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What Were the Top Stories Across the National Park System in 2008?


2008 was a trying year for the National Park System and the National Park Service. Among other things, it was the year that produced the collapse of Wall Arch in Arches National Park. NPS photo.

What were the top stories across the National Park System in 2008? That's a good question, but unfortunately one that brings to mind many stories we at the Traveler wish never arose.

Here's our shortlist, in relative descending order of importance.

* End of an Error. It took eight long years, but the Bush administration's turn at running the country has finally run out. Now the hard work of picking up the pieces begins. And there are a lot of pieces strewn across the public lands landscape. For nearly a decade the National Park Service has suffered from inadequate funding as well as a muffling of science under this administration, despite pledges to the contrary, and a bent towards ideology, not stewardship.

* Interior Secretary Nominee Ken Salazar. Not exactly a polarizing pick, but not one enthusiastically endorsed across the board, the selection by the incoming Obama administration of U.S. Senator Ken Salazar for Interior secretary will be closely scrutinized in the months and years ahead as he's looked upon to right the Interior Department and its public lands empire after eight years of Bush administration policies and tactics.

* Guns in the parks. Lock and load, folks, lock and load.

* Yellowstone's snowmobile saga. Will this story ever go away? Probably not as long as there are politicians and National Park Service managers who bend to their will. Was there just a tinge of irony when the winter season arrived December 15 without enough snow for snowmobiles?

The Curious Traveler: Is it only the Traveler, or does anyone else find it odd that Intermountain Region Director Mike Snyder won't allow howitzers to be used to keep rail traffic safe from avalanches along the southern border of Glacier National Park, yet has no qualms about rangers lobbing shells into the heart of Yellowstone to protect snowmobilers?

In searching for an answer to this, I called the Intermountain Region office and was told that while the two decisions certainly appear contradictory, they are not, largely because the Yellowstone decision was grounded, in part, on the fact that howitzer use for avalanche control along Sylvan Pass had a historical context in the park and there was no historical use of howitzers for the same at Glacier. That explanation left me wondering why the Organic Act's mandate that the NPS conserve resources "unimpaired" didn't create a historical basis for trumping that use of howitzers in Yellowstone?

* Drilling Threat to NPS Units in Utah. Talk about power plays between two land-management agencies! This story, tied around Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Dinosaur National Monument, was riveting for the media, as the story changed on a regular, and rapid, basis. While the story is a good example of why national park advocates are needed, it also spurs thorny issues, such as should there be a buffer zone around national parks? If so, doesn't that in effect enlarge a park's boundaries? And if a buffer is created, do we then need a buffer zone for the buffer?

* Death of a Land Bill. When the Omnibus Land Management Act of 2008 died earlier this month, it took with it many valuable legislative tidbits that would have benefited the National Park System in many ways. For instance, the measure would have designated official wilderness in Rocky Mountain National Park and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore; expanded the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System; expanded the National Trails System; would have allowed members of the military -- active or veteran -- to purchase the National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands Pass (aka, the America the Beautiful Pass) for just $10; established the Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park (which perhaps didn't deserve such a designation, anyway) in New Jersey; created the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, also in New Jersey; provided funding for the Keweenaw National Historical Park; revised boundaries of a number of NPS units; and then some.

* The Centennial Challenge. Does anyone remember where this stands? Seems the Congress had only lukewarm interest in it. Will Team Obama be able to revive the dream?

* Valley Forge and Museums. This story was significant both for the perceived threat the American Revolution Center complex poses to Valley Forge National Historical Park as well as to the lack of NPS attention in Washington, D.C. Park officials fought this battle best they could, but the reinforcements from Washington never arrived.

* Cape Hatteras Gone to the Birds (and turtles). Despite lawsuits, threats of lawsuits, attempts to legislate NPS management, and efforts to compromise, the debate over what's best for birds, turtles, and surf anglers at Cape Hatteras National Seashore remained contentious to the very end of '08!

* U.S. Sugar and the Everglades. This could prove to be one of the larger developments of 2008, but we really won't know how this land deal will play out until 2009 is almost spent. Will it improve water flows through the Everglades and Everglades National Park, or will it prove to be a boondoggle? Check back with the Traveler a year from now.

* Fishers Invade the Peninsula! Thank goodness the wildlife folks in Washington state came together on the need to import fishers from British Columbia to help the furry critters return to Olympic National Park.

* Really, we weren't lost! One of two other feel-good stories of the year involved two young ladies who took a wrong turn in the backcountry of Denali National Park and Preserve, ended up outside the park, and still managed to come home safe and sound. The other involved a couple from Salt Lake City that got lost in the Grand Canyon and also lived to tell about their ordeal.

That said, what stories involving the national parks stood out to you in 2008?

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And, in Yellowstone, we also had the largest slaughter of wild bison than at any time since the 19th century. Snowmobiling in Yellowstone is a constant issue and does get more ink across the nation; if that's the measure, then it's certainly a top story (over the buffalo issue). However, in terms of impacts, congressional criticism of management, and then the recent re-affirmation of the IBMP by its own partners (through its new adaptive management plan just signed last week), this has been one heck of a bad year for buffalo. On that issue, you've seen new grassroots groups pop up and others re-emerge, you've seen a growing divide between environmental groups who take different approaches for the buffalo (especially over the recently approved Royal Teton Ranch deal), and you've even seen native tribes (in one case, on the very same reservation - at Wind River) take different stances on the use of bison quarantined outside the park, as well as a second tribe assert their treaty rights to hunt to the park's limits (and in the case of a couple Nez Perce, get arrested inside the park for hunting buffalo). And, to top it all off, you even had a boy gored by a buffalo this summer. That doesn't even mention the various protests that have taken place inside and outside of Yellowstone related to buffalo (don't remember any on snowmobiling)--there have been a number of examples (1, 2, 3, 4), with another to come on January 5.

Then, of course, you had Montana lose its class free status on brucellosis and Wyoming teeter on the edge of it, probably caused from elk. With Wyoming's testing program on elk (as well as the longstanding controversy on their feedgrounds, which might also finally bring CWD to Yellowstone) and Montana now encouraging hunters to self test, as well as the national cattlemen groups calling for elk to be looked at as aggressively as bison, you finally run the risk of elk in Yellowstone (and other ungulates as well?) being caught up in this, just as a Greater Yellowstone brucellosis management zone seems to be where we are moving. Does this represent a divide within the livestock industry that is happening the same time there is a serious divide in the environmental movement on this issue?

Many newsworthy things happened on snowmobiling for sure, but the net result has ultimately ended up being the same. The net policy is pretty much the same on buffalo, but the direct effects are more obvious - both to the animals themselves as well as to the region at large. Perhaps, both stories should be there, but it is a large park system.

But, the big story on buffalo in Yellowstone has to remain the very large numbers killed and the subsequent controversy that remains over numbers. To date in the current winter season, only 1 buffalo has left the park to be killed in Montana's hunt, one of the lowest numbers on record - attributable for the first part of the season to warm weather, but now as snow has come and weather has turned frigid, many wonder if it's because there just aren't nearly as many buffalo to leave the park.

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

Kurt -- thank you for mentioning both Valley Forge, and also the inclusion of the proposed "Patterson Great Falls National Historical Park," as part of the death, temporary or otherwise, of the Omnibus Land Management Act of 2008.

"Great Falls" is the actual name of these New Jersey falls, so that part is genuine, and it seems unnecessary to throw in "Patterson" except to emphasize this proposed park is all about local promotion and develoment, and nothing about the integrity of the National Park System.

Patterson Great Falls, as presently configured, should definitely not be added to the National Park System. The bill in no way has the strategy or the resources necessary to address the highly compromised local situation, and there does not seem to be any enlightened local plan, as there was in Lowell Massachusetts, to take on the large context.

ALL of the front-line, NPS cultural resource specialists who worked on the Patterson project get the shivers when discussing how blighted this whole Patterson project was.

You also nailed the main problem at Valley Forge as well. This was a major failure of the leadership of the national park service, as the Director and the Regional Director failed to assist a well-meaning park staff that beyond their depth, and need bosses with integrity. No major development should be permitted inside the boundary of a national park without a public planning, public input and NPS approval, whether or not it is to be located on a private inholding or federal land. NPS needs to kill this proposal by acquiring the private land immediately.

I think that by far and away the dominant National Parks story of 2008, is the economic meltdown.

Several of the nominees for top story of 2008, are actually sub-plots of the unraveling economy.

Everything that President-elect Obama tries to think about, now & going forward, will be framed & driven by economic considerations. Including the Parks

And what, after all, is really the definitive perennial lament from Park-aficionados, if not that the Parks are chronically under-funded?

The big story 0f 2008? "It's the economy, stupid"! ;-)

Dear Ted Clayton:

I am unaware of any changes in the NPS funding during 2008 that were cut or affected by the economic meltdown, except perhaps fundraising. Were there any cuts because of federal revenue shortfalls? I do not think so. It seems to me, failure to fund parks has been a political decision.

For example, in the major example of the Valley Forge failure to acquire the private lands in the park, from news reports it appears the Director of the NPS was unwilling to either initiate a planning process, as had happened at Gettysburg, or even request funding to acquire the land. No one said no; in fact, according to the the developers, they were even encouraged to build the development within the park by "high" park service leaders. Either policy weakness or inexperienced leaders seem to be the problem, not an economic meltdown.

As another example, the Centennial Challenge, again NPS seemed to lack political experience, and the Democrats who took over the Majority in Congress were unwilling to let President Bush give out plums to his favorites with money appropriated by the Democrats. The funding distribution system for the Centennial Challenge seemed designed to cut the Democrats out of a roll in selecting the projects, except to pay for them. It was not the money, it was the unwillingness to trust the Bush Administration and the Bush appointees at the national park service. That lack of trust happened because of Iraq and New Orleans. By the time the morgage crisis finally got up on President Bush's screen, the Centennial Challenge program was already dead. Rather than trying to build public support for this initiative, the Administration spent their time on guns, bike trails, and snowmachines in parks. Bush responded to a lack of Congressional deference to him by threatening to ignore any direction by Congress to federal agencies in the Committee Report of the Appropriations Committee? The result? Congress decided not to give Bush the chance, and refused to give him an Appropriations Bill or Report, and just funded the government through "Continuing Resolutions," in other words, continuing last year's funding at the same level. Presto, Bush and Bush's appointees in the National Park Service are thwarted, BUT THE FUNDING LEVEL DID NOT DROP.

Perhaps, as I said, fundraising is the exception. For example, the NPS has spent more on additional staff costs in New York for the extra layer of bureaucracy set up to develop a fundraising group, than all the money raised for the parks by the fundraising group. Most of the funds raised for the new "National Parks of New York" partnership has gone to pay salaries for the fundraisers, I believe. Fundraising will be even more difficult for National Parks for 2009, as most funds that still have money will be taking care of real social hardship cases, not funding federal agencies.

Perhaps in 2009 the economic meltdown may affect park budgets; we will have to watch that one. But it is possible that the Obama Administration will want to enhance infrastructure in parks, will not want to cut federal payrolls, and will want to attract domestic and international tourists to parks.

If Bush is checking out, what's the real need in even mentioning him anymore? Too bad you still suffer from BDS. I'd just as soon move on and not read about it everywhere, including here. He's old news.

Dear Lepanto,

I know that it has for years been the norm among Parks-aficionados to ascribe the failure of the government to fund the Parks at the level sought by Parks & their boosters, to "politics", as though this is a special and even nefarious situation.

But, isn't that how most funding is determined? By politics? Doesn't the funding of the Pentagon go up & down, depending on political alignments? Haven't we funded welfare at high levels during periods dominated by Liberal politics, then slashed that funding during periods dominated by Conservative politics? Etc?

That the funding of our National Parks is political, is not a unique burden borne by the Parks. It is more the norm that funding is political.

Furthermore, it does not seem that the funding of agencies is primarily driven by the internal political skills & resources of an agency, but rather by the goals & preferences & orientation of external political parties & entities who apportion funding and other considerations by their own criteria. Agencies may indeed be well-advised to hone their ability to best-deploy what political leverage might be available to them, but the utility of this enterprise is ultimately subordinate to factors external to themselves

Again, the Pentagon & CIA & Co. are all very well endowed with political savvy & connections, yet when it's their turn in the political doghouse all they can do is grab a blanket and shuffle off to the backyard.

I doubt that the economic crisis will lead to dramatic budgetary problems in the National Park Service, immediately. The agency is already maintained at a modest level without luxuries (which is how both government & the voters seem to prefer it) ... which politicos like to slash during hard times as a display for the voters. It's a trim if not lean organization already ... no sense creating an unnecessary spectacle by precipitously goring the Park budget.

Instead, the consequences of the economic meltdown for the Parks will tend toward decisions that foster an image of being 'connected' to the events affecting the country as a whole. I expect decisions - originating from the economic distress - that help present the Parks as 'relevant', as attuned to the trials being borne by 10s of millions of Americans.

Look for such courses & policies as will resonate well with average people, that avoid the appearance of enviro-experimentation, and that put out the welcome mat for non-elite lifestyles ... and if those lifestyles also involve the purchase of recreational machines, and travel to Park destinations to use them, then all the better.

The new bicycle regulations, the changes to firearms rules (priced a pistol lately?), the selection of Ken Salazar for DOI, these and other matters current with the Parks, I think should be seen as exigencies in response to or reinforced by the economic downturn. And I expect momentum for this sort of thing to build, rather than dissipate, and the main explanation behind this broad shift will be the economic meltdown.

Yes, as you say, in 2009 (and beyond) we could see the Parks budget slashed, but if so that will because the economy has badly deteriorated. Under such circumstance the distress of the country will make dire budget problems at NPS seem unremarkable, since others will be receiving the same treatment.

The economic challenge will likely foster a turn to 'populism', and reduced influence by theoretic, scientific, and enviromental input. Populist, very pragmatic, and on account of the economy.

Anonymous protests:

If Bush is checking out, what's the real need in even mentioning him anymore?

Even if we were burying him instead of re-designating him as Former President George W. Bush, he would continue from the grave to play a conspicuous role, for years. Actually, he will remain an active & important figure on the national stage. Heck, we're still talking about Richard Nixon, and rather often...

Indeed, President-elect Obama himself is not shunning or ignoring Bush. On the contrary, the two are working rather closely & constructively together on affairs of the nation, and we should anticipate this role to grow & expand. It is in the interest of both men, and the country, that they succeed at it.

I disagree strenuously with most of Bush's decisions, and voted for other people. To suggest, however, that we ought to be berated for talking about him is a mistake.

Dear Ted Clayton:

Your's is a non-answer answer:

ITEM: There was no reduction of the NPS budget during the time of the economic meltdown. Your original thesis is that Kurt's list was entirely composed of matters that were, in fact, determined by the economic meltdown. This plainly is not true.

ITEM: You make it appear that you think that political finesse of an Agency has nothing to do with its funding. You cannot really believe this. Is political skill totally determinative? Obviously not: the larger political circumstances of course have an effect on the ability of an Agency to get funding. I used to do this for a living, and was frustrated by a few higher-level idiots who would send me off to get money for a program, even if it was a really dumb program. Ocasionally you can get blood from a rock, but not regularly. You need a good product. The fact is it is not that hard to sell the "product" the National Park Service brings to the American People and their elected representatives.

Sometimes, it is EASIER a case to sell than the Pentagon and the CIA. Yes, there are a few cranks (you see them blogging on this website for example) who have an entrenched antagonism to the NPS, but the vast majority of people have a benign attitude toward the NPS. The political problem of the NPS is that the support for the NPS is wide, but not DEEP (compared to the Pentagon, for example). The NPS needs constant object lessons, examples in the real world, narrative stories, great opportunities, to excite the electorate. That is hard to get, unless you adopt a LOCAL political strategy, to get funding on a park-by park, or program-by-program basis. But most Park Rangers are purists who believe the American people should give them the money on a NATIONWIDE basis, and go away to let the Service run the System without political involvement. Even the Pentagon occasionally has a LOCAL strategy, such as when it distributes contracts and defense industries in the congressional districts of key Members of Congress.

I have personal knowledge of many examples where the NPS brought an issue to the public, even when no funding for the project existed in the President's Budget, and because of political finesse, got the money in the final appropriation, as passed by Congress and signed by the President. For example, the reason the Valley Forge example is so irritating (you do not respond to any of the examples) is that only a few years before, when the Toll Brothers were going to build a suburban development a stone's throw from this newly proposed mega-development by "ARC," very skillful people inside the NPS wired it so that $9 million was appropriated to buy out Toll Bros. The Secretary of the Interior was so livid at the time that, when asked by the Philadelphia Inquirer to discuss it -- the newspaper naively assumed the Secretary would of course see the "victory" over Toll Bros. as HER victory, she refused to even answer the question. But the Secretary had made her bones by opposing federally-acquired land purchases. She was rolled, because the NPS and the allies of the NPS brought the issue to the public and rolled the Secretary and the Office of Management and Budget.

What has happened more under the two Bush Director's of the National Park Service than ever before, is the unwillingness of the Senior leadership of the NPS to go after the money and fulfill the Agency Mission, despite the White House.

ITEM: On the meaning of the word "politics" or "policy" as I earlier used it, I meant that it was not the policy of the Secretary of the Interior, or the Director, or of the key congressional Committees to fund certain projects, for their own reasons, NOT because of economic difficulties, or balancing the budget.

There ARE cases, coincidentally, when you are right, and the policy issue and the budget issue do merge with the NPS. The major example of that is hiring permanent government workers. It is seen widely that the government must reduce permanent employees, so to reduce the long term cost of retirement and healthcare. If the NPS was able to significantly EXPAND its permanent work force -- for example to finally hire enough maintenance workers to make sure park facilities were not in a constant state of decay -- but the hard lift is not the absolute cost of ANY expansion of the NPS, but the possible precedent to OTHER federal agencies who would also want to expand their workforce.

This permanent workforce issue is huge, but it can be overcome, but to agree with you in one very narrow way, if the public is really aroused. For example, when despite the fury of the White House, the government got rid of all the rent-a-cops at airports and hired properly trained, permanent (and accountable) government guards after 911. What happened at the Boston airport, when terrorists walked through "security" with box cutters was just too much for the American people, and they demanded government employees. Will they also so demand government food or pharmacy inspectors? Or will government continue to be pushed by OMB to "outsource" vital services? It is a matter of how emphatically the issues are brought to the attention of the American people.

If you don't think bringing such issues to the attention of the American people is an aspect of the political skill the NPS needs to, and once did, have, I suppose the gulf between your sense of what politics is and mine is unbridgeable.

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