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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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I agree that process is important. I don't know exactly what that process will be, but I hope they do reach out to include different voices. But this is something that has to be carefully done. If the commission casts its net too widely, it risks getting a mishmash of issues and concerns that lead to gridlock. I don't think the public has any sense of where the National Park Service has been or where it should go. On the other hand, special interests know very well what they want and are relentless in fighting for it. They already have a disproportionately strong voice in national park affairs.

I think what is needed the most right now is a bold, positive vision and equally bold leadership on behalf of existing and new national parks. This is certainly not coming from the browbeaten National Park Service, the anti-park Bush administration, the clueless Congress, or uninvolved NGOs. I think the commission has an opportunity to set the tone and agenda for discussion. Then it can put their ideas out there to get a reality check for their final findings and report. But that report needs to be on the cutting edge, not "consensus"-based pabulum that plays it safe.


You're right that the NPS needs money. But if that means locking in bad things that could become permanent, we could gain in the short-term but lose in the long term. Look at the Fee "Demonstration" Program, which was obviously intended to be permanent. Then it became permanent -- what a shock. It will be very difficult to reverse this retrograde program. The approach of begging for funds each budget cycle has not worked very well for us.

I know there are things like buildings and artifacts that need desperate help. But regarding the natural parks, there was a lot of truth in Newton Drury's statement, "We have no money; we can do no harm." That doesn't mean more money is not needed, but we should not let privatizers and anti-government ideologues blackmail us into agreeing to more of their agenda. We need to start undoing it.

Now is a chance to start fresh and do it right for a change. We need to be ready to demand that the new president and Congress address this issue. I think it is worth muddling through another year of inadequate budgets if it leads to permanent reform and progress on funding and management.


I agree with you on the Centennial initiative issue but the fact is NPS needs money, and fast.


I don't disagree with your characterization of The Nature Conservancy, which unless it has changed practice from the Washington Post expose written several years ago, is borderline corrupt and more of a money front for the large corporations that make up its board.

What I have an issue with again is one of process. If we already know the kinds of people we would like on a commission, we must already have a good idea of what we think the answers need to be coming out of the commission (not that there aren't specific questions to go at - like the kind Rick has outlined). This emphasizes the point I made elsewhere that commissions aren't really important for their substance but as part of an advocacy process toward largely pre-ordained outcomes. I think in some specific fields, they may serve their use; however, in the world of parks, they only exacerbate some of the key problems.

The word "commission" for whatever reason has some cache - the idea of an independent, god's eye view on things. But, that strikes me as silly when we are talking about parks. The supposedly ultimate grounds for holistic interaction, for engaging with beings in terms of their of whole environment are reduced to the most detached, atomistic way of considering problems. That these commissions are neither independent nor have a god's eye makes it seem all the sillier. Can't we advocate in a sounder way than this?

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


A couple of points.

why are no large conservation-oriented NGOs, such as The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, or the World Wildlife Fund, represented on the commission?

The Nature Conservancy has been less and less supportive of national parks in recent years. For example, they are unsupportive, if not openly opposed to the Maine Woods National Park proposal. They prefer the private land protection route. That is their right, but they are not advocates for public lands and national parks. Conservation International and WWF do some great work on parks in other countries, but virtually nothing in the U.S. They have not shown leadership on this, so why should they be on the commission? In fact, no U.S. conservation organization -- except for NPCA -- has taken any significant leadership on national park issues for more than a decade. It is a good idea to consult with these organizations, but they should not be 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?

The administration's Centennial Initiative is severely flawed and we would be better off if it goes nowhere in its current form. It greatly increases dependence on private and corporate funding instead of direct federal appropriations -- continuing the unhealthy privatization of our parks. It does not roll back the shift toward funding national park units through user fees -- a harmful trend that is undermining congressional appropriations and needs to be reversed. And it barely even mentions new or expanded national parks at all. But what else would we expect from the anti-park Bush administration? I'd be delighted if members of Congress wait for the commission report and take legislative action in the next session, when we might get a much better Centennial Initiative.

Rick, I appreciate your reply and base some of my statements on what I hear from my friends who are still employed in the agency and are now in the ranks of mid to upper management. Many of them tell me that they wish the NPS would get back to the basics of what it means to be a ranger instead of straying off in pursuit of the latest fad or WASO generated initiative.

In the case of one ranger friend it means having a staff that is actually knowledgeable and conversant about the resource entrusted to its care. The unit where this person works has a staff that is not as well versed in the natural history of the park as it should be and tend to view it more or less as a stopover point on the career ladder with which to snag a management position and then move on to greener pastures in a more glamorous western park or preserve.

Trying to improve the situation has been an uphill struggle and somewhat damaging to their career as they have been rebuffed more than once by upper management due to the perceived irrelevance resource knowledge has in pursuing the latest and greatest bold new initiative handed down from WASO such as podcasting and laughable claptrap like the "Interpretive Renaissance".

Luckily for the American people this particular person loves the park in question and is more interested in learning further about it and finding better ways of protecting it than moving around the country in pursuit of a position description to place on an SF-171.

I agree that this has been a good thread and I hope some of the commission members have been reading NPT in preparation for their upcoming task. Kurt should be the chair. All in favor say aye!


Yes, it's true that NPCA really only made my radar in recent months, with the start of the new firearms regulations comment period. I'd seen them in a blip here 'n there over the years, but never focused in. I don't have a detailed appreciation of the outfit, and could have painted them a little crudely.

However, I was certainly impressed with how they 'went political', going for some major arm-twisting ... and I thought they did a lot of credit-burning (even bridge-burning) in an effort to 'set the talking points' to their liking ... all to no avail. But exactly which flavor of reality they prefer, I'm not as sure as I would be of the NRA!

Commissions could be a great thing alright, but since they're generally not self-assembling, a lot depends on the even-handedness of the backers.

Ted, I agree with you overall point, but I don't agree with your characterization of NPCA as a green/left organization, certainly not on one pole of society. As a left person myself, I only wish it were the case that NPCA were outside the mainstream. For the most part, it's been an advocacy unit for the National Park Service, not really a left organization.

I think this process actually smacks of the mainstream and that the actual public represents a far more diverse range of opinions. But, your overall point is taken. Unless they recognize the need for greater transparency and public input (with teeth) in management, then I wouldn't be disappointed in seeing the ideas shelved. If such commissions prove to be ineffective tools, then we won't be so quick to acquiesce to them the next time someone proposes them. We could be talking about commissions working on almost anything - from steroids in baseball to figuring out 9/11 to this.

It's a good gig as part of an overall advocacy strategy.

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


I always found the agency itself to be pretty tolerant of dissent and critical evaluation. At the Assistant Secrertary level and above, however, there was little patience for the questioning of decisions that originated in those offices. Particularly intolerant of dissent were the people who worked as staff of the political appointees. They simply had little use for the points of view of career employees. In my 30+ years with the NPS, the only exception to this rule was during the term of Secretary Andrus and for brief periods of time during the Babbit years. Otherwise, an employee knew that if he or she spoke out, there was some risk. Some took the risk; many didn't. Those who did are often spoken of in admiring terms on NPT.

As to the retirees speaking out, I can say that I do so to provide cover for those still working. The last 7 years have not been easy ones for career NPS employees. (Or for that matter, maybe even worse for USFS and USF&WS employees.) They need people with appropriate experience and backgrounds to speak out against 1.) the marginalization of the career leadership in the NPS; 2.) the attempts to competitively outsource NPS science and resources managment jobs; 3.) the shrinking of operational budgets to the point where visitor services and resources protection activities have to be curtailed; 4.) the failure to base planning and operational decisions of sound science and research. 5.) the frantic push for private and public sector "partnerships" that threaten to turn park superintendents into beggars. Current employees can't say much publicly about these things. During the recent "guns in the parks" comment period, NPS employees were ordered not to say anything publicly.

So, it's kind of a mixed bag as I see it. Maybe the NPS should encourage more dissent than it does, but, based of my conversations with career employees in other land managing agencies, the NPS is more tolerant than the others. Yet, the real pressure, at least during my career, came from the political appointees who were hired to promote a partisan agenda. That's the way the American government system has evolved, and I guess we are stuck with it. That's why I am interested to see if the recently-established Commission will take up the questions that I posted on these pages a couple days ago. I will quote just a couple of them:

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.

These have been interesting threads. I hope we can continue to kick them around.

Rick Smith

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