During the past eight years the Bush administration has "pushed a concerted strategy of reducing the protections for our public lands, parks, and forests, and opening up these lands for every type of private, commercial and extractive industry possible." So says Congressman Raul Grijalva.
In a biting, and at times scathing, 23-page assessment of the Bush administration's public lands agenda, the Democrat from Arizona cites case after case after case where the outgoing administration has done damage not just to the actual public lands landscape but also to the agencies that oversee those lands.
"Overall, under Bush, dedicated career employees have been driven out because they refused to comply with unethical activities, science has been manipulated to enrich industry, and environmental laws and regulations have been subverted to push forward damaging activities," contends Rep. Grijalva, who chairs the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands.
Granted, it's a partisan attack. And with that understood, here's what Interior Department officials had to say in response:
"We appreciate Mr. Grijalva's interest in the management of our public lands and we hope that future versions of his report will provide a true accounting of the actions of this administration - such as the protection of more than 3 million acres of wetlands or the creation of the largest single conservation area in our nation’s history," said Interior spokesman Chris Paolino.
That said, if you take a "true accounting" of the congressman's examples, it's a little hard to argue with him. The full report is attached. But here's a look at some of its contents in terms of the National Park Service and its system:
Greatest Slaughter of Bison in the United States Since the 19th Century
The Bush Administration has presided over the largest slaughter of bison since the Great Plains herds were slaughtered nearly to extinction by unscrupulous buffalo hunters in the late 1800s. Even more tragically, the 1,167 killed this year resided in Yellowstone National Park where their survival should have been protected. The Administration’s failure to formulate a plan allowing bison to roam freely within and outside Yellowstone National Park and lack of leadership on most ecological issues will likely lead to more bison deaths in the winter of 2008-2009. Bison are a symbol of the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior, both of whom should be ensuring the protection and survival of these animals rather than aiding in their slaughter.
Administration Attacks World Heritage Status of Yellowstone
Administration officials urged the United Nations to remove Yellowstone National Park from a list of endangered World Heritage sites in a letter stating that ―Yellowstone is no longer in danger.‖ The ―in danger‖ list is maintained by the U.N. World Heritage Committee and helps to trigger action on the part of the committee when a World Heritage Site is threatened with destruction or serious degradation. Nineteen World Heritage sites were on the list at the time and Yellowstone in particular is on the list due to continuing threats to water quality, air quality and wildlife. Though the park has been on the ―in danger‖ list since 1995, environmentalists say Bush Administration policies have actually placed the park and its resources in greater peril. The most significant threats to the park come from energy development and logging adjacent to the park, stripping sensitive species such as wolves and grizzly bears of their protections, the continued slaughter of the park’s resident bison and the unresolved snowmobile winter use issue.
Snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park
Before leaving office, the Clinton Administration completed an EIS that supported a decision to ban snowmobiles from Yellowstone National Park. Research found that noise pollution from snowmobiles disturbs wildlife during a time of the year when they are already stressed by harsh weather and lack of food. Additionally, snowmobiles emit exhaust which degrades air quality. Upon taking office, the Bush Administration overturned the proposal. Next, the Bush Administration unveiled a plan to allow 1,100 snowmobiles in Yellowstone per day, a 35% increase over the average of 815 snowmobiles in the park daily in winter, prior to the ban. This decision was made despite a National Park Service study incorporating 10 years of scientific data that blamed snowmobiles for unhealthy noise levels and air pollution. The $2.4 million environmental impact study concluded that a ban on snowmobiles "best preserves the unique historic, cultural, and natural resources" in the parks, and "yields the lowest levels of impacts to air quality, water quality, natural soundscapes, and wildlife." The decision has been in litigation since 2002 and the NPS has undertaken multiple studies and released multiple revised plans for snowmobile use since then. Currently, snowmobiles are still permitted in Yellowstone at much reduced levels and even this plan has been thrown out by a Federal judge.
Loaded Firearms in National Parks
Contrary to the recommendations of all living former directors of the National Park Service, including Bush appointee Fran Mainella, political appointees at the Department of the Interior proposed allowing visitors to possess loaded, concealed firearms in National Park Service units and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Refuges subject to state firearm possession laws. Despite what proponents of the new regulation would have the public believe, firearms are not currently prohibited on Park Service lands; they simply must be unloaded and inaccessible. Though the regulation is supposed to prevent confusion over weapons possession rules, many parks are located in two or more states and many individual states (even states that share boarders) lack reciprocity agreements. Such widespread inconsistency is not only contrary to the stated intent of the new regulation but will ultimately lead to confusion and entrapment of gun owners. The regulation is expected to be released in October.
Political Screening for NPS Civil Service Managers
Under former Director Mainella, the National Park Service used a political loyalty test for selecting all its top civil service employees. Under the new order, the appointment of all mid-level and upper-level career managers had to be approved by a Bush Administration political appointee. The October 11, 2005, order required that the selection criteria for all civil service management slots (grades of GS-13, 14 and 15) include the ―ability to lead employees in achieving the . . . Secretary’s 4Cs and the President’s Management Agenda.‖ In addition, candidates must receive supplemental screening by Park Service headquarters and the Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. The civil service positions covered by this edict are supposed to be non-political.
Backlogged Maintenance Doubled Under Bush
Early in his first term, President Bush pledged to ―eliminate‖ the National Park Service maintenance backlog, estimated at $4.9 billion when he took office. Despite this promise, the Congressional Research Service estimates that, far from being retired, the National Park Service maintenance backlog has nearly doubled under President Bush, to $9.7 billion in 2008 (with some estimates being as high as $14 billion). Administration Tells Parks to Prepare for 30% Across-the-Board Cut In recent budget cycles, the Bush Administration has directed the National Park Service to substantially decrease its reliance on tax-supported funding and increase fees. In a reversal from the last two presidential campaigns when candidate Bush promised greater funding for parks, ―talking points‖ distributed to park superintendents urge them to begin ―honest and forthright‖ discussions with the public about smaller budgets, reduced visitor services and increased fees. Using a new approach called Core Operations Analysis, each park is asked to develop budgets based on a 20% to 30% reduction in appropriated support. In this exercise, park superintendents decide which visitor services or other functions can be jettisoned. Any shortfalls that remain must be covered by fee hikes, cost shifting or increased reliance on volunteers.
Failure to Protect Available Resources
Inadequate funding is also threatening the National Park Service’s historical and cultural treasures. The bulk of the artifacts collection at Little Big Horn is stored under poor conditions because that park does not have enough space to conserve and display the items; the spectacular fossil rockface at Dinosaur National Monument is unavailable to the public because the agency has been unable to afford to replace the unsafe visitor center. A July 2008 Inspector General’s report found that the agency’s own historical collection at Harpers Ferry is kept under lax security and poor physical conditions. Further, steadily declining funding for acquisitions have forced the National Park Service to forego numerous purchases from willing sellers, including from sellers who could no longer afford to wait for the government to buy their property and were forced to sell elsewhere. In several cases, this has resulted in lands that are inside (Zion NP; Valley Forge NHP) authorized boundaries being sold, exposing those lands to possible detrimental development.
As these examples attest, and as an upcoming post will detail, the next administration will have quite a bit of work to address when it comes to our public lands.