Commission Formed To Explore Future of National Parks

Noted biologist E.O. Wilson is among 30 people seated on a National Parks Second Century Commission.

Noted biologist E.O. Wilson and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor are among the notables on a non-partisan commission appointed to study the future of the National Park System.

Announced this morning by the National Parks Conservation Association, the National Parks Second Century Commission is charged with assessing the current state of the national parks and determining what potential they hold for the future.

Mr. Wilson and Ms. O'Connor are among 30 national leaders, experts, and academicians with backgrounds in science, conservation, business, and policy. Among the 30 is Denis Galvin, a former deputy director of the National Park Service. Chairing the commission, which will convene its first meeting later this month near Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, are former U.S. Senators Howard Baker of Tennessee and J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana.

“More than one hundred years ago America invented the national park idea with the designation of Yellowstone as the first national park,” says Mr. Baker. “Guided by that founding idea, this commission will examine the role of the national parks today and articulate a bold vision of a future where national parks continue to enrich and ennoble this nation and its citizens.”

Following its first meeting, scheduled for August 25-27, the commission will hold meetings in Yellowstone National Park, Gettysburg National Military Park, Lowell National Historical Park, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park by next June. The group hopes to hear from a range of subject matter experts, park managers, and the general public over the course of their twelve-month effort, culminating in a report with recommendations in the fall of 2009.

What isn't yet entirely clear is who is underwriting the cost of the commission, how its members were selected, and the format of its hearings. You can find a complete list of the commissioners, and their biographies, attached below.

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Comments

I'm so tired of these commissions. Someone appoints a range of experts, they get together, and they write a report. However, those who are using the commission for their own purposes make sure that the report will be used for setting the agenda and moving the levers of power based on the desires of the people setting up the commission. We are still quoting the Leopold Report, and so there's no doubt that these commissions can be highly influential. However, I would argue that commissions are by and large set up as a vehicle toward some other pre-determined end. While there are no doubt results that sometimes challenge or inform the conventional wisdom of the group that sets up the commission, these end up being mere adjustments in a larger campaign. Of course, occasionally, the commission comes up with the wrong answer (like Bush's commission on the Iraq war), and then they are safely shelved.

I've worked in nonprofits in different fields, and I can tell you that my bosses intentionally had outcomes in mind; they knew the point of a commission was to get buy in from the larger world of elites and perhaps an ear to potential problems with the agenda. Unfortunately, while it's important to build consensus across a spectrum of people, it perpetuates the cynical view that we can't build a real public advocacy in the population at large. Instead, we use the elites to meld public opinion rather than understanding the fundamental disconnect between people and the strange and overpayed land of think tank consultant-dom that comes up with these ideas.

That's not to say that a lot of these elites aren't very smart people and that some of them don't have some grasp on the larger social implications (many are quite brilliant and sensitive); it is to say that the process is incomplete. It's as if there's a world where consensus is important and a world where telling the public what the world of experts thinks (that is, top down) is more important than consensus. That wouldn't be a problem where the subject really requires only expertise - like in medicine or any other scientific or technological field. You don't get consensus from the public before you agree on what is cancer and what is not. However, when you talk about parks and policy, this is primarily an issue of values first - the parks are set aside primarily first because of a value. So, since you are talking about values about governance and power and control (that is policy and its execution), you have to involve the public as a primary vehicle. So, I strongly object to the process of such a commission as a vehicle for change. It's inconsistent to work for consensus like this; it's not a question for a range of experts - it's a question for all people. And, the only hope of the commission is that it realizes its own shortcoming in being able to come up with recommendations for the parks and encourages an aggressive plan for people to have the opportunity to become not only advocates for parks but also to have a real say in what they are and what they should be.

What I've said perhaps seems to be open to the criticism that leaving the public too much say and participation in the process will lead to the kind of mismanagement one would expect if for instance one let Cody and West Yellowstone determine Yellowstone snowmobile policy. However, first off, the public isn't really the owner of the processes even representing those towns; secondly, public isn't restricted to those towns. There's no reason why non-locals shouldn't have a say as well and be part of the process.

Another objection is the sheer logistics of it all. That's no doubt an issue, but if we agree that it's the starting point, then the consequences of the mind-numbing logistics involved with true participatory involvement in considering parks issues should be met head on. If it's socially impossible to conceive of a coherent American parks system AND a truly participatory system in coming to terms with issues and management, then I'd argue that it's the former that needs to go, that the former must have been built on a fundamentally flawed process - and that we will be bound to be spinning in circles. And, really, that comes down to the main reason I'm so tired of these commissions. Because in the end, it's a lot of spinning. There are often some very good ideas, but ideas without the right process mean little. Since commissions are used in part to give process validation to the right ideas, it's all the more troubling in this case when we go down this route.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

I have a little different take on the Commission than Jim does, primarily because I hope that it can address some questions that I have in mind about the future of the National Park Service. The questions below were part of a paper I wrote for the Coalition of NPS Retirees. I quote them here only to suggest that a Commission could, in my mind, examine issues such as these and recommend appropriate legal, policy, and regulatory changes.

Is the current governance model appropriate? The National Park Service is a bureau within the Department of the Interior. Since its conservation mission is unlike the other agencies in the Department, would it make more sense for the agency to operate as an independent agency within the Executive Branch, much like the National Archives, another agency that preserves and protects significant portions of the nation’s heritage.

Should the Director of the National Park Service serve a longer term than one driven by the 4-year election cycle? Managing cultural and natural resources requires long-term planning. The NPS Director is unlikely to be able to manage a long-term planning process given that he/she is appointed by the President and subject to Senate confirmation. No NPS Director since 1980 has survived a change of administrations. A longer term would perhaps also free the Director from some of the push and pull of partisan politics that is becoming increasingly common.

Should funding for the National Park Service be exempt from the annual appropriations cycle? Just as sustained leadership is important for the management of our nation’s natural and cultural heritage, so too is sustained funding. The problem with the current funding cycle is that it does not provide continuity for the multi-year inventory and monitoring programs and trend analyses that are so crucial for natural and cultural resources management. Nor does is provide assured funding for an adaptive resources management strategy that allows park managers to modify components of agreed-upon processes that are not producing desired results.

What level of funding is necessary to assure the long term operational sustainability of the National Park System? While everyone agrees that the NPS is underfunded and that visitor services in the parks have been curtailed or eliminated due to lack of operational dollars, no one has a real fix on what the shortfall is. Perhaps the most credible figure comes from the National Parks Conservation Association who arrived at the figure of $800 million extrapolating from the park business plans that were developed several years ago.

How can the Federal Government deal with the backlog of deferred maintenance in the parks of the system? Most observers agree that there is at least $4.9 billion dollars of deferred maintenance of park infrastructure, although this is a figure that is difficult to state with precision. The GAO has one figure, the NPS maintenance management program another, and the National Parks Conservation Association yet a different one. . The periodic initiatives from various administrations have done little to reduce the backlog. The recently-announced Centennial Challenge projects, moreover, would add still more facilities to be maintained if any are ever completed. Today’s deferred maintenance is tomorrow’s backlog.

What level of entrance fees is appropriate for visiting National Park Service areas? The cost of visiting areas of the System has increased rapidly over the last decade. The Federal annual pass, now called the America the Beautiful Pass, costs $80. Larger parks like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Yosemite, charge $25 per vehicle. There are annual fee rates established for individual parks. Some have argued that entrance fees should be eliminated altogether since parks are already supported by the taxes that Americans pay. Others say that modest entrance fees are appropriate to let people know that they are entering a special place, one which the Congress has said deserves preservation and protection in perpetuity.

How can NPS regulations, management policies, and administrative procedures be protected from politically-motivated meddling and interference? For example, the NPS management policies had evolved over the 91 years that the NPS has managed the nation’s National Park System. They were incrementally modified to reflect advances in understanding natural and cultural resources management strategies and evolving social and environmental conditions. The 2006 attempt to substantially alter the management policies to achieve narrow partisan goals demonstrates that these policies, as well as other administrative procedures and regulations, are vulnerable to ideological attacks.

How should we determine “success” for our National Park System? There is much talk today about parks failing because visitation is declining. Is a visitor count the way to measure success? Others have claimed that parks are not relevant to a population that travels in huge motor homes and gets most of its information on the internet. There are those who look at parks to provide “thrill-seeking recreation” involving all manner of motorized gadgets. Are the parks appropriate for this kind of use? Should every park offer virtual tours and podcasts to attract more people? Some have suggested that parks do not compare favorably with Disney World. There will always be people who prefer Disney World to a national park just as there are those who prefer parks because they are real, not contrived. Should the NPS worry about that?

Should the Congress pass legislation that contains a “federal consistency clause?” Such a clause would require that projects undertaken by other Federal agencies or financed by Federal dollars that have potential adverse effects on nearby park areas must contain mitigating measures to offset the effects. If the effects cannot be mitigated, the project would be scrapped. This would allow the NPS to be more assertive in protecting the components of park ecosystems—air, water, wildlife populations—or park-related cultural or historical associations that lie outside established boundaries.

Should the national monuments currently managed by the US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management be brought into the National Park System? As multi-use agencies, the Forest Service and the BLM do not have the personnel infrastructure in interpretation, education, resources protection, and management experience to adequately preserve and protect the national monuments assigned to them. Would it make sense to incorporate those areas into the National Park System?

Would it make sense to simplify the categories of areas the NPS manages? There are some 15 different designations currently in use as names of areas—national parks, historic sites, national preserves, reserves, seashores, lakeshores etc. This causes confusion among the visiting public; this confusion complicates the management of these areas.

How can the National Park Service manage better its statutory responsibilities beyond park boundaries related to historic preservation, recreation, and conservation assistance to state, tribal, and local governments? The Congress has charged the National Park Service with significant responsibilities beyond management of the National Park System. Working in conjunction with state, tribal, and local governments and the private sector, these efforts have made enormous contributions to America's quality of life from inner cities, to rural America, to the nation's wild and scenic areas. Yet by their very nature, these programs are oftentimes at odds with the mindset of a land-managing agency. It has oftentimes proven difficult to get adequate attention from NPS, the Department of the Interior, the Administration and the Congress to manage these programs to their best advantage - for both the parks and the nation in its entirety. How can the Service manage these better to provide their intended outcomes? What changes can and should be made?

How can we assure that the National Park Service planning and decision-making processes are based on sound research and resources management? Every day, it seems, new stories appear in the paper about how research results are ignored or even altered to serve narrow partisan interests. The classic example in the National Park Service is the ignoring or misinterpreting of research results to justify continued snowmobile use in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Reliance on a vigorous research and science program will be especially important as climate change influences and modifies park resources.

How can the National Park Service regain its reputation as a leader in the worldwide conservation movement? Unwise travel restrictions and lack of political leadership have crippled the National Park Service’s once-vigorous international assistance program. Some 150 nations have emulated the US and established national protected area systems. NPS employees have a wealth of knowledge to share with their colleagues in other countries and much to learn from them also. This exchange is almost non-existent now and urgently needs to be reenergized.

How can the National Park Service manage its personnel resources more effectively? The National Park Service has just ended a period when it referred to its employees by the demeaning term, “human capital.” The National Park Service needs to overhaul its personnel policies, beginning at the recruitment stage so that its workforce is as diverse as the public it serves. It also needs to refocus its training and professional growth program, establish an understandable succession policy for career enhancement for those whose knowledge, skills and abilities are appropriate for senior leadership positions; and create a supervisory system that employees respond positively to and respect.

How can the National Park Service restore the reputation of the “ranger?” In recent years, accentuated by Homeland Security challenges and fears, park rangers are seen (and sometimes behave) more and more as “cops.” The traditional image of the helpful, knowledgeable, flat hat-wearing ranger may be rapidly disappearing.

What steps can the National Park Service take to assure that the areas it administers maintain the uniqueness that the previous generations of Americans envisioned when they, speaking through their elected representatives, added them to the National Park System? These areas were meant to be special. The National Park Service must guard against efforts to pare away their uniqueness and make them just public lands.

Rick Smith

All good questions, but my point is one of process. Can an answer to these or any questions be as substantive as they need to be without recognizing the fundamental disconnect between those who are considered experts in parks issues, between those of us who are not considered experts but take the issues seriously, and everyone else? I would suggest that the answers, however well formed they are - if they miss and don't consider it - won't be enough of an answer, and secondly, they won't mean as much as they could to the public at large. So, process also drives the substance of the answers just as much as implication of any good ideas need good process.

We have just as much reason to look for these answers for the collective of people posting on this Web site (and that's not good enough either) as we do to a commission with such esteemed individuals. My point isn't to suggest anything other than commissions - whatever they answer - are set up with a process in mind. There's nothing magical about being a commission, which makes it seem more likely that they'll come up with the right answers. They are there because someone thinks its good process for making changes - whatever those be. I don't think so. Some of the questions you have in mind, Rick, may lead a smart group of people to the sort of fundamental thing I'm talking about. However, the process of setting up the commission suggests that those setting it up weren't smart enough to see the fundamental implication of it.

I guess we'll see. I see my sister's former boss, Howard Baker, on the list. She worked for his law firm for a short while. I guess seeing some of the names on the list, seeing where they come from, I don't have a lot of confidence that we're going to get at the crux of things - that you must have a ground up approach even in considering the nuts and bolts of the problem with parks because of the very nature of what parks are. However, I'm a little disingenuous here; I don't believe the parks ever were actually publicly-constructed places. Still, if we take the notion seriously that they are, then it's imperative that we treat them as such, even down to the very process of figuring out what's next.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

I thought the parks were to be preserved in their original condition, not conserved or used up wisely?

I make a categorical distinction between the found world and the made world. Places like Yosemite and Rocky Mtn. Nat'l. Park are part of the found world. Places like Gettysburg are what they are because of human created history, and thus part of the made world.

An order of values follows from this distinction. The found world is vital to human survival in a way that the made world is not. That is, regardless of social distinctions, we all need clean air, water and other natural resources.

As human creations, aspects of the made world are also often vital to human survival, for example, few of us can survive long without shelter. But the crucial difference is that, again for example, shelter can take many forms while elements of the found world are constant.

My opinion is that found world and made world parks should be separate entities. Made world parks can be under the Nat'l. Archives or Smithsonian, while found world parks can remain under the Interior (which by the way is also Executive branch), or possibly the EPA.

There is far too much material above to respond to point by point, but I actually favor the idea of elite commissions because if the Parks are subject to popular whim I believe they would be quickly deforested, overrun with ATVs and commercialized even more than now. Most people are simply too desperate to make a buck to take the long view.

Mr. Smith's questions in that regard express my views closely enough that I will not elaborate.

Larry,

First of all, the distinction is blurry. Almost every national park unit had a human component to it, that is an indigenous component. There always was human interaction and effect on the environment. When the first parks were created, those people were ignored, derided, kicked out, and then forced out of the history books. So, that goes to a bit of my point that the parks were never public creations or "for the benefit and enjoyment of people."

Secondly, the distinction is blurry. Every park unit is managed by humans in a kind of editing process that upholds certain values. So, it's never been a question of use - all parks have been used, and use necessarily has an effect on the condition of the place. They have been used toward preserving certain values at the expense of others. So, roads are built some places and not others. Some animals are managed a certain way at one time, another way at another time, and some are not managed at all. That goes for everything that exists in any park.

Thirdly, the distinction is blurry. Parks are almost never intact ecosystems; they are most often parts of ecosystems that exist beyond park boundaries, and those ecosystems in turn are open to the changes in other ecosystems (like pollution in China can reach Greater Yellowstone). However, if they are managed as if they are to be conserved as found, that actually means intensive management to work against the effects of the ecosystem changes around it not managed in the same way. So, the human component inside and outside is altogether different, but what happens outside has an effect on what happens inside and vice versa.

So, I think your categorical distinction is one I would have to reject, though not categorically (there's also something truly distinct between different types of park units - but we'd have to go at this question more). But, even if I were to accept the premise, it doesn't matter. If park units are not primarily public units - as you suggest - but that some are units that are specifically to be preserved (by the public - or not, as some others suggest) against the tendency of the public to destroy the parks, then who gets to make the value distinctions? It would be nice if those value distinctions simply existed in a neoplatonic heaven apart from the individuals that are affected by the decisions such that a keen eye could simply see them, but the fact is that these values in particular don't exist apart from the feedback of the beings who exist within it. So, it's a tad presumptuous for any human to determine what an ecosystem or its populations wants, but we do the best we can with that. What we can't do is presume that of other humans with whom we can certainly communicate.

I think you are right to worry that the net result of a sound process might end up destroying what we love in absence of other changes in society. If public is changed to mean the loudest voices in the room, or the loudest and most organized lobbying groups, then yeah, I think that is a problem to consider - something whose consequences we shouldn't shy from (a society too large with too many large toys whose land is so easy for us to destroy - perhaps, saving parks means changing some things about society at large). However, if we are to be honest and rational (values that are objective and accessible to us because they are notions upon which all other values depend), we cannot conduct a process for saving parks that is incoherent. We cannot get around the idea that the values that make parks public also depends upon the public being at the table as part of the process of their preservation. That we are so scared of the consequences of doing that only suggests that there are other things wrong - not that my argument is unsound.

In any event, the reverse of this plays out all the time. I belong with a buffalo advocacy group in the Yellowstone area; we who would want to stop the slaughter and hazing of wild bison are pretty much shut out of the process by the partners of the Interagency Bison Management Plan (who represent the five agencies - including NPS - who manage bison). Values are pre-determined by the government agencies and argued about within the parameters of that document; there is no place for indigenous voice, no place for buffalo advocates, for any other members of the public. They are already presuming values on buffalo, land, and livestock; yet, these decisions are only made by the stakeholders that have been determined to matter (those who control the resources). We don't have transparency, accountability, or a voice. Should fear that we might be outnumbered be reason to shut us out of the process? I don't think so.

And, I think the same holds for the parks. So, again, I hope the commission recognizes early on that it cannot be a substitute for direct public participation in the process. If it does that, then whatever else it comes up with can be useful - so long as that critical recommendation is made and is taken with urgent seriousness.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

Jim,

You make some excellent points, and I am willing to concede most of them. I wasn't intending to advocate a Platonic or neo-Platonic Ideal.

Rather, my concerns are with humankind's accelerating ignorance of its own biological nature and interdependance. I don't think it's necessarily elitist to say something like that. But it is inconsistent for me to, on one hand, advocate elite decisionmaking for the rest, and as I have done elsewhere, denigrate hierarcy as unrealistic and ultimately anti-biologic. So again, points taken.

Although my categories are fuzzy they are not unreal. Philosophy is moving away from Ideal categories and towards coherance, which you mention in a couple of contexts, because its work has so thoroughly changed our understanding of Ideal categories as such. But that doesn't mean that there is no coherant set of real values without which human survival is not possible.

To add weight to my concerns, consider a concept from Communication Theory: it is called a strange loop, and is a notable characteristic of modernism in particular. It is a cycle: novelty-elation-familiarity-boredom-novelty..
and can be virtuous or vicious. Personal angst about which is evident in attitudes about components, not only of the Nat'l. Parks, but of the environment in general, you are correct, is no reason to abandon a process which we all value.

After all, evolution is a gamble just as democracy is, and if we humans abandon our natures, then we must become something else or perish.

In fact the only thing I am left with in your response to complain about is this: "If public is changed to mean the loudest voices in the room, or the loudest and most organized lobbying groups, then yeah, I think that is a problem to consider..."

It is no change at all that 'public' means the loudest and most organized lobbying groups, unless it means the hierarchic/bureaucratic power structure, or perhaps opinion polls. In any case, there are certainly things to consider and engage!

So we are back to Mr. Smith's more pragmatic questions, I think, though they will certainly be impacted by the Commission and those of us who hope to influence the future of the Nat'l. Parks.

Regards.

This has certainly become a very esoteric discussion about a commission that has yet to reveal a known format, agenda or who exactly is going to sit on it. While I think it is a good idea to have some sort of outside panel look into the governance of the national parks, it always makes me wary when it is focused on some nebulous and broadly defined goal like "the future". It would behoove us all to ask for increasing specificity as this commission becomes more tangibly arranged.

I'd personally like to see some scrutiny given to the process of how national park units are created by a politically motivated gang of pork mongers up on Capitol Hill, as well as looking into how we can open up the ranger profession from the current stranglehold of OPM personnel rules that keeps out ALL aspirants from applying for career positions except for those who have achieved "permanent" or "veterans preference" status in the federal government. These silly antiquated work rules keep the NPS from receiving a much needed infusion of fresh ideas and new blood that it so desperately needs. Federal government personnel rules do nothing but stymie many ambitious and talented people from ever considering this important work as a viable profession. We need to stop the current closed-shop guild mentality and open up the ranks to all qualified comers!

I wish this commission well and hope that it can produce something tangible and real that will reach beyond the normal fluff and grandiose posturing of previously gathered groups.

Earlier in this discussion, Rick Smith made some excellent points. I would hope they come to the attention of this commission.

I know these commissions have their pros and cons, but the reality is that in the present system the NPS operates in a political environment. If this latest commission will address the kinds of questions raised by Rick, and the result is some additional support for parks in the political arena , it seems this has an opportunity to be helpful.

Jim

National Rifle Association to Formulate National Parks Future *
*Not true. This comment is satire!

Two former U.S. Senators have today announced that the NRA (National Rifle Association) has assembled an august body of experts who will assist the American nation to overcome the cumulative maladies of a decaying National Park System, to formulate in consultation with a range of regional experts a viable course for our treasured but endangered Parks over the coming century.

I was very relieved to read through Kurt Repanshek's report of this new commission, and then see him summarize by gently clearing his throat and pointing out - at this stage - the lack of accountability or authorization for any such commission.

If anybody with the necessary funding and access to media-release platforms can assemble a blue-ribbon commission to advise on the future of our national assets, then what's to prevent the NRA from backing the next such proposal?

There are, after all, more than a few retired Senators who are NRA members.