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What Priorities Should The Next National Park Service Director Address?

Kurt Repanshek photo.

Yellowstone snowmobiles. Guns in the parks. Climate change. Infrastructure in shambles. These are just some of the issues the next director of the National Park Service will inherit. But how should he or she prioritize their approach to managing the National Park System and addressing its problems?

What can wait, and what needs to be addressed immediately? That's a tough question, one that leads in many directions and produces a wide range of viewpoints. Certainly there is no concrete list of answers. Rather, the dilemma is somewhat like a kaleidoscope -- what you see and how you answer it can change depending on how you view the problems.

Is the National Park Service burdened with some units that might better fit with another agency? Would it make sense, for instance, to embark with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management on a two-fer swap of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Lake Mead National Recreation Area in return for the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument? Should the NPS shuck off the First Lades National Historic Site or parts of Golden Gate National Recreation Area? And what the heck should the NPS do with Steamtown National Historic Site?

Should the Park Service, in a cost-cutting move, shutter on a seasonal basis some units that lure few visitors?

These issues are not quickly resolved. And, as former NPS Director Fran Mainella can attest, and as we think outgoing NPS Director Mary Bomar would agree, politics at times can run roughshod over management decisions that, under best intentions, are grounded on clean science and well-intentioned stewardship.

Will President-elect Obama and Interior Secretary nominee Ken Salazar take a hands-off approach with the national parks? Wait and see.

In the meantime, the Traveler sought some insights, hopes, and perspectives from a distinguished array of individuals with long ties to national parks:

* Kristen Brengel, a director at The Wilderness Society whose workload is heavy with such national park issues as snowmobiles and personal watercraft in the parks, park overflights, and R.S. 2477 issues;

* Noted conservation writer Dr. Michael Frome.

* Dr. Dwight Pitcaithley, a former National Park Service chief historian who now teaches at New Mexico State University.

* Dr. Richard Sellers, a former NPS historian who authored Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History;

* Rick Smith, whose NPS career spanned 30 years and included postings in six national parks, two regional offices, and in the service's headquarters office in DC;

* Bill Wade, a long-tenured NPS veteran whose postings included a stint as Shenandoah National Park's superintendent. He current heads the executive council of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.

Here's what they had to say when asked what burning issues they believe the next NPS director must jump on:

Michael Frome:

First ... the next director ought to reestablish the backbone of principle above political expediency in the administration of our national parks. By principle I mean the principle of preservation and protection of our nation's natural and historic treasures.

People in the agency, and citizens, too, who truly care want it to be run on a basis of professionalism, but it is not and has not been for many years. That is a truth that agency people hate to face.

Money won't cure it. As someone said, "Don't get us more money. We'll do the wrong thing with it." I met a secretary in a regional office who said, "I know we are short on funds, but the big boys travel all over, spending what we have."

Years ago I spoke at a training seminar at the Grand Canyon for mid-level managers. The theme was "remote area management." They really meant wilderness, but they wouldn't call it that. They were ill-versed in the Wilderness Act. They knew little of the history of their own agency


About Steamtown. A lot of people, probably including me, ridiculed Steamtown when it was proposed and considered. Steamtown became a dirty word. Now I am not sure. In fact, I've never visited an NPS area that did not have something very special, with national significance about it. I remember Bill Mott asserting as much pride in the Maggie Walker site as in Yellowstone. I went visit Lake Mead when Roger Allin was superintendent there. He was one of the True Believers in NPS. So Roger showed me how much wilderness there was to the NRA and how he was going to save it.

Dwight Pitcaithley:

* Political interference with scientific findings: snowmobiles/Grand Canyon, etc.

* Political interference generally. The National Geographic article (October 2006) details the myriad problems on that front, as does the (U.S. Rep. Raul) Grijalva report.

* Research -- both cultural and natural programs need stronger research programs for management and educational purposes. Additionally, the NPS needs to find ways of creating stronger connections among the preservation/research/education functions. Many interpretive programs are embarrassingly devoid of scholarly content.

* Rethink Centennial Challenge -- This program is fine as far as it goes, but it will not address some of the fundamental problems facing the agency, the maintenance backlog being the largest.

* Interpretive Media Backlog -- I think one of the major public problems facing the Service is that it has not attended to the rehabilitation of the interpretive media in the parks. Films and exhibits are 40 and 50 years old; the average is 20 years. For an agency that pretends to promote education, this is inexcusable.

* Pruning the System is an age-old conversation. Everyone has their own list of parks that somehow don't measure up. The problem is that none of the lists are the same. Suggesting that some parks be delisted creates a slippery slope. What criteria do we use? How do we define "questionable"? Robin Winks went through this exercise a decade or so ago and decided that the only parks the NPS should consider divesting itself of are the impoundments parks because: 1) their creation is antithetical to the preservation ethic/mission of the NPS, and 2) their purpose is not to preserve nationally significant natural or cultural resources. To that end, I have to say, I do like your idea of swapping Lake Mead and Glen Canyon for Grand Staircase Escalante! I suspect Edward Abby would as well.

Kristen Brengel:

* Air tour management—the FAA reauthorization bill should include language clarifying the jurisdiction of the NPS. We need a plan for the Grand Canyon, Hawaii parks, etc.

* Parks need to lead a public lands revolution on global warming policy. The agency needs to look at key climate change issues including water resources, wildlife migration, and spread of invasives and volunteer to implement programs to address these issues.

* Redefine the visitor experience from iPods and Segways to a boost in ranger-led tours, education about wildlife, encouraging camping, etc.

* Outsourcing -- Total morale killer, and I think there is evidence that little to no money was saved.

Bill Wade:

* I think you've hit on some of the major ones, but beyond that, there is the lingering winter-use issue at Yellowstone; working with BLM on impacts to lands from oil/gas leases; the overall decline in the cultural resources management program in the NPS; the decline in the NPS leadership in international protected areas; rebuilding an ethic of principled leadership, decision-making, and planning in the NPS; revitalizing the NPS interpretation and education program; assuring that science and research are once again in their proper roles in planning and decision-making; appropriately transitioning into the second century of the NPS.

* The problem with closures, seasonal or otherwise, is that there is still a huge cost for resource protection. In fact, it could cost more to do that if the area were closed to the public. I think there are some things that could be done within some parks that could save money -- for example, closing the north and south ends of Shenandoah National Park during winter, when fewer than 10 percent of the visitors enter those units. (I tried that in the early '90s and nearly got fired).

Rick Smith:

I do not believe in swaps, deauthorizations, trading with BLM or the FS or anything that second-guesses the wisdom of previous generations who added the areas to the system. I have always believed that each generation gets its chance, speaking through its congressional representatives, to add to the system those areas it believes deserve protection in perpetuity.

We owe those areas the highest standards of care if for nothing more than for a question of generational equity. My generation added areas like Guadalupe Mountains (National Park), Martin Luther King (Jr. National Historic Site), and Maggie Walker. I would hate to think that some future generation would divest those areas because they came to the conclusion that they were not worthy.

You can't have a system when each generation second-guesses the judgment of previous ones. If that happens, the system becomes nothing more than a snapshot, not an album.

Richard Sellers:

* Ranger staffing: I don't think I would emphasize rangers more than many other types of positions in the NPS. The truth is that staffing servicewide is woefully below what is needed in probably all fields. For example, even the estimated needs for the Natural Resource Challenge were cut in half before the service went to Congress--and still the Challenge is getting annually only 80 percent of what was it originally requested--thus they are getting only 40 percent of their estimated needs.

* Delisting: I would not spend much capital on this. Regarding small, generally historical and archeological parks, there is often the problem of local pride and identity, local tourism, and thus probable interference from Congress, re: delisting, or defrocking. Delisting has been done in the past, but to my knowledge it is not very common, possibly because of these very concerns.

* The National Historic Trails System is little appreciated and underfunded by the NPS. Yet they serve purposes similar to parks with regard to history, recreation and, in some cases, natural history. They also cross through many congressional districts, from coast to coast. Instead of urging the NPS to do more, it might be worthwhile to suggest that Congress form a National Historic Trails Caucus, to watch over what the NPS is doing or not doing.

* And finally, there is the issue that you probably don't want to go into: Abysmal leadership in two particular offices. The Associate Director, Cultural Resources, in Washington, has made every attempt to destroy, demoralize, and render ineffective the program leadership traditionally carried out by that office. At the very least, some attention needs to be brought to this so that the incoming DOI and NPS leaders won't be misled. She has been a disaster.

* The Rocky Mountain Regional Director has done similar damage. He seemed to have a personal vendetta against the Santa Fe office, forced many people to either move to Denver or resign, which I believe was unnecessary and probably costly to the NPS. Similarly, he designed and sold to Lynn Scarlett the "Core-Ops" program, which was much in line with neo-conservative views of public land management--weaken the structure and sense of purpose of the service by outsourcing, and in the meantime using Core-Op definitions which seemed out of line with the Organic Act mandates--preservation and use and enjoyment.

One factor here is that this regional director has operated in Ken Salazar's home state, and could have curried favor with him, thus perhaps putting the regional director in line to be selected as the next NPS Director. I have no particular information on this, but am wary of any possibility of an alliance of some sort between the two Colorado-based individuals.

How will the next NPS director take hold of both the agency and the National Park System, and will their approach be at least somewhat in line with the above recommendations? We can only wait and see.

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My first visit to Steamtown was in May 2009. I was appalled at what I found--basically a superb physical plant that contained a junkyard of priceless artifacts being permitted to rot away. To be sure there are some indoor and preserved exhibits, but by and large the treasures of the site's collection are unstabilized and outdoors. I don't know if this sorry situation is the fault of the NPS, the current staff at Steamtown, or of declining NPS budgets. Whatever the reason, Steamtown is, for me, an unpleasant reminder of the worst of political boondoggles.

A comparison with what I think is the closest equivalent to Steamtown, the UK's National Railway Museum at York, is illustrative. The York museum is a showplace and its exhibits are well-maintained. It's a lively place, as well, having a pleasant and welcoming atmosphere in contrast to the funereal impression I derived from Steamtown. Admittedly the preservation culture in Great Britain is different from that in the United States, and funding is evidently more generously available for the York museum than Steamtown could ever hope to receive. But more than these things is the feeling that York is being operated in a professional and respectful manner, whereas Steamtown appears to be regarded as an unwanted stepchild of the Park Service.

Unless better attention can be devoted to its management and exhibit conservation, I would suggest that Steamtown be closed and the exhibits disbursed to facilities which are better equipped to care for them.

I recently joined the National Park Service as a Temporary - working on a special project. I am a retired, senior (70 years old) in extremely good health, have high energy, well educated, held responsible postions in the Industrial World (VP, General Manager of a couple of Global Companies).

To make it short, I work with some really great people, have grown to really appreciate the Park and would like to remain a part of the Park but, not in the volunteer sector.

Due to many circumstances, I do need the income but, more than that, while the public looks on the volunteers as good folks and tolerates them in their jobs, the "internal" family of the National Park Service gives very little respect. About the same as is shown, the "temporary" employees.

I, reiterate, I have thoroughly enjoyed working in the job, the park and with the people but, I do sense a "keep my distance" from the "family".

As I have approached them on the idea of becoming a regular employee - and, offered eveidence of more than ample qualifications, shown a dedication and energy in my work that is equal or more to any of the regular employees, I seem to get a bit of double talk, non acceptance or, in some cases, a tiny level of fear from the thought of having to give a strong opinion.

I am very serious, I have observed, studied, discussed and read every available publication on the job, the duties, the needs and the skills required. Beyond any doubt, I am more than capable of doing any task that is related to the job and, unless some really bad situation occurs, see no reason why I would not be perfectly capable and be able to excel for the next several years.

The bottom line, is, if I had a suggestion to the top ranking official of the NPS, it would be to motivate his people to seek out and recognize willingness, capability, dedication, qualifications, maturity, discipline and, perhaps, some wisdom over simply a fresh face, someone who knows someone, strictly youth (don't get me wrong, youth has many advantages), a friend of the family - and look to the real knowledge that can be offered to the public, the customers that should be provided the best and servioe and highest satisfaction.

Actually, Jim has two good points: 1.) buy land and 2.) return land appraisers to the NPS. The consolidation of land appraisal in the Department was a politically motivated move on the part of the Bush Administration to control the land acquisition process so that it could be stalled or stopped. That and the lack of interest on the part of the Congress to approriate money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund has brought land acquisition to almost a complete halt. This is not only bad for park resources, but it is highly unfair to landowners who have property within the authorized boundaries of national park areas and are left holding the bag while acquisition delays continue on and on. It's not a pretty picture.

Rick Smith

I couldn't agree more with Jim. Indeed, buying land is the most logical plan of action for this year at least. It goes without saying that without any land to work on, none of these proposals could be made feasible. The current economic situation will allow buying land a more viable option for most people. NPS should capitalize on that as soon as possible.

Jim has an excellent point. Private inholdings in national parks are potential time bombs that can impact the resources, visitors and integrity of an affected park unit. The current economic crisis will likely make the owners of such inholdings more willing to sell either outright or to accept payment for limits on the uses of such lands. I can think of dozens of inholdings in the midst of sensitive wildlife habitat that would be candidates for a special purchase/easement program.

1. Buy Land.

2. Buy Land.

3. Buy Land.

Right now the most important thing the NPS can do is to acquire all potentially threatening inholdings within existing national parklands. And, if there are critical lands, lands that SHOULD be added to park boundaries, they should be authorized and acquired as well. There are huge dangers if you wait too long. First, if you wait for a crisis, the best you can do in such circumstances is pay exhorbitant prices, but it is more likely you will have to accept some compromise to resource protection or lose the resource entirely. Second, during economic downturns, people are more likely to implement cheap development plans, with minimal environmental protection. Third, land will be cheaper now during a downturn than it will cost as the economy improves.

Compared to building, and then having to maintain new buildings, land is a relatively cheap form of protection in most parks and most situations. Generally, acquiring inholdings don't require many or any new staff, and maintenance generally is insignificant.

As part of this, a great effort should be made to RETURN LAND APPRAISERS TO THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE. Appraisers were moved into the Department of the Interior by the Bush Administration, and that has the potential of really compromising the NPS' ability to move quickly when land is threatened, or respond quickly to Congress. Also, the land program had big staff cuts a few years ago; good people should be hired and trained to replace these loses.

Yes there are many other important things that need to be done, and best of all, CAN BE DONE NOW. But protecting resources by buying land is at the top.

As they say, they aren't making any more of it (other than a few places in Hawaii and Iceland). And, other than historic structures: THE LAND IS THE RESOURCE. It is the highest form of resource protection.

NPCA, and CNPSR made an effort a year or so ago to highlight this need. How come it appears on few if any lists??

Dear RAH, please go back and read a few of the former posts on the topic. Snowmobiles have been consistently debunked as noisy and a source for air pollution by the scientific NPS staff. They disturb the wildlife and diminish the quality of experience for all other visitors. And snowmobiles don't just leave tracks in the snow. They compress snow, letting it thaw slower and thereby influence the drainage in spring.

NPS is meant to preserve the natural beauty of the parks and to enhance recreation. So I believe that snowmobile that only leaves tracks in snow that get covered or melted should be allowed and encouraged. Yellowstone could even issue permits and get some revenue during the slow period.

The above comment about the hiker / snowshoe user bothered is just a narrow selfish idea that only he/she can enjoy the winter scenery his/her way. The snowmobile is just another way of enjoying the parks. Like horseback riding vesus hiking which are both more destructive to trails than a snowmobile.

Money is going to be tighter so resources to maintanance should be kept up and use of volunteers would help. Even volunteer guides and interpretive trails. There are many people that would love to volunteer that are retired or otherwise free to donate their time and labor.

The problems of increase crime from drug smuggling in the southern parks will use up resources but that should be joint with volunteer clean up and even patrols and other government (border control) resources.

However one commenter advocated allowing the homeless to use NPS land is a bad idea. Homeless without good sanitation and their abuse of drugs and alcohol negative impact other pleasure in NPS area.

Most places that have allowed homeless to use land has seen a massive degradation of the land with trash and sewage and many homeless are mentally disbaled and approach visitors aggresively or just weird. This makes normal visitors avoid those areaa. I do not want the National Mall to be a homeless shelter and thus have all other users shut out.

Homeless shelters need heat, sanitation food access and even medical facilities, NPS is poorly set up to provide those needs.

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