the national parks". What kids!? Privileged rich kids who have access to the parks. Most inner city folks are too busy working two or three jobs to maintain a family, and with less time to shuttle their kids to the National Parks. Maybe a helping hand from the NPS could give more insight on this least take a big step towards this direction. The National Parks are meant to educate and not to be stifled by such comments like yours.

I am going to agree with Beamis on one point. It is the Director's main job to defend and protect the parks and programs of the National Park Service. She needs to make sure that parks have sufficient resources to 1. preserve and protect resources; 2. provide high quality visitor services; and 3. maintain productive relationships with park interest groups. She also needs to assure that the Park Service's rsponsiblities for recreation and historic preservation outside the boundaries of the parks are effectively carried out.

That said, I don't think she should be constrained from publicly commenting on issues that she believes may potentially affect these parks and programs. I consider her language about "struggling for the hearts and minds of people seduced by the dark side of video games" to be over-the-top. But I too wonder about what the future holds for the National Park System, not so much in terms of fluctuating visitor counts, but in terms of the political support for preserving and protecting the parks. During my years with the NPS, its most fanatical supporters were those who visited the sites and experienced what they had to offer. If we don't connect with people who vote or will vote, we will risk losing that support that has always been so important.

So, let's cut the Director some slack. Maybe her speech writer had an off day,. I'm a lot more worried about her decision to support snowmobiles in Yellowstone than I am about her speech in Austin. After all, who will remember it 5 months from now? I guarantee you we will be hearing snowmobiles in Yellowstone and the Tetons for longer than that. And that's really from the dark side.

Rick Smith

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