What do you expect from the National Park System? How would you like to see the National Park Service manage the 391 parks? Those are at the same time simple and complex questions.
Perhaps the obvious answer is that we want parks managed for people to enjoy. But from there the obvious quickly fades away. Do we want them managed for preservation, for the betterment of species that inhabit the parks, for their landscapes to persist immemorially? Do we want history on display and interpreted? How do we want to pay for the parks?
And if we want them preserved, at what moment in time? Should they reflect the parkscapes of the 1930s, the 1940s, or the 1960s, when many Baby Boomers made their first treks into the parks? Or should they be preserved from today forward, with your electronic rangers and cellphone hot spots?
Delving more deeply, what role should the National Park Service play in managing the parks? Again, seemingly an easy question, particularly if you can come up with answers for the previous paragraph’s questions. But as the National Park Service approaches the end of its first century and looks towards its second, not everything is obvious.
For the past year the Second Century Commission has explored these and other questions that revolve around the parks. Questions about funding, about appealing to all walks of society, about what educational role the parks can and should play, about protecting natural resources.
More than one hundred years ago America invented the national park idea with the designation of Yellowstone as the first national park. Guided by that founding idea, this National Park Second Century Commission will examine the role of the national parks today and articulate a bold vision of a future where national parks continue to enrich and ennoble this nation and its citizens.
Funded with $1 million from the National Parks Conservation Association, the commission is not the first to explore such issues. But hopefully, with its esteemed membership -- former Supreme Court Justice Sandra O’Connor, renowned biologist E.O. Wilson, John Fahey, the editor and CEO of the National Geographic Society are among the members -- this group’s thoughts will not wither in cyberspace but at a minimum spur further dialog in Congress and within the Obama administration about the problems that confront both the parks and the Park Service and how they can be addressed.
Just as importantly, the forthcoming recommendations should gain national exposure so those who use the parks -- you -- can weigh in, create a national dialog, and work to see that Congress doesn’t ignore the issues that are raised.
For the past year the Second Century Commission has traveled across the country to visit parks and hold meetings to better understand the problems confronting the parks and the Park Service. With Ken Burns’ documentary on the national parks debuting on PBS in late September, the commission’s soon-to-be-released report hopefully will gain traction, both in Washington and across the country.
“The notion that commission reports tend to go away after a period of time, may not be adopted, is an accurate portrayal,” agrees Deny Galvin, a former deputy director of the National Park Service who also sits on the commission. “That is in my opinion not an excuse for doing nothing. The idea for having somebody take an outside look at national parks and the National Park Service is a good idea even if it becomes just an educational tool.”
Among the recommendations the report likely will highlight when published next month is that the Park Service play a strong role as a “catalyst” in developing partnerships that preserve resources. Not just natural resources, but also historic and cultural resources, says Mr. Galvin.
“Our view as a commission is that in the 100 years that the National Park Service has existed, and the more than 100 years that the National Park System has existed, the organization and the system are doing many things now that were never contemplated in 1916 or in 1864 or in 1872. Much more extensive,” he says. “Just think about some of the places we (as a commission) went to. Santa Monicas (Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area), for instance, where you’re right in the middle of a huge metropolitan area, where even though the authorized boundaries encompass 400,000 acres or something like that, it’s never been the thought that the federal government would acquire all of that.
“Obviously there’s lots of people living inside that boundary. There are state parks, an extensive state park system, so it’s a kind of park that we would kind of see as a 21st century park, where the National Park Service is more of a catalyst than it is primarily a land manager
“Another place we went to was Lowell (National Historical Park), where at the commission meeting there we had three or four mayors, the local congress person, chancellor of the university, all telling us, ‘We couldn’t have done this’ -- this being the renewal of Lowell -- ‘without the National Park Service,” Mr. Galvin points out. “So there you’ve got the Park Service through historic preservation helping with the revitalization of the city.”
That recommendation alone should generate much discussion. What is the role of the National Park Service? Should it be seen as a catalyst for economic revitalization, which it has accomplished at Lowell, Mass., and which the folks in Patterson, New Jersey, are counting on now that Congress has approved, and President Obama signed off on, creation of Paterson Great Falls National Historic Park. The latter instance involves 109 acres that the state of New Jersey and local officials have failed to rejuvenate on their own.
Mr. Galvin believes the role is appropriate.
“I think the commission is convinced it is,” he adds. “I think the turning point was Lowell. We had a debate about that in the Lowell meeting. ‘Why the Park Service, why couldn’t HUD do this, why couldn’t somebody else do this?’
“And I think the answer comes down to nobody else could do this, because at the center of that equation is preserving things that people want to preserve. Preserving things that are important, preserving scale and historic buildings and a story that helped the town recover its pride,” he points out.
“If you’re going to save them, who better than the National Park Service? We had a debate about that in the commission, are these unusual roles of catalyst and convener appropriate for the Park Service. And our answer was a strong, affirmative ‘yes.’”
Another issue the commission grappled with was climate change and what role the Park Service should serve in addressing it. How the commission’s final report touches on that issue remains to be seen, but during discussions there was talk about having the agency create “ecological restoration areas.” These, explains Mr. Galvin, would be similar to the 46 “Recreation Demonstration Areas” the Park Service built around the country in the 1930s and early 1940s and gave to the states to run as state parks.
“The more you can do that and the more you establish new thriving areas of open space, the more leverage you have on climate change," he says.
In the end, says Mr. Galvin, the commission’s report shouldn’t be seen only as addressing the National Park Service and its second century of service.
“One of the questions we confronted almost right away was, ‘Are we just talking about the future of the National Park System, or are we talking about a future of protected areas in the United States?’” he says. “And it took us about one meeting to decide we were talking about the latter.
“... If you start talking about conserving biodiversity, the National Park System cannot do it, and will not do it. It’s not big enough, it’s too far West, it tends to be high, it tends to have thin soils, it’s not represented in certain parts of the country,” says Mr. Galvin. “That’s true generally of protected areas in certain parts of the country. So what you’ve got to do is sketch out a larger vision. If we are going to build a system of protected areas, and a strategy of protecting things to conserve biodiversity, it’s got to be bigger than the park system.”
But will Congress and the administration share that vision? That remains to be seen.