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Decommissioning National Parks: Some History, And Some Ominous Clouds
My recent post on decommissioned national parks drew fairly good readership on the Traveler, but it garnered much more outcry on a private listserv delivered to retired National Park Service employees. Which spurs a number of questions, foremost among them being the obvious "Why?"
But that "Why" cuts two ways. Why did some retirees mount such a huff, and why wasn't there more concern out here in the open?
I think the answer to the first "Why" is quite understandable: Park Service retirees, in most cases, poured their hearts and souls into their careers and so talk of decommissioning park units strikes particularly close to home for a number of reasons.
The answer to the second "Why" is much more muddled. I've long assumed that folks turn to the Traveler to hear about what's going on out in the park system, to learn what the Park Service is up to, and to read the occasional travel piece or find the latest lodging deals.
In other words, I've assumed that the bulk of the Traveler's readers are just about as tied up in the national parks as are the retirees. If you love the parks for their vacation possibilities, you should be just as invested in their welfare. And that leads to this follow-up post on decommissioning national parks: You have to grasp the undercurrents that dictate how the parks are managed.
By looking into the past, into park units that for one reason or another were decommissioned, I touched a nerve among many of the retirees. Some find it sacrilegious to even suggest that a unit of the park system might no longer be worthy of inclusion, that it would best be jettisoned back into the general population of public lands. Others take strong exception to that line of thinking.
"I am in complete agreement that the National Park Service has units that are unworthy of NPS status," says James Ridenour, director of the Park Service from 1989 through 1993. "That was my motive for coining the term, 'Thinning of the Blood.' Members of Congress trade votes to get their local favorite on the NPS teat -- usually to attract tourists -- then they don't add money to the budget to run these units. So you have two things: 1) You thin the quality of the system; 2) You thin the ability of the NPS to run the system."
That said, Mr. Ridenour doesn't dispute the authority of Congress to designate park units. However, he firmly believes "the NPS, with all of its professional expertise, has the right and the responsibility to give their professional opinion as to whether a park under consideration is worthy of national park status."
"Too many national park professionals have sat on their hands, afraid of offending a member of Congress who is proposing to remove a tax burden off the local tax base while shifting it to the federal taxpayer," Mr. Ridenour continues. "If a proposed park is truly local -- or even regional -- in nature, it should be managed as a local or state park. If the Congress, in their wisdom, wants to help local or state officials with the financial burdens of running the park, they should stand up before their colleagues and propose financial assistance to the park unit, rather than sneaking it in the back door as a mediocre to poor interpretation of a truly national park."
Another retiree, though, is of the belief that "once NPS has responsibility for something, it has the equivalent of a fiduciary responsibility to take good and faithful care of it." In other words, only Congress should talk, and act, on disassembling the system, not NPS personnel.
Now, the thought of decommissioning park units is not dead, it's only dormant.
"NPS itself looked into this question in the 1970s and found it a Pandora's Box," says Bob Utley, who in those days was the Park Service's chief historian. "Those involved had their own proposed park to decommission, but none could agree. Of course, no member of Congress wanted to have a park in his or her district decommissioned."
An urge to decommission park units last seriously surfaced in the 1990s. At the time Dwight Rettie, who had served as chief over the Park Service's Office of Policy Development from 1981 to 1986, was working on his book, Our National Park System: Caring for America's Greatest Natural and Historic Treasures.
While the decommissioning legislation (H.R. 260) died, it didn't do so quietly, he noted.
"The concept of purging the National Park System of sites deemed unworthy is, unfortunately, not limited to people opposed to the entire idea of national parks," wrote Mr. Rettie in his book. "Well-meaning people may (for example) believe that if the total size of the system were reduced, more resources would be available for the remaining parks. It seems to me to be quite unrealistic wishful thinking that the Congress would continue to appropriate money and authorize staff for parks no longer in the system. Indeed, it is entirely possible that the only terms by which another government agency, federal-state-or-local, would agree to accept a park would be to not only transfer the park but also the money and staff to operate it.
"At the time H.R. 260 was being considered and continuing to the present time, a variety of NPS professionals drew up hit lists of parks they thought ought to be divested. I collected hit lists from more than three dozen staff members, including then-superintendents, regional directors, and senior Washington Office officials, with the original intention of publishing the lists in my book," he continued. "It was obvious that such lists end up being highly idiosyncratic, reflecting each individual's professional background, experience, and perspective. The lists collectively included far more than half the units in the system. At that time the then-Chairman of the House Subcommittee having oversight of the National Park System [Rep. James Hansen] asserted he had a list of over 150 parks he wanted to divest. "
Jerry Rogers, whose tenure with the Park Service included a stint as director of the old Southwest regional office, once actually offered to serve as executive director of a commission that would review the park system for questionable units.
"There are certainly a few units whose presence in the system can be explained (the Congress in its wisdom made the decision), but that cannot be defended in terms of the stated criteria for parklands," he says. "My view at the time was that I might be able to push the overall review in a rational rather than a political direction. I am glad it didn't happen, however, because the odds of a lose-lose outcome for participants in such a process were enormous and not inconsiderable for some of the parks that are very worthy. The privatization monster would certainly have raised its head, at at the time it might have been very possible to slay it or to contain it, but on the other hand it might not have. One thing is pretty sure, though; that many of my present friends would not now be friends."
OK, enough history, although it's certainly important to help keep things in perspective. While there currently are no official calls for decommissioning units of the park system, there's an equally potent, though somewhat less obvious, threat overshadowing the park system.
"Instead of focusing on whether or not NPS sites should be subject to future re-evaluation and possible decommissioning, maybe a slightly different question might be asked in a manner that would not raise the emotionally and politically difficult possibility that congressionally established units of the NPS family be considered for adoption by more worthy parents," suggests Owen Hoffman, whose Park Service career took him from Crater Lake to Zion and finally Yosemite national parks. "Perhaps a more pertinent question might be: During times of extreme budget shortfall, is there a limit to funding declines when doing more with less degrades into doing less with less?
"When does a decline in operational budget reach a point that requires shutting down park visitor centers and campgrounds? When do we reduce or terminate NPS interpretive activities? When do we terminate park research and resources management projects? When do we 'backfill' vacant staff positions with volunteer help or assistance from 'park partners?,'" wonders Mr. Hoffman.
"When does 'doing less with less' dictate a need to close parks to public visitation, due to a lack of staff and funding available to adequately protect and preserve park resources? If the budget gets so tight as to threaten the eventual closure of parks, do they all close at once? If not, which ones close first, and which close last?"
Actually, it does seem like the Park Service is getting perilously close to such a scenario. After all, as I wrote earlier this month, the superintendent at Dinosaur National Monument is so pressed for budget dollars that she's suggested cutting two-thirds of the monument's paleontological staff. At Acadia National Park, the superintendent tells me that 20 percent of his staff, which is authorized at 100 bodies, is vacant. The list goes on and on. And let's not forget the constantly rising park fees.
"There does come a time when operations are stretched so thin that there just isn't anything left," says Art Allen, a 33-year Park Service veteran whose roles included a position as the agency's curator. "We cannot walk away from our core responsibility of protecting resources. And the idea of 'closing a park' is out of bounds so what could the NPS do?
"What about cutting back on (Washington headquarters) and (regional office) staff? With all savings going to the field?" he continues. "What about cutting back on all park positions other than those that deal with resource protection? You may believe that it isn't getting critical out there, but you would be wrong."
Things are getting mighty tough across the park system. In spite of the promises of increased operations funds made by the administration for fiscal 2008 (the present year, 6 months gone), there's at least one park that did not receive a sufficient increase in funding to even meet the required pay increases, let alone the increased cost of fuel. Beyond that, this park already is faced with a loss of 45 percent of its permanent workforce. Where else can it cut to make ends meet under the present budgetary directives without loss of resources and deteriorating infrastructure?
Mr. Allen fully recognizes the controversy that would immediately swirl up if talk again became serious about decommissioning park units. But, he says, if units can't easily be justified, they shouldn't be allowed to weaken the overall system.
"When you are forced to accept the 'less than qualified' areas as part of what we like to think of the 'crown jewels,' there is a dilution effect on the image of the national parks," believes Mr. Allen. "The dilution effect causes a lessening of respect for the Service, and that in turn causes a reduction in the general esteem of the parks as a whole. All that translates in the eventual loss of congressional support and financing for the Service.
"That, in my humble opinion, is the argument for maintaining the highest possible standards for what is accepted into the system," he says, "and also the argument for falling back, divesting ourselves from some of these lesser units, and trying to maintain the most important ones to the standards they deserve."