Call it a $1 million question. Will the National Parks Second Century Commission make a difference in the future of the National Park System, or will its findings and suggestions simply collect dust on a back-room shelf as some other studies have done?
The National Parks Conservation Association is betting the commission will make a difference, as evidenced by the $1 million the advocacy group is underwriting the body with.
Though just announced this past week, the commission has been in the gestational phase since last December, when Loran Fraser, who had a 26-year National Park Service career in Washington, was hired to oversee the initiative.
The central question that arises is how, or why, this group -- whose distinguished membership includes renowned biologist E.O. Wilson, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra O'Connor, former U.S. Senators Howard Baker and J. Bennett Johnston, and John Fahey, the president and chief executive officer of the National Geographic Society -- will succeed where others have failed?
After all, in July 2001 the National Park System Advisory Board published its own thoughts on where the National Park Service should go in the 21st Century. Though appropriately titled Rethinking the National Parks for the 21st Century, the report failed to gain traction.
The key points of that report? That the National Park Service embrace its mission as an educator; encourage study of the American past; adopt the conservation of biodiversity as a core principle in carrying out its preservation mandate; advance the principles of sustainability; acknowledge the connections between native cultures and the parks; encourage collaboration among park and recreation systems at every level of federal, state, regional and local government, and; improve the agency's institutional capacity.
Alas, the report largely was dead on arrival.
"Some have observed that the problem with that report was it came out at a time of change in leadership in the organization and the administration. It was birthed, if you will, by the Clinton administration under Secretary (Bruce) Babbitt and parks Director Bob Staton," says Mr. Fraser, who, interestingly, played a role in that report as he was chief of policy for the Park Service at the time.
"It completed its work in transition and reported, essentially, to the Park Service when there was a new administration. And explicitly the leadership of the new institution was very reluctant, and explicitly stated so, in addressing its recommendations," he recalls. "So there was a transition issue. We believe we have a different context here since we are reporting at the beginning of a new administration and are delighted by the interest of key people throughout the Park Service right now in this opportunity."
Past discussions of such commissions on the Traveler have included questions of not simply whether anyone would read the resulting reports and recommendations, but also the propriety of such commissions and the process they follow, whether commissions have preconceived agendas from the get-go, and even whether the commission process denies input from the general public.
In the case at hand, some might say the Second Century Commission arrives at its task tainted because it's being bankrolled by the NPCA. Of course, others similarly would say congressionally appointed commissions are tainted as well.
Beyond that, why are no large conservation-oriented NGOs, such as The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, or the World Wildlife Fund, represented on the commission? And are there any concerns that the existence of the commission will be an impediment to the administration's Centennial Initiative in that some congressfolk and potential donors might withhold their support pending the commission's report?
At the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, which has ties to the commission through the presence of Deny Galvin, who was deputy director at the Park Service, and Jerry Rogers, a former associate director for cultural resources and Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places for the agency, Bill Wade is happy to see the commission.
"I think the commission is very strong and we’re pretty satisfied with it," says Mr. Wade, who chairs the coalition's executive council. "We will continue, in any way we can, to support the commission and to help in any way we can. We will continue to make our concerns and possible solutions known to the commission, such as via our Professional Opinion Papers."
Among those papers is one that has called for a commission very similar to the Second Century Commission and which outlines concerns the retirees think need to be addressed.
According to Mr. Fraser, the commission has an unfettered mandate: "To consider the circumstances today of the parks, offer a vision for the role of parks in society in the future, and propose a program of actions to accomplish that vision."
Indeed, he said "nothing is off the table" regarding what the commissioners deem appropriate for their review. Even suggesting that some units be decommissioned wouldn't be beyond the commission's purview, though it didn't sound likely that that topic would be thoroughly investigated.
"What you see when you look at the evolution of the park idea is growth. Greater diversity, a diversity that reflects changing ideas, a broadening of the culture of society, new knowledge and research about the importance of natural systems, the importance of parks and protected areas in preserving stressed natural systems," says Mr. Fraser. "So there's a fair prospect that this commission will offer thoughts about growth. I would not be surprised whatsoever.
"I don't know about decommissioning. We've seen that touched over the years now and then by this group, that leader, or this body, and it may come up. I don't know. The key thing here is we have a group of very prominent and thoughtful people, and anticipating a lot of energy around all conservations. We'll see what they have to say."
Overly broad? Perhaps. But in dealing with an institution as large, and even cumbersome, as the National Park Service and its system, can you come into such a review with ironclad goals in mind? That said, Mr. Fraser does expect the commission to have "discussion regarding institutional capacity and management" of the Park Service.
Between now and next June the commission plans a small handful of gatherings, beginning with a meeting August 25-27 near Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area followed by meetings in Yellowstone National Park, Gettysburg National Military Park, Lowell National Historical Park, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Coming out of those sessions, which will be open to the public and augmented by public meetings with hopes of gathering input from the general public, will be a report produced and published by the National Geographic Society.
"We have a very clear sense of the importance of the key audiences, which is the Congress, the National Park Service, and potentially a new administration," says Mr. Fraser. "We anticipate also in an outreach program that we will engage the general public and interest groups significantly in this conversation.
"I think there's a great opportunity coming with a new Congress and a new administration shortly before we report. The opportunities also to report at the same time that PBS is going to publish Ken Burns' blockbuster on history in the parks and the park system in the fall of 2009. It creates a wonderful opportunity and a synergy to make public statements of broad purpose here."