What do a successful business executive, a Pulitzer Prize winning historian and a former Director of the National Science Foundation have in common? They're among the 28 distinguished members of the National Parks Second Century Commission, and after a full year's work, the group has just released its final report.
As the National Park Service approaches its centennial in 2016, there's no shortage of challenges and opportunities for the agency. The National Parks Second Century Commission was formed in August 2008 with an ambitious mission: to "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."
The Commission was described as:
a first-in-a-generation effort to examine the national parks today, and chart a vision for their second century of service to the nation. The Commission consists of nearly 30 national leaders and experts with a broad range of experience, including scientists, historians, conservationists, academics, business leaders, policy experts, and retired National Park Service executives.
The process the group adopted was an ambitious one.
Five meetings were held at locations chosen to represent the wide variety of units included in today's National Park System: Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (California); Lowell National Historical Park (Massachusetts); Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming); Gettysburg National Military Park (Pennsylvania); and Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Tennessee and North Carolina).
At each meeting the Commission heard from subject matter experts, park managers, and the general public. The group combined the information from those meetings with input from other sources, and
"functioned through eight Committees, examining particular issues in depth. Commissioners served on Committees according to their interest and the background, and called upon "a broader group of subject matter experts to support them."
All that effort culminated in a final report which was officially released today at a teleconference that included Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and the Commission Co-Chairmen, former Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker, Jr. (R-TN) and former Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman J. Bennett Johnston, Jr. (D-LA).
“At some of the most difficult times in American history, presidents and Congress have had the courage and foresight to protect our national heritage, and expand the ability of national parks to benefit all Americans. This is another of those moments,” said Senator Baker.
Senator Johnston noted, “The national parks truly are America’s Best Idea, and these recommendations will make the national parks even more central to the lives of all Americans.”
The Commission was convened by the non-profit National Parks Conservation Association, which provided a summary of the report, entitled “Advancing the National Park Idea,” in a news release this afternoon:
First, the Commission recommends expansion of the National Park Idea by enhancing educational opportunities within the park system and community conservation and local partnerships to preserve our national heritage.
Specifically, the Commission called for an expansion of the National Park Service’s mission, making education an explicit part of the mission for the first time. The report also recommends expanding the park system itself to protect segments of all of America’s ecological and cultural treasures and to represent the diversity of our changing nation.
The Commission also called for a sweeping revitalization of the National Park Service, including strengthening the management, research, and community assistance capacity of the agency, along with significant steps for the Park Service to become a more innovative, diverse, and responsive organization prepared for the expanded vision of the system.
The Commission recommended actions to preserve America’s natural and cultural resources by strengthening the Park Service’s capacity to preserve park resources through expansion of its ability to prevent other federal agency actions that would adversely impact parks. The report also identifies enhancements to Park Service authorities, budgets, and programs that provide the leverage to work cooperatively with local communities and stakeholders to preserve parks and surrounding landscapes.
And, recognizing the importance of funding for the system, the Commission’s final report includes recommendations for Congress and the Administration to fully fund park needs through existing federal programs that benefit the Park Service, and offered proposals for enhanced permanent and sustainable funding from public and private sources.
A key recommendation is the creation of a Presidentially-appointed commission to promote the importance of the parks and raise substantial private funds by the 2016 centennial of the Park Service.
The NPCA website includes downloadable versions of two related documents:
The Commission's final report, which is "concise and inspirational, rather than encyclopedic," and individual committee reports, "which provide greater detail that is intended to answer questions and identify new ones, and promote discussions and actions to support our national parks and the National Park Service in its second century."
During this afternoon's teleconference, Commission members expressed their intention to remain involved in the all-important follow-up process of seeking both public and political support for their recommendations. One key element, of course, will be finding the funding, both public and private, required to convert recommendations into results.
As one commission member commented during today’s event, “goals without funding are just dreams,” and “the lack of adequate funding is the graveyard of many great ideas.”
Will the funds follow this latest set of “dreams” for our national parks? The administration’s proposed budget for 2010, which was prepared before the Commission’s report was completed, includes a modest increase in funding for the NPS. What occurs in the years immediately thereafter will be a much better gauge of the impact of the Commission’s work.