You are here

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.

Featured Article


Some random thoughts:

-Consistency of leadership across a few administrations/presidents would greatly benefit the agency. How can political appointees, leap-frogging over one another, even hope to effectively lead? I personally think the agency is in need of a leader that has not only been a long-time employee of the NPS but is a demonstrated visionary that could establish a Mission 66 type initiative. (I assume the Centennial Initiative is an attempt at just such a program, but it's merits, aside from hiring increases, are dubious to say the least.)

-Not one of our panel of experts mentions training or recruitment. Absolutely essential to any organization, public or private, is attracting and developing a staff that is well educated, well trained, and passionate about the enterprise at hand.
Specifically concerning interpretive staff, the NPS desperately needs folks who are not only qualified for the job but genuinely like working with the public. (I think we've all had plenty of experiences with front line staff that are seemingly uninterested in the visitor's presence...) A genuine dislike for the visitor has led us to the iPod/cellphone tours that, while mostly well produced, are antithetical to principles of stewardship.
I worry that some folks currently in permanent positions are just glad to have a paycheck and could care less about what kind of experience they provide the visitor.
Am I correct in the knowledge that in the earlier decades of the NPS one was assigned a park to work at upon initial hire? Such an intake system would certainly help to weed out those folks that are just looking for a comfortable government job within their own community.

-I have to personally wonder how ongoing comments about the "worth" of existing units must effect the morale of the employees that work so hard to care for and interpret those places.

-I've personally witnessed a great divide, if you will, between natural resource management and cultural resource management. I would seriously doubt that few Chiefs of Resource Management are equally passionate about (or have the educational background) to successfully meet the needs of both cultural and natural resources.
Would NPS units that are (by definition) wholly "cultural" or "historic" be better served by their own dedicated agency? While this wouldn't guarantee safety from the kind of mismanagement that Richard Sellers alludes to, it might help to attract and keep the folks that are truly interested in preservation, maintenance, and interpretation of these resources that are just as vital to our nation as the natural ones.

Just some thoughts and possible answers...

Infrastructure should be Job 1. Nothing can be done about climate change. Guns rights are protected by the 2nd Amendment; the only change to be made is to make no unconstitutional restrictions on where one can carry.
Snowmobiles are non-invasive as long as laws already on the books are enforced to protect wildlife, etc.

Certainly each National Park has its own unique problems that need to be addressed. As a resident of the GYE I have a vested interest in the Parks there. Two issues I would like to see settled once and for all are the snowmobile and bison issues. Anyone who believes that snowmobiles have a place in Yellowstone should take a snowshoe (or CC ski) trip in the park when eight or ten of these machines whizz by. The way bison are treated, both inside and outside of park boundaries, when attempting to migrate to winter forage is a national outrage.
When decisions regarding such things as snowmobile use, keeping Sylvan Pass open during the winter etc., they should be made according to best available science; not politics. And they certainly should not be made based upon how the decision effects a few local businesses or ranchers. These are National Parks.
Many, if not most, Park Service employees I am acquainted with are disgruntled. One told me that he did not join the Park Service to harass wildlife, round them up and ship them off to slaughter, as he has been ordered to do with bison. He joined to protect wildlife and other resources. I would think that moral would be high on the priority list.

Thanks for your post Warren Z. I think recruiting and hiring more college students through a paid intership program, especially geogrpahy and anthropology majors, would help bring enthusiastic NPS employees.
As for Roger (not verified). Allowing the public to carry firearms into parks is likely to create more problems than it may solve. Seems that the noise and fumes produced by the snowmobiles I've been around, by those characteristics, makes them invasive.

Frank N, the vehicle for NPS Director to deal with bison would be to insist that the Yellowstone superintendent withdraw NPS's participation in the Interagency Bison Management Plan until a plan that can be developed that is consistent with NPS's mission. That plan must be transparent and have an important seat for the general public as well as the tribal communities, and it must have as its immediate goal the establishment of year round habitat in Montana. Yellowstone in particular is being hurt by having these animals stuck on the Northern Range and the interiors of the park. If Yellowstone the wildlife zoo were allowed to spill out, our favorite place would grow to become even more beautiful.

I agree that the bison issue and related wildlife issues must be a priority and more so than winter use, though if we can make that go away just to shed light on these other issues, I'd be for it. Morale does strike me as low among those rangers I've met in large part because of buffalo (though admittedly, that's how I tend to meet rangers - in passing because of my work organizing on the issue). Also, it's just more acute. Buffalo are dying now, you know?

The other issue I'd like to see NPS address is tolerance for homeless populations in the city parks under its purview, especially in Washington, DC. While they aren't rounding up the homeless and shipping them to slaughter, the lack of respect is just as palpable. That is, I don't want NPS to be a law enforcement agency first and foremost, but in all these issues we are touching on, that seems to be the driving emphasis - management is essentially an issue of control, not an issue of respect and stewardship.

Also, the permit regulations for free speech in Yellowstone are draconian. Those have to go and anywhere else where they are similar.

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


My suggestions for recruitment of passionate believers in all aspects of the NPS mission is not limited only to college kids. There are many folks in America seeking a second or third career that could bring fresh perspectives into all levels of the NPS. But I agree with you. Both the Youth Conservation Corps and the Student Conservation Association do a great job getting young folks into the parks, and we need a more programs just like them.
Why should the over 40 crowd be given the Volunteers In Parks program as their only option?

College kids? Like the ones I've seen who have terrible person hygiene and wrinkled uniforms? The ones who answer "yeah dude," and "nah" instead of "Yes Sir" (and Ma'am)? The ones who can't count money without a calculator? I'm sick of seeing these KIDS reflecting poorly on the NPS.
I agree with Warren Z, lets get some mid-life older adults who want another career, and veterans who know how to talk to people and have learned the definition of accountability and responsibility. Ones who will wear the uniform with pride!

I totally agree with Frank N. Yellowstone/Tetons are far away from me but very near and dear to my heart.

Each National Park has its own issues and should be resolved by the park folks (including scientists !) who know most about its issues......remembering that they belong to all of us and were created for their protection of the natural beauty/features/flora & fauna !

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide

Recent Forum Comments