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?