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Will Second Century Commission Succeed With Its National Parks Assessment and Recommendations?


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."

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The challenge facing a Commission underwritten by the National Rifle Association to study the future of our Parks would be that the NRA is known to bring a specific & strong bias to the table.

The exact same issue arises in the case of the National Parks Conservation Association, backing a commission for the same purpose.

Furthermore, the National Parks Conservation Association has shown no better ability to work beyond their preferred viewpoint than the National Rifle Association.

Neither organization recognizes the validity of the full spectrum of the American public, and that limitation disqualifies each of them equally, in any project to define the future of a resource held in common by all citizens.

Questions of the future of our National Parks belong before real representatives of the people: both the NRA and the NPCA aim to promote a specific viewpoint - and discount all others.

Ted, where did you get the idea the NRA is backing the commission? I couldn't find that documented anywhere, do you have a link to any evidence?

Also, what is wrong with the NPCA?

Regarding the commission itself, I'm convinced that creating commissions is a cheap way to convince Americans that our government actually cares about an issue without actually having to do anything. Looking at some of the names on the list, these sound like professional "commissionaires" who simply sit on these things to collect a paycheck. Looking at the organization the commission will present their report, it sounds like another tome destined for a dusty shelf.

If our government and elected officials don't care about the parks (which seems to be the case), a commission isn't going to change that.


My travels through the National Park System:


Nah, the NRA isn't backing the new commission. The NPCA is.

There's nothing wrong with the NPCA ... there's nothing wrong with the NRA - and there's everything wrong with both.

Each sets itself up to speak for a slice of the American people ... each slice at the far opposite ends to the political spectrum from the other. And that's fine.

The NPCA speaks for a green-left viewpoint, and the NRA speaks for a red-right viewpoint. Each of those is fine - until one of them presumes to speak for the whole spectrum of the nation, because neither of them do.

There is nothing that says a green-left organization is appropriate to lead discussions about our Parks, and a red-right organization isn't. The Parks are held equally by all of us - Green, Red, Polka-Dotted and just plain Muddied-Looking. Environmentalists don't own the Parks.

If the Catholic Church resumes to pontificate to Americans, a lot of them will just blow the Church off. If the NRA presumes to speak for our Parks, Greens will blow them off. If the NPCA presumes to do the speaking, most non-Greens will roll their eyes.

The NPCA wants an environmentalist-driven viewpoint at the Commission, but non-environmentalists have just as good a claim on the Parks, and they each have one vote come ballot-time.

What we need, obviously, is a commission that is not driven by the views from one far end of the political spectrum or the other, but strives to respect the politics of each individual voter.

The NPCA is no more likely to fill that role than the NRA ... and to answer Kurt's question, no more likely to come up with lasting or substantive results than previous green-driven leadership moves.

Barky----Ted's mention of the NRA was a reference to previous comments that he made concerning the bias that may or may not be present in a commission depending on who was sponsoring it.

As for this commission bringing any real and meaningful change to a hidebound bureaucracy I can only point to the fact that the majority of current NPS employees are way too frightened to speak out about problems in their own agency because of a very well founded fear of retribution. Has anyone ever stopped to wonder why it is that only RETIRED employees have the courage to speak out?

Again, I wish the commission well but really don't expect much more than some platitudinous final report that will soon take its place collecting dust right next to all of the other plans, reports and commissions that came before it.

Beamis, I think you don't hear active NPS rangers raising their voices not because they're frightened but rather because 1)They'd prefer to keep their jobs and any chance of upward movement and 2) I believe it's actually against the regs to do so.

That said, it would be nice if some, under the cloak of anonymity, shared their thoughts on some of these issues.

Kurt, a recent AP article published prior to the controversial superintendents conference last month actually stated that many front line employees were against this money wasting conclave but were afraid to speak up out fear of retribution. I'll see if I can find it in the archives.

I saw the article. And I think it's a valid concern, under the "keep quiet if you want to continue your upward movement in the NPS" genre.

But I also believe rangers -- and perhaps you know having been one -- are told early on that it's against agency policy for them to speak out on any NPS-related issue, that that's the job of the public affairs staff. I know this was raised a coupla years ago on the Traveler during a Yellowstone snowmobile back-and-forth.

That said, I think in any job today -- government, NGO, private corporation -- it's frowned upon to speak ill of your employer. That you might suffer some consequences for doing so goes without saying.

Of course, J.T. Reynolds, Death Valley's long-time superintendent, often has spoken ill of some NPS decisions under the current administration. The NPCA honored him with an award a coupla years ago with hopes it would serve as a shield of some sort from retribution.

Internally it is frowned upon as well. I know that in the company I run I want all the feedback, good and bad, that I can get. My survival depends on it. I'm sure that Toyota, Google and Apple are run that way too.

I certainly don't expect park rangers to mouth off their concerns to AP reporters but it does behoove the agency to have a more open culture of dissent and critical evaluation. So far, this has not been the road to career advancement or a comfortable retirement, J.T. Reynolds notwithstanding.

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