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Is It Time to Overhaul the National Park Service and the National Park System?
With the National Park Service's centennial eight years off, it's not too early to take the measure of both the service and the National Park System it manages. Is all well across the 391-unit system, or has the time arrived to overhaul and strengthen this venerable agency?
The National Park System must be temporarily reduced to a size for which Congress is willing to pay. Let us, as a beginning, close Yellowstone, Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, and Grand Canyon national parks -- close and seal them, assign the Army to patrol them, and so hold them secure till they can be reopened. They have the largest staffs in the system but neither those staffs nor the budget allotted them are large enough to maintain the areas at a proper level of safety, attractiveness, comfort, or efficiency. They are unable to do the job in full and so it had better not be attempted at all. If these staffs -- and their respective budgets -- were distributed among othe areas, perhaps the Service could meet the demands now put on it. If not, additional areas could be temporarily closed and sealed, held in trust for a more enlightened future -- say Zion, Big Bend, Great Smoky, Shenandoah, Everglades and Gettysburg.
Guard against fire, clean up after litterbugs. Protect and restore the wildlife, even wolves and mountain lions, in order to keep the balance of nature, but do it in a show window where millions can thrill to see it. Offer high-grade adult education to all who ask for it and many who don't. Rescue climbers trapped or injured on the cliffs, tourists wounded by the bears they have been (against the rules) feeding.
Do what you can about America's slop-happy habit of defacing signs, tearing up shrubs and wild flowers and throwing candy wrappers, bottles and beer cans in creeks and springs and geysers. Be patient when tourists balw you out for something "because I pay taxes for this." Do it all on a pitifully inadequate budget, with collapsing equipment and an overworked and undermanned staff and smile. The picture is gruesome, but it is neither sensational nor exaggerated.
Those statements about the National Park System could have been made yesterday, but in fact they were made 55 and 53 years ago, respectively. The first was voiced by Bernard DeVoto in a column not-so-subtly titled Let's Close the National Parks that appeared in Harper's Magazine. The second was uttered by none other than Wallace Stegner in an article that also was not-so-subtly titled, this time simply We Are Destroying Our National Parks, that ran, believe it or not, in Sports Illustrated.
How stands the National Park System today, a half-century after these demands or recommendations were made? Some might easily argue not merely that little has changed, but that things have gotten worse, that the agency has become hamstrung not just by underfunding and politics but that it has become more focused on fostering recreation than conserving the resources for future generations, more concerned about appeasing gateway communities than standing firmly in defense of natural resources.
Today the National Park Service is saddled with a maintenance backlog guesstimated at somewhere around $8 billion; the agency's annual shortfall is pegged at roughly $800 million; solemn Alcatraz Island has been transformed, at least for one night, into a garish amusement attraction; the White House is telling Yellowstone National Park officials that like it or not they will indeed maintain snowmobile access through the park's East Entrance even though the park lacks the money to safely do so; at the same time, Dinosaur National Monument, a unit built around paleontology, is dismantling its paleontological division because it can't afford it; politicians are playing name games with National Park System units; air pollution is despoiling vistas and resources at parks such as Acadia, Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah, and Sequoia; off-road vehicles and personal watercraft are creating resource problems.
Those are just the tip-of-the-tongue examples of why the National Park Service seems to be shuddering. tumbling, teetering along the way toward its momentous birthday party. You easily could go on, pointing out the lack of full-time personnel across the system, commercialism some see seeping into the parks, a pecking order among the 391 units, and more.
These comments are not mere hyperbole. Rather, they're a quick collection of examples that has more than a few folks worrying about the future of the National Park System. Is it a system in decay, stricken with dry rot?
In 1991, noted conservation writer Michael Frome saw his book, Regreening the National Parks, first published. Now working on an update, Mr. Frome is not likely to be glowing in his latest analysis of what has transpired the past 16 years. "Virtually all of my research and continued study show that our treasured national parks have suffered from political interference and profiteering power, and are being reduced to commercialized popcorn playgrounds," he says.
As with DeVoto and Stegner before him, Mr. Frome is beckoning us to take note of what is transpiring and to react to it. His voice is not alone in the wilderness.
"Stegner was certainly being dramatic, but he was not far off the mark," offers Dr. Dwight Pitcaithley, a former chief historian for the National Park Service. "The parks are undergoing gradual physical decline due to lack of proper funding. The maintenance backlog throughout the NPS is officially between $5 and $8 billion. These figures are at least two years old, so the correct figure might even be higher.
"How will the NPS catch-up with an overall budget of $2.4 billion?" he continues. "One might correctly observe that the national parks are not being overtly destroyed, but there certainly exists a slow-growing cancer of benign neglect and misdirected leadership that is eating away at the integrity of the parks every year."
Rick Smith, who spent three decades with the Park Service in a range of positions, including associate regional director for Natural and Cultural Resources in the agency's Southwest Regional Office, Santa Fe, and continues to advocate for the park system as a member of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, says that Mr. Stegner was "voicing a fairly common concern about parks in those days." That said, he doesn't believe the words of Stegner nor DeVoto were overly dramatic.
"It is particularly important to have people like Wallace Stegner, his son, Page, Dr. Roderick Nash, Joe Sax, etc., speak out because they have great credibility and people listen to them," says Mr. Smith. "If they find their criticisms credible, they apply pressure to their elected officials for corrective action. That is the way it has worked for a long time.
"It is only recently that this cycle seems to have broken down a bit, the victim, I believe, of the overly partisan nature of our national dialog now," he adds. "What passes for environmental debate now is, for the most part, shrill posturing with little active listening being done by either side of the debate. It's pretty depressing."
The pertinent question today, though, is how much longer can the National Park System endure under current conditions? Is there a need for a thorough revamping of the National Park Service, with how we as both a government and people steward the National Park System? Can the system continue to survive with more and more additions but scant financial and manpower resources? Are there questionable units that could be better served if they were cast off, given to states or even communities to tend and so free the National Park Service to better spend its meager resources?
A core problem with how the National Park System is being managed today is that it too often finds itself at the center of a tug-of-war between special interests -- take your pick between the motorized recreation industry, environmental and conservation groups, gateway communities, states and, yes, even the National Rifle Association -- with Congress as the referee and whoever resides in the White House playing the role of final arbiter, though "final" probably isn't the best adjective in light of the role the courts play.
At a time when the American population is becoming more and more diverse, when budgets are becoming leaner and leaner, and when tougher and tougher choices need to be made, isn't it more vital than ever that broader consensus be gathered for how the National Park System is to march on?
Is it essential that the National Park Service kowtow to every special interest and strive to transform the parks into some creation that sates every constituency's demands? How far should the latest electronic technology invade the parks? Do we want visitors turned into drones content to be led about by their cellphones and Ipods, or does it make more sense to rely on knowledgeable interpretive rangers who not only can answer questions but stimulate imaginations? How many recreational constituencies can, and should, be catered to in the parks? Are the simple pleasures of a walk in the woods, a night under the stars, appreciation of art, a better understanding of the American melting pot, now passe?
The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees for some time has called for a national dialog to be conducted on the future of the National Park System, a talk to be handled through a non-partisan National Park Service Centennial Commission (see attachment).
Understandably, given Congress's past handling of reports churned out by commissions -- remember the 911 Commission? -- there's an apprehension from some for appointment of such a commission. But short of such a commission, a body that can not only sort through the quagmire that today bogs down the National Park Service but also work to shine light on the shortcomings, who will?
Beyond such a commission, it's imperative that politics be removed from management of the National Park System. The National Park Service must be overseen by a director free of the bit and bridle that politicians saddle the agency with. Give this director a 6- or 8-year-tenure that overlaps presidencies and a prime directive to do what's best for the parks, not the politicians.
Much has been made of guiding the National Park Service into its second century, which commences in 2016. But readying the agency and its system requires more than simply luring in more dollars through philanthropy, sprucing up the facilities, and calling for greater diversity both in the agency's ranks and also the parks' visitors.
There's a paradigm change on the way. What remains to be seen, is in which direction it takes the National Park System.
"Any clear vision for the national parks for the 21st Century must uphold their reputation in the worldwide realm of parks and protected areas. That is both challenge and responsibility, as President John F. Kennedy recognized," says Mr. Frome. "In welcoming delegates to the First World Conference on National Parks held in Yellowstone National Park in 1962, Kennedy declared:
Growth and development of national park and reserve programs throughout the world are important to the welfare of the people of ever nation. We must have places where we can find release from the tensions of an increasingly industrialized civilization, where we can have personal contact with the natural environment which sustains us. To this end, permanent preservation of the outstanding scenic and scientific assets of every country, and of the magnificent and varied wildlife which can be so easily endangered by human activity, is imperative. National Parks and reserves are an integral aspect of intelligent use of our national resources. It is the course of wisdom to set aside an ample portion of our national resources as national parks and reserves, thus ensuring that future generations may know the majesty of the earth as we know it today.
An earlier president, Theodore Roosevelt, in 1903, after camping with John Muir among the ancient sequoias of Yosemite, listening to the hermit thrush and the waterfalls tumbling down sheer cliffs, wrote that 'It was like lying in a great solemn cathedral far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man.' Then TR went to Stanford University, where he declared: 'There is nothing more practical than the preservation of beauty, than the preservation of anything that appeals to the higher emotions of mankind.'
As the National Park Service stands at the cusp of its second century, we must do more than kick the tires and look for rust. The engine, arguably, needs to be overhauled and our compass bearings checked before heading on down the road.
Again, Mr. Frome: "To sum up, national parks when they were new yielded discovery, adventure, and challenge. They should always do that. And they can, if we set our minds and hearts to it. As the rest of the country becomes more developed, and super-civilized, national parks should be safeguarded to represent another side of America, free of technology, free of commerce and crowds, free of instant gratification, a pioneer, self-reliant side of America. I do not want them closed. I want them to serve as models for a quality environment of life."
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