Science-led decisions. More principled leadership. A halt to fee hikes. Those are some of the things the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees would like to see from the National Park Service this year.
Following a year in which science seemed to be trampled by Park Service decisions, when fee increases swept the park system, and when decisions seemed to be preordained despite public input, the coalition is calling for some significant changes in the agency.
"We've decided to publish a list to call attention to critical actions and changes needed in the management of national parks so that they can fulfill their mission as the premiere system of heritage areas for Americans," says Bill Wade, who chairs the coalition's executive council. "Major changes in the stewardship of our national parks are needed starting as early as possible in 2008."
Topping the coalition's wish list is a call for the Park Service to "resurrect principled decision-making and leadership within the Department of the Interior and the NPS." Too many times, the coalition contends, decisions are made either for political reasons or for special interests, not in the best interest of the parks.
“We are in a time of increasingly spineless leadership, both within and without the Service," said Bill Brown, a retired Park Service historian. "We see leaders who are reasonably skilled in mechanical matters, but lacking in the deeper substance that gives meaning and purpose to our efforts. They are also lax in honoring agreements and arrangements that were meant to be good-faith binding because they were the right thing to do then and those ties are still meant to bind.
"But they are conveniently forgotten because some arbitrary cost or efficiency criterion replaces the handshake, the contract," he continued. "It is another facet of the assault on our constitutional concept of a nation of laws. It is the same kind of limited, empty thinking where lasting values degrade and dissolve.”
Mr. Wade added that "the decision-making processes now are often conducted without adequate public review. The result is that the interests of a few take precedence over the public good."
Even when there is ample public review the Park Service seemed to turn a blind eye in recent years. A perfect example is the Yellowstone snowmobile decision, in which tens of thousands of Americans called for a ban on recreational snowmobiling in the park and when the park's own research pointed to snowcoaches as the environmentally preferred mode of public transportation and yet the Park Service endorsed a daily allowance of 540 snowmobiles in Yellowstone.
The coalition points to the Yellowstone snowmobile decision as proof that the Park Service no longer is letting science guide its management decisions.
“This is the ‘banner’ example of where callous emphasis on compromise has overruled science, legal mandates and public preference to arrive at a decision that pleases no one,” said Mr. Wade.
Also on the coalition's list is a call for better park funding and a halt to "rampant" fee increases.
“Park superintendents have been placed in the position of raising fees and initiating new fees in order to help subsidize their inadequate budgets in parks," noted Maureen Finnerty, a former Park Service associate director for park operations. "Among the consequences of this approach are pricing certain populations of Americans out of the opportunities to visit national parks.”
Specific to the Park Service budget, the coalition called upon Congress to increase appropriations "so that valuable visitor interpretive programs within parks are restored, rangers can work more effectively with school districts to bring parks to classrooms, parks are staffed with enough rangers to adequately protect park resources and the visitors who come to enjoy them, and to adequately meet the challenges of fixing a decaying park system infrastructure such as roads, trails, visitor centers, and other public facilities."
"Current initiatives involving substantial infusion of philanthropic funds are important, but worrisome in that they move the parks more toward privatization and to being disproportionately influenced by non-public interest groups," added the group. "The role of philanthropy should not be one of funding basic, essential operations of parks."
With global attention focused keenly on climate change, the coalition believes the National Park Service and national park system should "become a national leader in reducing the carbon impact of park operations and in promoting sustainable lifestyles in its publications and interpretive programs."
"Some park concessionaires are far 'greener' than the NPS in regard to recycling and reducing fuel consumption. This may stem at least in part from budgets that are inadequate to meet the cost of more sustainable operations and infrastructure, including replacing high-mileage fleets," the coalition said. "Too many park operations are still more carbon-intensive than they should be. As the nation’s premier conservation agency, the NPS should be a leader in these areas. Its interpretive programs should emphasize 'living lighter on the land.' Visitors should leave NPS areas with a greater understanding of sustainability and with the confidence that the parks are at the cutting edge of reducing our impact on the earth."
Abby Miller, a former Park Service deputy associate director for natural resources and stewardship, said parks should be viewed as "valuable natural laboratories to help understand the impacts of global climate change and study and pursue possible measures to preserve resources."
"We believe much more can be done to not only protect the critical resources in parks, but to monitor them as indicators of impending effects of climate change.” she added.
Also on the coalition's wish list is a call for the creation of a non-partisan National Park Service Centennial Commission that could spur a thoughtful, national dialog on the future of the park system and Park Service.
“The commission will explore the importance of parks in our society and national life and determine the long-term governance strategies that will meet the future needs of our nation and assure long-term sustainability of our nation’s system of parks," said Rob Arnberger, a former NPS regional director. "Enlightened national leadership must create the circumstances to begin this dialog on behalf of the broadest public interest.
"The commission will develop a report, or series of reports, on the status of the National Park System and the National Park Service, the issues and opportunities they face, constraints that impact the system and challenges to be faced in the new century," he added. "The commission’s work would examine alternatives for addressing these issues and constraints that must be engaged, including fiscal and human resources required to accomplish the mission of the system for the long term.”
Finally, but not least of all, the coalition said the Park Service must regain its stature as leader in the world conservation movement. That leadership position was questioned in October by a participant to the National Park Foundation's Leadership Summit on Partnership and Philanthropy. Alvaro Ugalde, who in the 1970s at the age of 24 became superintendent of Costa Rica's first national park, Santa Rosa National Park, told the Traveler that, "We admire the United States for having come up with the (national park) idea, but I think it’s been lagging behind in environmental issues in general in the last several years."
"I used to say that the United States was our leader, planetary-wise, in national parks. But I’m not sure lately about that," said Mr. Ugalde.
Rick Smith, a member of the coalition's executive council, said the Interior Department in recent years has blocked Park Service personnel from traveling abroad to work with their colleagues.
“For years, conservation professionals from other countries exchanged strategies and tactics regarding protected area management with their U.S. colleagues. During the last seven years, the political appointees in the Department of the Interior have used budget excuses to choke off the travel of NPS professionals to other countries where such exchanges took place," said Mr. Smith. "The result is that the U.S. has lost its position as a leader in the world conservation movement. We need to jump-start this program again, if for no other reason than to learn what other park professionals are doing.”
With the Bush administration in its last year in office, it will be interesting to see whether any of these suggestions are acted upon by Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne or NPS Director Mary Bomar.