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

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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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Comments

Lepanto:

"Apples and oranges."

I wasn't making a comparison of any type. I merely asserted, with the data to back my assertion, that regional offices' budgets have increased 30% since 2001. You bring a strawman but don't successfully rebut my argument with any data.

"...through the Bush years more than half of the required outlays were not completely funded."

What data do you have to support this claim? Which outlays were not completely funded?

"...the info is just not there unless you go office by office and actually ask the people who actually do the work what the staff levels in critical areas were before, and what they are now."

Well, if the "info is just not there", then you don't really have any evidence. Here you use the "person who" fallacy. Anecdotes like this do not prove anything. Hearsay or anecdote is not statical evidence. "...in science and logic, the 'relative strength of an explanation' is based upon its ability to be tested, proven to be due to the stated cause, and verified under neutral conditions in a manner that other researchers will agree has been performed competently, and can check for themselves." Your suggested method and hypothesis is unsubstantiated and does not qualify as information.

...during the glory days of the NPS...

I have heard about the fabled "glory days". When were they, exactly?

...the NPS central offices are empty shells.

If this assertion is valid, which I've seen no solid evidence to prove it, then almost a billion dollars over the last 8 years were wasted paying salaries to people who didn't actually exist in buildings that did not house any physical capital.


* 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.

Thanks for including that, this is a good example of what a NHL of a Affiliated Area of the national park system should be as the study said not a NPS unit. Plus, I cxan think of other areas of our nations history that need a NPS unit more than the one represented at Great Falls.


Look again, Frank C.

Apples and oranges. SALARY increases are partially covered by budget increases, but through the Bush years more than half of the required outlays were not completely funded. This means they are paying the highest-paid people more, but have less money to pay new employees. This is what started this: why do region offices appear bloated?

Also, new -- I think useless initiatives -- get funded while critical needs do not get funded. Check out the specifics in the contracting for example. Many senior contract managers have retired. No warrants for small purchases -- under $10,000 per perchase -- are even being issued. There now actually are regions with only one or 2 fully functional contract officers who are able to do all kinds of contracts. The others who remain are being called inadequately trained, and will be squeezed out or already have been squeezed out. I am thinking of a room of contract officers in one region that was once full of workers. Now, there is one supervisor and one contract officer in the whole office. You may not call that a "cut" because of the smoke of the absolute "size" of the budet vs what it is actually going for.

Again, the way to do this, and the info is just not there unless you go office by office and actually ask the people who actually do the work what the staff levels in critical areas were before, and what they are now. In the offices I know of, if you were to compare the key (workers) staff in the central offices (regions, washington, service centers) with the staff levels FOR THOSE KEY FUNCTIONS during the glory days of the NPS, you will find them decimated. True, we now have people working on wastes of time like "GPRA" or special initiatives of the Director, or reporting, or downsizing exercises (this one is big just now and consuming A LOT of staff capacity) you will find that, where it matters (land acquisition staff for example had a big cut in 2006) , the NPS central offices are empty shells.


Lepanto, your assertion that "most regional offices HAVE been cut" is not supported by the evidence.

The FY2008 Park and Program Summary shows on page 12 that none of the 8 regional offices' budgets have been cut. In fact, the difference between FY2006 and the FY2008 President's Request is +8.89%. Since 2001, the regional offices' budgets have increased by roughly 30%.

I advise looking at the data before asserting anyone is trying to "starve the beast".


I'm with Ted and Beamis.

This webzine deserves some props!


Lepanto,

I agree that a "starve the beast" tactic is being used, and that it is underhanded and unattractive ... but.

"Starve the beast" is very similar to "demand destruction", which we are currently watching cut the price (and use!) of crude oil several fold.

"Demand destruction" is applauded by some enviro-Liberals as a method to force folks to reduce CO2 emissions, etc, whether they want to or not. (It also slashes the money flowing into the coffers of Russia, Venezuela, Iran, etc.)

The Democrat/Liberal faction, meanwhile, consistently bloats government using every device it can find. Conservatives respond by making excess government employment unpleasant and unrewarding, trying to force people (with guaranteed jobs) to reduce their dependency on government featherbedding by finding a more-agreeable position outside government.

"Too many chiefs and not enough indians" is the classic sign of inflated government payrolls. The readiness with which opposing points of view agree that Parks management is top-heavy, gives us fair notice that when proponents of smaller government get the chance, the Parks System will be in the line of fire as reformers attempt to "starve the beast".

I agree also with Beamis, that the Democratic victory in the White House & Congress is unlikely to change things at NPS to their liking. Even without the global economic problems, Obama is coming down well to the Right of where some of his supporters inferred he would stand. And I second Beamis' motion that National Parks Traveler be listed as a Parks Story of the Year!

Ted


It is a strategy to destroy the competence of government and the confidence of the American people in their government.

That goal was achieved long before the current OMB or White House ever set out on their current course of destruction.

Again, I will ask (my broken record----again) how does the scenario, which lepanto so aptly describes, allow y'all to continue to be inspired to put your faith and trust in the criminal enterprise known as government to do the right thing for the national parks? You all seem to have this quaint and barely coherent notion that just getting the right people into positions of federal power will solve the deeply systemic problems that plague the management of the parks and suddenly make everything right for Bambi and his friends in the Enchanted Forest. Pure poppycock!

That fatuous notion is nothing more than utter and hopelessly idealistic nonsense and mark my words people, things will NOT improve over the next four years due to a Democrat sitting in the Imperial Palace and holding a majority of seats in the Star Fleet Command. This ship is going down and a cute and nattily attired captain at the wheel ain't gonna save what is left of their tattered empire, especially the national parks. They are going to suffer right along with the rest of it.

Merry Christmas to all of my fellow NPT readers. It has been a fun and exciting year trading comments and insights and if the truth be known I think this forum's existence has been one of the bigger stories of the year for the national parks. I wish it and you all a happy and prosperous (as best as can be achieved in a Federal Reserve caused hyperinflationary depression) new year.


Tahoma,

most regional offices HAVE been cut. Key functions, like contracting and project management, that small parks cannot handle, are becoming disfunctional, because of lack of staff.

Meanwhile, under this departing Administration, significant new responsibilities in "accountability" -- functions I think are mostly useless and just serve to tie up the parks, have become ADDITIONAL burdens on the regional offices. The Office of Management and Budget and the Department of the Interior are setting it up so a park cannot get the funding it needs without first getting thru this maze of "accountability" paperwork; because the smaller parks do not have the expertise, they need backup from the Regions or they go further into the financial black hole.

While you are right that there are not enough workers, too many at the higher level, that disproportion is caused by the twin problems of money squeezes and all the extra "reporting and accountability" expertise. That means parks are discouraged from hiring either young permanents or seasonals, and so are left with only the aging permanents, and, that some of the functions cannot be done by the GS 5s, 7s & 9s that used to run the parks. For example you cannot run or get funding for a maintenance program unless you are a systems manager with the skill and tolerance of tedium to handle the maintenance computer programs. These jobs will not accept the lower wage-grade maintenance people. In short you cannot get the money into and the work done for impoverished parks without the now-required skills in the Regions. Because there is very little movement in these positions, because it is harder and harder to see the results of your work, and the NPS is not hiring and moving people around, some of these people can become uninspired to put it mildly.

How should this problem be solved?

This is not a problem created by the National Park Service. My personal paranoia is this system was devised by people hostile to government, people in OMB and the White House and congressional republicans. The republicans even have a term for it: "starve the beast."

It is a strategy to destroy the competence of government and the confidence of the American people in their government.


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