Reader Participation Day: If You Were Director of the National Park Service For a Day....

We'd all like to be king or queen for a day, wouldn't we? The changes we'd make, the improvements folks would enjoy. Well, with that in mind, what changes would you make if you were director of the National Park Service for a day?

Would you order that more interpreters were employed, do away with those fees you have to pay to get into some parks and even attend some programs, order better cleaning and upkeep of those vault toilets we all shudder to enter?

The bottom line, I suppose, is this: How would you make the National Park System a better place?

Don't be bashful. And don't worry, we'll see that Park Service Director Jon Jarvis gets your thoughts.

Comments

This may sound like blasphemy, but I think I would be collecting entrance fees at Smoky Mountain National Park. Even a modest $5 a day would generate funds that could be used to pay to clean those toilets in the other parks. I would also spend the day getting the word out that our parks are doing just fine, maybe not great, but just fine and the the NPS has not "ruined" anything.

Craig, due to an interesting historical twist, it's not legal to charge entrance fees at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. All of the land now in Great Smoky Mountains National Park was once privately owned. The costs of building the park's main road, Newfound Gap Road (US 441), was borne by the states of Tennessee and North Carolina (as well as local communities). When the state of Tennessee transferred ownership of Newfound Gap Road to the federal government in 1936, it stipulated that “no toll or license fee shall ever be imposed…to travel the road.”

You're right, of course, professor, but imagine if Congress, which has been known to raise a tax or two, did away with that stipulation? They say Great Smoky gets 9 million visitors or so a year. Let's see, 9 million times $5 ... why, that'd be an extra $45 million a year! That's more than enough to keep a handful or two of the smaller units of the National Park System in business...

Maybe the fee is not to travel the road but you need proof of park pass to stop and park?

I'd eliminate 1/2 the seasonal workforce, converting most positions to permanent, with rotating duties with resource management. I'd create new, fair career tracks for new professionals and students. New career tracks would be created by partnering top environmental and public affairs schools with the bigger parks, creating an input for students. Once those students are "up to speed" in the NPS system, they're then re-assigned to smaller park units. Also, conversion between seasonal and permanent work. And a creation of a "permanent" seasonal pool that has already been cleared (background checks, etc. completed) so they can be brought onto staff of any given park quickly and efficiently.

It would take far more than just a day, but I would like to see every park operation tied directly to the park's general management plan and related subsidiary planning documents. Each year a park would be required to issue a public report on the progress made in implementing its GMP, RMP and all other official planning documents and lay out strategies for accomplishing planning goals for the coming year. Employee performance standards would be tied to achieving specific planning goals and objectives. This includes the park manager. Accountability would be written into every park plan.

I'd replace many of the Regional Directors and "senior" staff in regional offices by requiring that all such employess had to have at least 15 years of substantial field experience.

Not sure about the proposal to heavily reduce season employees. My understanding is that seasonal employee period coincides with highest visitation numbers. I've met quite a few seasonal park rangers who were schoolteachers or college students on their summer breaks. That seems like a great resource to tap into - educated workers during the peak visitation seasons who might not mind the low pay.

As for charging a fee, I thought that the current NPS fee schedule means 80% of all fees go directly to the park collecting said fees. I would guess the 9 million number might go down a bit, and that it wouldn't necessarily mean 9 million distinct opportunities to collect $5 each visitor. Most vehicles carry more than one person, there are those with lifetime recreation passes, and others might have purchased annual (site specific or multi-agency) passes. Anyone have numbers on the typical breakdown of fee collections, annual pass purchasers, etc compared to the estimated number of users?

I personally would ask for a change in the makeup of the way pass revenues are shared under the Federal Land Recreation Enhancement Act. It's my understanding from reading the text that the entire amount of the pass revenues goes into a general fund, unlike single-site annual passes or individual admissions where at least 80% stays in the individual unit. It wouldn't have to be a whole lot - maybe 20% of interagency pass revenues. I remember buying my 2008 annual pass at Crater Lake, where the standard vehicle fee was a rather low $10. However - my $80 apparently went into a general fund. I would think there should be some sort of bonus for collecting that fee, although I did end up using it at five more national parks and several NPS and Forest Service sites.

I know I am a broken record, but on that one day I'd let trail cyclists ride wherever they want, allowing them to exercise their own judgment and good sense to avoid trails made fragile by, e.g., mud. The next day I'd assess any trail-conflict reports, accident statistics, and trail-damage evaluations. After finding no problems whatsoever, I'd move along with the NPS plan to relax the no-bicycles rules!

I appreciate the historical reasoning behind the no fees for the park road, but I do believe that things change and Congress has managed to "alter" a few other agreements that have been made along the way. I like the idea that it is a "parking fee" as opposed to a toll for the road :-).

I would fire the people that authorized the bridges at Yosemite. I once talked to a consultant who said he was flown from Montana to Yosemite (on the parks dime) to ask his views on the (then) proposed bridges over the Merced River. He said the park staff didn't listen to a thing he said. Since then there has been a few floods, and I am of the professional opinion that those bridges were a major contributing factor.

If I was the Director for more than a day, I would do the following:

1-Through attrition and retirement, I would carefully reduce the staff at the regional and national levels of the National Park Service, and even the permanent staff in some of our parks. To prevent a major financial crisis and to continue supporting military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, our government has spent an incredible amount of money and has increased the national deficit substantially. But .....eventually taxes will have to be raised and budgets will have to be reduced, and the Park Service probably will not be exempt from those cost cutting efforts. And so why not get ready and start reducing any and all unnecessary staff wherever and whenever possible so we don't have to cut or curtail any visitor services, any tours, or anything that would reduce the positive experiences visitors can have at our parks.

2-I would mandate training in the basic spirit and letter of the Freedom of Information Act and in the directives and guidelines concerning FOIA that have been prepared by the DOI and Department of Justice. Far too many of our governmental agencies and departments continue to be fairly secretive about their budgets and their decision-making process, and the Park Service has parks and regional offices that continue to behave as if FOIA was never passed, as if President Obama and Secretary Salazar had not direct everyone within the Park Service to go beyond the legal requirements of FOIA and to do whatever possible to usher in a new era of openness and transparency. If you have any doubts about how closed and uncooperative parks can be, read about my ongoing battle trying to get some basic information from Mesa Verde National Park at this site.

Currently every new employee has to take online courses concerning computer and internet use and online courses on the Whistleblower Protection Act; and I believe every employee also should be required to take an online course on FOIA and its implications and regulations. Simply stated, when everyone knows that everyone else is entitled to know how public funds are being spent, when people know that every meeting they have and every decision they make can be perused by others, they eventually spend money more carefully and make better decisions.

3-Every park should regularly engage in evaluations at every level. And those evaluations should be compiled, and they should be used in regular, annual and/or bi-annual reviews. With computer technology being what it is, simple on-line evaluations could be conducted and compiled easily and effortlessly at every level of the Park Service; and skilled managers could then correct problems and address needs, and deal with personnel issues. Quite frankly, there are horror stories and incredible tales of mean-spirited park supervisors and superintendents; and there are stories of just outright incompetency; and there are instances when everyone has known about instances of waste, fraud and abuse within some parks. But in spite of these, I've heard of regions where budgets are virtually free from audits, and where superintendents are virtually never reviewed and never evaluated, and where they can operate as virtual monocrats.

4-Although everyone feels veterans should be given extra help and benefits. But in the process of hiring seasonal and permanent Park Employees, they shouldn't be able to get a score greater than 100. Simply stated, there's something wrong with a system that says a veteran who has virtually no experience working within a national park, and has no proven experience working with people in a park setting, should be considered a better candidate than some young person who has worked several seasons for the National Park Service, who has received nothing but outstanding evaluations, and who is committed to working for the Park Service. In part, the problem is in the scoring methodology that gives so little weight to the young person's experience as a ranger, or that gives such similar scores to some veterans who have never worked in a park like environment but who end up with similar or higher scores.

Of course, this is related to a larger problem that I addressed in another comment several months ago.....namely, how to train and retain some of our better young rangers. Currently, I think we are losing far too many of our better more talented young people. They come with hopes and dreams, and they leave discouraged and frustrated.

I really appreciate the historical reasoning behind the no fees for the park road, but I do believe that things change and Congress has managed to "alter" a few other agreements that have been made along the way. I like the idea that it is a "parking fee" as opposed to a toll for the road .