After eight years of highly questionable management of public lands by the Bush administration, the next administration will face myriad environmental issues when it takes office in January.
But how will it respond? Between the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts and the shambles of the domestic economy, it doesn't seem as if there's much capital -- political or financial -- to be spent on environmental issues in general or the national parks specifically.
Looking back, the Bush administration has exacted a heavy toll from the public landscape. While promising during his first campaign to wipe out the National Park Service's ever-burgeoning maintenance backlog, which in 2000 was pegged about about $4.5 billion, President Bush failed to make hardly any inroads on that front. The result is that the backlog now is guesstimated at somewhere in the $9 billion range.
The Bush administration also did away with the popular National Parks Pass, a $50 gem that got you into any and all of the national park units as many times as you could squeeze into a calendar year. It also seemed to place a greater value on volunteers in the parks than full-time park rangers.
More recently, the administration is in the process of rewriting gun regulations in the parks, moving beyond the general allowance of firearms as long as they're dismantled and stored out of reach to permitting concealed weapons permit holders to pack their sidearm 24 hours a day.
This administration also has been questionably lax on air quality regulations, moving to rewrite the rule book in a fashion that would lead to greater air pollution at a time when more and more national parks are reporting air quality problems.
And, as the Traveler noted recently, under this administration the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has been kowtowing to oil and gas interests as well as the off-road vehicle lobby. And then, of course, there's the long-running snowmobile drama in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks that refuses to go quietly away.
While Dirk Kempthorne's arrival at the head of the Interior Department was an upgrade over Gale Norton, his legacy will not necessarily be sparkling in all corners. After all, under his direction the BLM moved recently to rescind the rule that allows Congress to direct Interior officials to withdraw public lands acreage that could be in danger of degradation. Interior also has a poor record on the Endangered Species Act; recent directives could seriously jeopardize future decisions involving species at risk.
And don't forget how the administration has been handling the recovery of the gray wolf in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, moving to remove ESA protections from the species only to restore them after a federal judge questioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's logic.
One could go on and on. But we need to turn the page on this administration and look ahead to the next one, whether it be led by Barack Obama or John McCain. As we've noted in the past, either one would be a substantial upgrade over President Bush when it comes to environmental issues and, in particular, concern for the national parks.
Still, one needs to question how much desire, and how effective, the two would be when it comes to protecting the environment. While Sen. McCain has professed his love for national parks and being environmentally conscientious, he has most recently come out strongly in favor of off-shore drilling. Sen. Obama also has endorsed off-shore drilling, although with caveats. Beyond that, he certainly hasn't jumped on the "drill, baby, drill" bandwagon as much as the McCain-Palin ticket has.
And, according to a recent story in the San Francisco Chronicle, Sen. McCain's talk is somewhat on the cheap side.
McCain was an early advocate of adopting measures to address global warming and says he favors laws to protect parks, oceans and air and water. His lifetime record in Congress shows that he voted three out of four times against legislation described as pro-environment by conservation organizations.
The groups are voicing concern that McCain has praised U.S. Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and John Roberts as model jurists. The two have consistently ruled in favor of limiting regulation of business, including cases under environmental law.
Beyond the candidates' pledges and voting records, how much has the political landscape changed? Will the winner of next month's election hold steadfast to their past comments that the parks need better funding and that the Centennial Initiative is a good idea? Already the pundits are saying the economic realities of today portend ominous times when it comes to addressing environmental needs.
Now, the National Parks Conservation Association has been running a public awareness campaign that includes a petition Americans can sign urging the next president and the incoming Congress to provide greater federal funding and protections for the National Park System. The campaign includes radio ads featuring actors Amy Madigan and Sam Waterston and print ads featuring Petrified Forest National Park and the National Mall as examples of national parks nationwide in need of greater funding.
But, in these difficult economic times, is the American public fully invested in supporting such a campaign?