Superintendents' Summit Raises Both Issues and Questions

Part pep rally and part nuts-and-bolts introspection. That's probably the best way to sum up the first day of the Superintendents' Summit that brought roughly 500 National Park Service personnel to a tony ski resort enclave in a national forest just outside Salt Lake City.

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and National Park Service Director Mary Bomar provided the cooing and bolstering of spirits Wednesday, while a series of speakers explored ways to boost diversity in the national parks, how to bring more youth into them, ways to best utilize "emerging" technologies, and where to find collaboration.

The summit was long overdue, as the last formal gathering of the National Park System's superintendents was eight years ago. While it's been criticized in some circles, the networking that goes on and camaraderie that is both built and rekindled in the hallways of such affairs can't be dismissed.

The timing, though, is questionable, coming both at the height of the park system's busiest season and just six months before a new administration arrives in Washington most likely with a new road-map and destination in mind.

Perhaps Secretary Kempthorne and Director Bomar envisioned the timing as sort of a fond farewell to the troops, rallying them for what they've accomplished and leaving them with a checklist of things to do in the years ahead.

The summit's agenda, as directed by the director, is threefold: Re-engage the American public in the national parks, increase the capacity of the system, and prepare the next generation of leaders for the parks.

What's troubling about that trifecta, though, was that Director Bomar noted in her keynote address that "we have addressed these issues before," a statement that begs the question of why they still need to be addressed?

Specifically, she noted that "At the Discovery 2000 Conference, (then-Director) Bob Stanton talked about the shifting demographics of America, while the cultural and values of this changing America were not yet really woven into the national park theme."

And yet, eight years later, that dilemma remains unresolved.

Issues Director Bomar raised that perhaps are more troubling, in the context of threats to the landscape of the national parks, focus on how the National Park Service can react not just to climate change but the nation's voracious fossil-fuels appetite.

"The American people trust us to protect the resources entrusted to our care," she said. "So among the questions we must consider are:

"* What is the role of national parks in protecting and restoring ocean life and marine ecosystems?

"* How do we maintain ecological integrity while securing our borders ... facing extreme weather events; increased competition for water, and; increases in invasive species, wildlife diseases, and forest diseases?

"* With the renewed emphasis on scarce energy reserves, how do we reconcile the need for energy exploration with the mandate to preserve our parks unimpaired?"

Good questions all, but questions, sadly, that the two-day summit is not formally exploring.

Secretary Kempthorne's address also raised some troubling questions, not for what he specifically said, but for what went left unsaid. He almost seemed contradictory at points, in one breath talking about a need for the national parks to be "woven even tighter into the fabric and soul of America," for children to be led away from "pecking ... at their Blackberries" so they might pick some blackberries, and in another breath seemingly suggesting a dramatic, if not drastic, makeover of the national parks.

"The National Parks' Advisory Board described the Park Service as a 'sleeping giant -- beloved and respected, but perhaps a bit too cautious, too resistant to change, too reluctant to engage the challenges that must be addressed in the 21st Century," he said.

"I have had my own experiences with a slow-moving park bureaucracy, and so have you. I encourage all of us to be open to innovative, creative, and practical ideas," continued the secretary. "Let me ask you this: Would we allow the construction of a 500-foot-tall tower in a national park today? Would we issue a permit for someone to significantly change the face of a mountain?

"I've just described the Washington Monument and Mount Rushmore, now American icons," said Secretary Kempthorne. "A number of you in this room are having discussions about projects at your parks, asking 'can we move forward, can we resolve differences, can we form partnerships?' I encourage you to keep asking and looking for solutions. There may well be future icons to be established.

"We must not simply be inheritors from our ancestors, but benefactors to our descendants. There were bold thinkers before us, and there are bold thinkers among us."

Unfortunately, the secretary didn't elaborate on what back-room discussions under way today might lead to tomorrow's "bold decisions" or "future icons" in the stature of the Washington Monument and Mount Rushmore.

Is it bold enough to preserve slices of our past, the natural settings, the cultural remnants, and the historic vestiges of our country's growth? Might we might not be the best benefactors for future generations by, as the National Park Service Organic Act directs, leaving these places "unimpaired for future generations" and not wondering how to chisel new icons out of them?

Comments

I wonder if Secretary Kempthorne's words were as frightening in their original context as they appear here. Pardon my French, but what the hell is he talking about?! Sounds like he's sick of the same old forests, lakes, and mountains in all their natural decadence. Perhaps a "bold thinker" in Olympic NP will go out and clean up all those damned logs lying all over the place.

I really hope I'm misinterpreting what he was trying to convey.

Q. How many days until a new administration?

A. Too many!

Kurt, you always do try to give the benefit of the doubt, something that makes this such an up-beat site.

But the bottom line here at this "conference" is that it is no conference at all. For the first day, the political leadership of the National Park Service -- Secretary Kempthorne and Director Mary Bomar -- organized the whole day just to talk "at" the park professionals. There was no conferring of substance that day.

There was only one day to confer in an organized way among professionals. It might work as a smoke screen for any newspapers or TV, and that was the spin in the NPS PR, but this even was never structured as a conference.

Sure, there are brief opportunities for old colleagues to reconnect, but in fact, compared to 3 previous superintendent conferences I attended, you don't even have time to even see a fraction of the people you know, much less have a meaningful discussion about building a positive agenda for the Service. A lot of NPS people actually are just talking about how soon before they retire. What a dispirited bunch.

Mary Bomar conducted exactly the same sort of "conference" when she was Regional Director in the northeast, also as a PR event. Again, no real time for professional consultation among colleagues, no identification of issues, examination of issues and impediments, development of alternative strategies for moving forward. Just like this Utah conference, it was mostly talking heads, as a way for then-Regional Director Bomar to show off to Washington officials with lots of photo opportunities. The report on that regional conference was mostly a series of photos of Mary Bomar -- you can look it up. Nothing came out of it but a call for uniformity and "accountability" which is a euphemism for blaming the parks for the failure of the NPS leaders to fight for necessary funding, and a way to avoid any real initiatives. At this previous conference the Washington office gave regional director Bomar a big award for a project begun and conceived by her predecessor, and the whole 'conference' was declared a victory, with no forward movement at all.

So, watch this space. You can count on a report of success from Director, with pictures of the Director, reiterating everything claimed in her opening speech about all her successes, while emphasizing the need of the parks to remain "accountable," just as if this was the universal conclusion of all in attendance. There will be nothing in this report any different than Bomar's message on day one, indicating that no 'conferring' went on at all with the unfortunate field professionals who were forced to pay the expenses out of the strapped budgets of the parks. Am I wrong? If I am wrong you will see emerging from this conference new ideas clearly stated, new strategies developed with full participation of the newly empowered parks, and specific actions and assignments laid out to move past the dreadful state parks toward SUBSTANTIAL SOLUTIONS.

This is just a stage managed event. Nothing of substance, no serious strategic planning can happen, or is supposed to happen, at an event like this. Like her earlier conference, this is just a stage for Mary Bomar. Compare this to George Hartzog's event at the end of his career, the Second World Conference on National Parks at Yellowstone and Grand Teton's. Yes, you could say that conference was also a show piece, but Hartzog's conference had substance. It rallied parks around the world to use the strategic value of parks and the enormous diversity of thinking about the management and purpose of parks as a way to leverage the funding and political power needed to sustain and expand preservation. It was a call to arms, and concerted action to follow. Secretary Kempthorne and especially Mary Bomar are NOT trying to empower the parks to shake anything up.

Such a farce and waste of money. We need new administration from the top down....new President, new Secretary of Interior, new National Park Director.

Wasting time and money on a political PR event is a crying shame and pure BS when we have so many dire needs !

If y'all think a new administration is going to solve the systemic problems that face the national parks, starting with needless and wasteful layers of entrenched bureaucracy combined with brazenly shameless politicking I've got news for you: it ain't gonna happen!

This is, after all, the federal government we're talking about.

I worked for the NPS through three different administrations and the song has always remained the same regardless of what party was in the White House: namely that the agency was an underfunded, top heavy bureaucracy that was deftly manipulated by petty vote grubbing Washington politicians on the make.

My friends, these circumstances are not about to change any time soon. A corrupt, war-drained, insolvent and bankrupt government is nothing to pin your hopes on; yet that is precisely what most of you continue to do year after year, hoping against hope that things will somehow get better under the stewardship of the self-perpetuating mandarins in DC.

Isn't it time to look elsewhere for salvation?

Beamis, I am all ears. What do you suggest ?

You must be new to this website because I have long advocated (and subsequently been pilloried for) a long list of possible alternatives for administering many NPS units under a different umbrella. Some of them include non-profit trusts and foundations, turning many of the smaller and less visited historical units over to willing state and local municipalities or non-profit historical societies as well as tightening up the ease with which Congress can create less than nationally significant units for purely political purposes, even when the NPS deems them inappropriate for inclusion in the system (see the recent thread in NPT about the newly created park in Patterson, NJ).

You can check on my past postings for more about what I think is the essential paring down that must occur in order to maintain and preserve the true crown jewels of the system.

With two expensive wars backed by an overheated printing press it ain't hard to see that Uncle Sam is in the poor house and can't afford his expensive park system any more than he can his $53 trillion in unfunded Medicare and Social Security obligations. The time to look for alternative ways to preserve the national parks is now. Our broke uncle is headed for foreclosure and the parks are going to be the last thing on his mind while he's standing in the welfare line.

Beamis--

The idea that the states or municipalities are going to take over the adminstration of national park areas runs counter to the prevailing trend: the assumption of areas like Gateway and Golden Gate by the NPS when local and state management entities can no longer afford them. Which level of government has the deepest pockets?

As to the idea that trusts or NGOs can assume the management of some of the NPS areas ignores the fact that almost no park area can be self-sufficient without pricing itself out of the market.

I have argued in the past that this is a matter of generational equity. Each generation of Americans gets to add to the National Park System tha areas it believes merit protection and preservation in perpetuity. I can't imagine a future generation deciding that what my generation added to the System--MLK Jr., the Alaska parks. Kings Canyon, etc.--no longer merited protection in the National Park System but ought to be managed by a state or some kind of NGO. Nor am I willing to second-guess previous generations of Americans.

As you point out, it is a matter of priorities. There is enough money to finance the System. We just need to make such funding a higher priority.

Rick Smith