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How Will the Next Administration Deal With the Environment?


With the upcoming change in the country's political leadership, is the sun setting or rising on the National Park System? Photo of sunrise from Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park by photo by Atutu via flickr.

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?

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It should be Investing in park helped the economy before.

I put no confidence in the McCain & Palin ticket to upgrade and enhance our National Parks to the stellar quality that the National Parks Conservation Association advocate. With Palin (Alaska's famed "drill-baby drill" Governor) bragging about her so called record as a top flight oil minister for the State of Alaska, and her exploits as a gut bucket moose hunter and wolf hater, I do find her to be another exact carbon copy of the Bush Administration. Sarah Palin is most extreme and dangerous as McCain to the point where I feel our National Parks will be even more deeply in peril...if both elected (or selected). That is to say, I fear more rape, pillage...and greed! It appears Obama has a more pragmatic and common sense approach in handling our domestic and foreign affairs with diligence and transparency...and that includes a holistic approach in saving and upgrading the National Parks and our environment...sometime that has been terribly lacking since year 2000.

Although, a link is provided to the full story, I have to quibble with the following characterization:
"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 should be noted that the National Parks Pass was only introduced in 2000 - so it only had a 7 year run. Before that time, you could only purchase a Golden Eagle Pass - which was similar to today's America the Beautiful Pass. So you can still get a single pass that will get you into "any and all of the National Park Units as many times as you could squeeze into a calendar year." Its not that they "did away with" the Pass - rather they expanded the terms of the pass and raised the price.

Historically speaking, the price of the Golden Eagle was raised to $50 in 1997 ($68.16 in today's dollars). In 2000, the price of the Golden Eagle was raised to $65 ($82.58 in today's dollars), but the new National Parks Pass was established for $50 ($63.53 in today's dollars - or about $3.50 cheaper than what you would have paid in 1997 if you were only visiting National Parks). In 2007, we basically returned to the pre-1997 situation with a single pass for all Federal lands, at the new price of $80. The $80 this year is the same as $58.67 in 1997 dollars, so we are slowly returning back to that level.

The price increases have obviously not been exactly in parallel with inflation, but it is worth noting that today's America the Beautiful pass is a better deal than the circa-2000 Golden Eagle when the National Parks Pass was first introduced.

If anyone thinks that Obama willl be good for our parks...think again.
He will see that money goes to those who haven't earned "rebates" for those who haven't even paid taxes in the first place. Huge amounts of $$ to free health care for everyone...entitlements, entitlements, entitlements!! Obama's park budgets will be much smaller than even W's! Guaranteed!
Why will Obama care about the parks? He has only one park unit in his home state...McCain has 19 park units in AZ and Palin has 17 in AK...McCain has always been a strong advocate of our national parks...just ask any superintendent of the Arizona parks! McCain is in the mold of Teddy Roosevelt when it comes to our parks...and Palin has spent a lot of time in Alaska's parks.

McCain has supported parks in Arizona. But he has opposed efforts of individual Members of Congress to add to the national park budgets through "add-ons" of additional funding. I think it is silly for anybody to think Congress should just rubber stamp ANY Administration's budget, whether Republican or Democratic budget. If it had not been for the INCREASES from Congress to parks over and above the Clinton, Bush the first, Bush the Second and Reagan budgets, parks would be in even deeper trouble than they are. It is not clear if McCain really understands what parks need.

On Alaska, Palin has never been a particularly strong supporter of the National Parks in Alaska. The fact that there are parks in Alaska has very little to do with the elected politicians in Alaska. Although it is true that many Alaskans love the wilderness and did support the creation of Alaskan parks, and it is true that without the support of Alaskan Natives, the Alaskan parks never would have been established, it took widespread support from these Alaskans and many throughout the United States to beat back the united opposition to parks from the elected officials in Alaska. The real reason the parks were established was a trade off: in exchange for the construction of the Alaskan pipeline, deeding a huge amount of public land to the state (including Prudhoe Bay oil fields FOR FREE) and deeding large amounts of additional lands to Alaskan Natives, Congress agreed to set aside some portion of Alaska for protection. The Alaskan political establishment, neither Republican or Democrat, never would say anything nice about that, and did what they could to impair the effectiveness of those parks. So the fact that Palin is in Alaska says nothing about her support or understanding of the parks.

With Obama, his record is also indistinct. The text he provided saying he supported parks, but only specifically referring to paying down the maintenance "backlog" in parks makes you wonder if he understands parks either. The big and long term issue with parks today is land preservation and ecological management. While we still have a chance we need to set up a sustainable future for preserved areas, and that involves buying land and doing science. It also involves a redoubled effort to 'tell the park story' through good visitor programs. Kids today need to learn something about the natural basis of all life, and get some love for the out of doors and some competence in self-reliance in a natural environment. That will take re-imagining interpretation and visitor programs, which have been cut too far back. Too many good professionals are being pushed out of parks. If Obama just intends to focus on "backlog" he will forget the most important thing in order to maintain facilities.

Parks should not be used as a partisan, pre-election chance to rant in favor of this or that candidate. Both these guys have something to learn about parks. We should all realize that parks are about ALL of America, and FOR all of America. Together we should find ways to enlighten elected officials, starting with people who want to be President, that parks are supposed to symbolize the BEST in America, and we need them professionally managed so that they are not hammered into extinction. Lets start by buying up the private lands in parks while there still is a chance.

'Tis the unfortunate truth that the most certain, enduring and accurate legacy of any man is lies not within the context of one's rhetoric, but rather in the footprint one leaves behind. For anyone fool enough to actually be swayed by campaign speeches, you get what you deserve. Talk itself is cheap, but never as worthless as when uttered by someone whose goal is election to public office. 'Tis again the unfortunate truth that no accurate evaluation can be completed until after the fact, when the lies are exposed, the unspoken words become evident, or at times, when promises are accidentally kept. In the political arena, the latter is the minute exception to the rule.

McCain this, Obama that. Two losers with losing parties backing their efforts. Bear in mind that little that either of these Bozos thinks, speaks or feels comes to fruition without the blessings of the other 562 members of the Congress. We've been blessed with a system whereby no one person actually controls the direction on any given issue. We've also been cursed with little or no real choice between two power-mongering behemoths, only too ready to point fingers in the opposite direction as opposed to initiating substantive, positive momentum towards the common good of we, the people by whom they have been charged with steering the ship. That last notion seems to be conveniently forgotten once the ballots have been processed.

You can pass blame along to the current Bush administration and certain of its appointees for a portion of the current state of affairs. But many of the larger issues (e.g. mineral exploitation, deforestation, funding, and the myriad of environmental concerns regarding the general flora and fauna of our nation's public lands) are congressional, not presidential. Unless you're making reference to the entire administration, all 600+ of them, the initial question posed for this thread bears no fruitful answer. Remember, no matter which party wins the presidential race, the VAST majority of those "other" policy-makers will represent the "mule" party (or jackass, either one works, it's all good) including but not limited to the Speaker of the House who, at literally the 11th hour on the third day of debate, as part and parcel of an ADDITIONAL 150 billion in pure pork, allocated half a BILLION dollars to the movie industry as part of the economic bailout package. That's something the nation just couldn't live without during the most critical financial crisis in recent history, more special effects and Hollywood mayhem. This from someone who alleges to be a "friend of the park service" and is currently lobbying to increase the already overburdened park budget by adding lands in her hometown to the tally of things we already cannot afford to maintain. What about holding up the Congress for some NPS funding Nancy? Or does it make too much sense to procure both lands to enjoy and funds with which to manage and maintain them in the same scenario?

Note: To anyone truly anticipating "change" resulting from this or any other election in this country, pass me what you're smokin'. I too want to enjoy the mindless bliss that comes from being delusional.

There are a lot of "things" that need to happen with the park from the mundane, such as appropriate name changes, to the more serious the $4.5 billion maintance backlog and establishment of new parks. All of these issues are important and need to be addressed sooner rather than later. However, each of the candidates will address these issues differently.

It is my personal opinion that Obama is the most likely candidate to address these issues in a sufficient manner.

I do not have as much hope with McCain.

Lone Hiker,

As one of the main Volunteers at a NPS unit, I know how you feel as sometimes the simplist of things can take FOREVER to do.

P.S. If you find someone, I would like some of that stuff too.

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