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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.


The other day I was talking to a community member who was lamenting the lack of knowledge NPS staff have of their own parks. Citing the most recent of many examples, he asked an entrance station employee (and one who'd been working there for several years) a simple question about the wildlife. The employee (yeah, that would be a park ranger) didn't have a clue what the visitor was talking about, didn't know where to look for an answer, and didn't seem to care. I've spoken to other park visitors and staff who are appalled by the general lack of knowledge many NPS employees have about the fantastic places for which they're responsible. The problem seems to be getting worse, rather than better. Maybe that's because employees (and their bosses) are too enamored with the latest initiative, their career ambitions, and podcasting to care about rocks, plants, ring-tailed cats and old cabins.

While many Park Service employees take very seriously their credibility as sources of interesting and meaningful information (I've been extremely impressed with the good ones), most don't seem to have a clue. While I'm not suggesting that everyone be an expert on their park, I do suggest that everyone (including janitors, administrative assistants, and yes, superintendents!) have a moderate knowledge of their site and why it was established. This will not only give the NPS greater credibility as an agency, it will give staff a greater sense of purpose, and maybe even passion, for what they do. Plus, it will make each employee a better servant to his/her taxpaying visitors.

Every NPS employee should be REQUIRED to learn about his/her park through a variety of means, including attending lectures, accompanying knowledgeable staff or local experts on field trips, reading books, taking tests, etc.

I know, I know, some folks may reply: "But we're so busy with our jobs, how can we take the time to learn about our parks?" In a previous post I promised to address simple time-savng proposals, and I haven't forgotten. Stay tuned.

Simple Proposal #2: Know--and Love--Your Park!

You all rock. Thanks for posting, for thinking and for not being sheep. Heh. This thread has made my day for some unknown reason.

Even if you all disagree on what needs to be done, we agree something needs to be done.

What, or who, is behind the failures of the current political system?


"...the fact is that seven out of ten Americans belong to at least one association [interest group]...and one in four Americans belongs to four or more. . . half of the respondents [of the survey cited] said that the main function of most associations is to influence the government. . . . Almost every American who reads these words is a member of a lobby." Source.

Groups have overrun Washington. They fight not to generate wealth but to transfer it. Hence, interest groups are parasites seeking their slice of the tax dollar pie. As long as government manages public lands, funding and policy will be heavily influenced by interest groups.

Were government removed from the picture, I doubt NPT would have to run articles on snowmobiles in Yellowstone or the maintenance backlog or Bush or Dick using parks as a photo op.

And I wouldn't be surprised if you would hold the Park Service in higher esteem if the agency were fully funded and civil service were wiped out.

Again, if the funds come from taxpayers and are allocated though a political system, the NPS will still be at the whim of politicians and interest groups, and we'll continue to see politicians using parks as poker chips in the election game. "Hey, environmentalists! I'm at Sequoia! Ain't that cool? I'll give the parks lots of money if you just vote for me! I promise!" So, I don't think I'd ever be satisfied with a Park Service that is part of the political process. Certainly, were the civil service wiped out, that would be financially beneficial and would improve efficiency. Is there a way to depoliticize the NPS, and can different sources be found from which to garner funds?

However, who would be responsible for erasing the backlogs that are spread across the park system? If Congress can't erase them today, where would it find the funding to create endowments for each park? Who would take on such assets with such financial baggage? Would you look to the existing friends groups to take on the responsibilities of trusts in managing the parks?

I don't think it's a matter of Congress' lack of ability to eliminate the backlog rather than a lack of desire. Money can always be found, but interest groups and political pressures often prevent it. Annual funding for operations and maintenance (even the backlog) could be raised though donations, memberships, entrance fees, and revenue currently garnered by concessions. Annual costs could be reduced by reducing excessive park infrastructure, too. Yours are important questions that need considering. Thanks for participating and thinking about the issue.

Bart: That's one simple proposal to do more with less, and it's one I've suggested in recent comments on NPT. You're a great addition to the NPT voices!

Beamis: I'm supporting Ron Paul for president!

Firstly, let me again commend Beamis, Frank & others for challenging the status quo at higher levels. Such dialog is essential. For my purposes, I've chosen to attack the problem at the park level, by offering some simple, common sense solutions that I believe will help to get the NPS back on track.

Not long ago I worked at a park where, within a short period of time, three of its seven top managers moved on to other parks. Their positions remained vacant for a cumulative period of about three years. When I'd ask employees if they missed these managers, the typical response was "H--- no, now we can actually get some work done!" Meanwhile, the park's janitor left his job. The remaining managers convened an emergency meeting, during which they decided to hire a replacement janitor by the following week. Estimated savings to the taxpayers for the lapse of the three managers was over $200,000.

That was a "good park." The bad ones hire more managers and don't rehire janitors, trail crew staff, and information desk rangers. Those positions siimply disappear, much to the detriment of the parks and their visitors.

Some may argue that large numbers of managers are needed to complete such processes as writing reports, developing plans, implementing initiatives, attending meetings, etc. In a future Simple Proposal I'll spell out how these tasks can be elminated or significantly minimized, thereby allowing a return of funds to the truly important front-line jobs.

Simple Proposal #1: Hire more Indians and fewer Rajahs.

Fallen leaves? Lucky you. I'm still swatting at gnats and sidestepping cotton mouths. See you at the revolution.

Best regards,


Some unthoughtful, unedited and mindful mosey meanderings…
Americans all excited and satisfied with voting every four years for the presidency bothers me. It is difficult for me to believe in and support a government that is voted into office by 51% of 47% of eligible voters. I believe that only when "We the People" vote wholly at the State and Local level (do you know your commissioner of the sewers?) will these states be united.
It is a pacified public which allows the incorporation of the feds. When did freedom become defined as a choice between a ford or mercedes?
Seceding from the union perks my interest, it does have its romantic side (as in a departure from the public’s pacified sensibility, towards idealistic expectations.) Though talking outright revolution, a take over of the federal government gets me down right excited (as I believe it should all Americans.) I will even start it with a rewording of the Declaration of Independence, from the stale “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” to Aldo Leopolds "Adventure without regard to prudence, profit, self-improvement, learning or any other serious thing"
Anyway.... should probably head outside, rake up some leaves and check the gutters.

What do you propose "we the people" do Random Walker?

I think individual states seceding from the union and a tax revolt would be a good start. Short of that "we the people" are as responsible for the current state of the regime as the peasants under Stalin or the Vietnamese boat people were for their corrupt political rulers.

Until the Constitution is again reinstated as the law of the land it is no longer "we the people" who are in charge.

Oh and by the way support Ron Paul for president.

No Random! I't's corporate America and the media...and the rich & the powerful. Rome lives on!

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