What does the future hold for the National Park Service and its wonderful system? It's a question worth asking as the Bush administration nears the end of its eight years in office, one that is particularly timely to ponder considering the Superintendents' Summit '08 that will be held at a Utah ski resort later this month.
The past eight years have not been bountiful for the NPS. The cumulative dollar growth in the agency's budget over those years stands at 4.9 percent, and the average annual increase is just 0.6 percent. Both figures were calculated by Deny Galvin, now retired from his job as a deputy director of the Park Service, after analyzing the agency's 2009 budget justifications and prior budget justifications.
Conversely, under the eight years of the Clinton administration the agency's budget grew 65.3 percent, or 6.5 percent annually, on average, according to Mr. Galvin.
Granted, the nation negotiated decidedly different economic winds during those two administrations, but there also were decidedly different environmental agendas at play.
At the upcoming Superintendents' Summit, to be held July 16-17 at the tony Snowbird Resort, the focus is supposed to be on "the agency’s second century of service and the challenges it will face."
“As we approach our 100th anniversary in 2016, we have three significant tasks ahead of us: reconnecting Americans with their national parks, increasing the capacity of the national park system, and developing park leaders for our second century," NPS Director Mary Bomar said earlier this summer in announcing the affair. "The Summit will focus on these themes.”
But are these the appropriate themes to be tackled at this point in time? To be sure, the Park Service must work harder to reach out to the country's increasingly divergent -- culturally and economically divergent -- populations. Serious thought does need to be spent on identifying who will be tomorrow's national park advocates and how to entice them to the National Park System. Diversity and new blood needs to be injected into the agency, both for the energizing effect it can have and for those on board to mentor.
But serious thought also needs to be paid to how to dig the Park Service out of its estimated $8 billion backlog, how to overcome its annual $800 million shortfall, how to prevent some parks from becoming genetic islands slowly strangled by urbanization and suburban sprawl, how to bolster dwindling ranks of full-time rangers.
How does one prioritize among these issues when putting together a summit of park superintendents? In light of the myriad pressing problems confronting the parks and their managers, should this unique summit -- the last official one, I understand, was held in 1988 at Grand Teton National Park, although there was a gathering in St. Louis in 2000 that attracted most superintendents -- last just two days and focus on citizen conservation, emerging technologies, and partners for the parks?
At a time when there are so many on-the-ground issues plaguing the parks, should the managers be concerning themselves so greatly with bringing more volunteers into the parks or mastering and implementing the latest high-tech gadgetry? Is that what the Park Service needs to focus on for its second century?
Might there not be a more serious one that needs to be addressed when one wonders what the next chapter holds for the Park Service and its 391 units? Quite simply, is the National Park Service management prepared and ready, philosophically and managerially, and armed with the necessary morale and backbone, to embark on its second century?
Rob Arnberger spent a long, impressive career with the Park Service, serving 34 years under Democratic and Republican administrations. He held positions at 10 park units, including a stint as superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park as well as regional director in Alaska, his last post before retiring in 2003. You might say he knows a little bit about the agency itself and power politics in Washington.
When he left the agency five years ago, Mr. Arnberger tells me, the Park Service's future "was dismal because of the evolution of American politics to nothing more than polarizing name calling exercises and efforts to sink the other party's battleship at all costs."
"It was dismal because American politics had sunk to the lowest common denominator ... and that denominator was NOT 'What is best for America,' but rather best for ideology," he says. "It was dismal because the National Park Service, quite some time ago, gave up on taking a position, making a stand, articulating the values of what it stood for in favor of being fed those values and those positions by ideological political hacks who cared nothing for the mission of the parks and cared only for the mission of their political party.
"It was dismal because we had lived through 35 years of escalating mediocrity brought on by both political parties who only cared for their political ideology rather than on making tough bipartisan decisions that benefited the broad public interest rather than a narrow slice of the minority."
While Mr. Arnberger's comments are stinging and pointed, his concern for the agency and park system is not an anomaly nor merely vitriol from a disgruntled retiree.
One person, someone who doesn't wear the green and grey of the Park Service uniform but does consult more than a little with the agency and so asked to remain anonymous, worries about what will happen to the agency and its system in the not-too-distant future when turnover wracks the Park Service.
"Huge numbers of park staff are set to retire in the coming 5-10 years," this individual says. "This may create a crisis in staffing the parks and an enormous loss of institutional memory. In order to replace these staff, NPS is going to need to move aggressively to recruit new people -- diverse people reflecting America -- and this may require at least two changes.
"(1) Having less of an emphasis on hiring up from within," she says. "Not everyone can start out as a seasonal and move up. There are lots of good people who probably could be attracted to NPS if there weren't this assumption that you need to have been there for life in order to get in.
"(2) Having some different paths of advancement within the service -- especially, dropping this almost military model where people have to move around to move up," she adds. "That, to me, is a huge deterrent to even thinking of a career within NPS and is increasingly out of step with family life where there are two earners and people can't just be up and moving around every 4-5 years."
These issues, however, are not on the agenda for the superintendents. Nor do their appear to be any plans to discuss whether parks were intended to be all things to all people (an issue tied primarily to the motorized recreation pressures on the Park Service) or whether the Park Service should be more greatly concerned about conserving its natural, historic, and cultural resources.
"Keep the parks separate from the 'wreckreation motorheads' and sell the crown jewels as something special; to be preserved, not mutilated, for future generations," offers Art Allen. "Doing this would also keep the costs down. Let's not get too panicky if the total visitor numbers go downward -- that's a good thing. Perhaps future generations will realize that the parks retain a little bit of the natural scene when such is gone from every other acre of public land. When something is truly different, and very rare, people appreciate it much more. Let the other public lands bear the onslaught of overuse."
Mr. Allen brings a little perspective to his thoughts. He is a 33-year NPS veteran whose resume reflects stints as a park ranger at Blue Ridge Parkway, naturalist at Big Bend National Park, assistant chief of interpretation and resource management at Canyonlands National Park. He also worked as a park planner in Washington, D.C., and became chief of the newly formed Division of Museum Services in 1970, a post he held for 12 years. In 1983, Mr. Allen became assistant superintendent of Blue Ridge Parkway until he retired in 1990.
Does Mr. Allen have a point? Does the NPS need to reorient its managerial compass, to move away from trying to find a niche for every group that comes lobbying and focus harder on the treasures it has been given?
Given the timing of the summit -- in the middle of the National Park System's busiest season -- the time devoted to speeches by Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, Park Service Director Mary Bomar, and U.S. Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell (who was invited because Snowbird is located on the Wasatch-Cache National Forest), the estimated cost of $1 million, and the short duration, there have been criticisms raised over the merit of this summit.
"There is a real question of the value to superintendents. It all will come down to what they (Secretary Kempthorne, Director Bomar, and other appointed NPS officials) say – and what they DON’T say, relative to what the future of the parks and the NPS should be," says Bill Wade, who chairs the executive council of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. "No question that there will be some inspiration to some, perhaps via some of the comments by the 'outside' speakers, but the utility of that remains to be seen. Similarly, the breakout session ("Re-engaging the American Public With their National Parks") at the end of the first afternoon gives the appearance of a problem-solving/application session, but one wonders whether two hours of that kind of thing in the entire two days will really have payoff?"
Beyond the agenda's substance, Mr. Wade says some parks will struggle to pay for their superintendent's travel to Utah.
"This will be a real strain on the budgets of some of the small parks," he says. "One small-park superintendent called me a week ago and said that park would have to cut back on custodial maintenance and some other program activities in order to fund attendance at the summit by the superintendent."
Will the summit be worth that cost?