A more expansive, and inclusive, National Park System, stronger educational outreach, and a revised approach for managing today's natural and cultural resource challenges are among the goals laid out in a blueprint for leading the National Park Service into its second century.
The 24-page A Call To Action, delivered by Park Service Director Jon Jarvis to Park Service employees across the nation during a video conference last Thursday, is built around four themes: Connecting People to Parks, Advancing the NPS Education Mission, Preserving America's Special Places, and Enhancing Professional and Organizational Excellence.
The 36 action points that fall under those themes include many suggestions contained in the Second Century initiative launched in 2008 by the National Parks Conservation Association. That effort produced a report that suggested directions the Park Service take on education, science and natural resources, connecting people to the parks, cultural resource and historic preservation, and even funding issues.
Though some see the Call to Action as overly broad, it also can be seen as bold and aggressive. More so in that it doesn't call for any additional funding beyond current levels.
By the Park Service centennial in 2016 the document calls for an analytic approach to creating "a national system of parks and protected sites (rivers, heritage areas, trails, and landmarks) that fully represents our natural resources and the nation's cultural experience."
Too, it sets a goal of reaching a quarter of all students in grades K-12 through a mix of real and virtual fieldtrips to the parks, teacher training, and classroom and on-line source materials. And it envisions a $1 billion endowment created through philanthropy that would be used to support the parks.
While the document has not officially been introduced to the public, it is available via the Park Service's website, and the director is expected to hold a media conference in the near future.
According to a back page of the document, input for the action plan was obtained from various groups, ranging from top Park Service managers and the National Education Council to the National Park Foundation. But the seeming lack of transparency and inclusiveness in the process troubles Alfred Runte, a historian who long has followed the Park Service and is the author of National Parks, The American Experience, now in its fourth edition.
"My gut reaction is the same as it was for the 75th anniversary in 1991," Mr. Runte said Sunday, referring to the Park Service conference in Vail, Colo., that resulted in the Vail Agenda that was intended to guide the agency into the 21st century. "I keep thinking of all the people the Park Service is 'leaving out' from these roundtables and pre-centennial 'reports.'
"This document is itself unsigned; not a single author takes accountability," he added. "It is vision by committee, by 'contributors,' and I think most of the so-called vision is anything but. The cover alone leaves me cold. What do five kids jumping in a lake have to do with the national park idea? If I have to caption the idea, it is no idea. Simply, the idea should speak for itself. This is another document looking for an idea, hence its cliché-riddled, shotgun approach.
"Bottom line: Will the National Park Service, as it did in 1991, leave every 'outsider' (i.e., non-bureaucrat) out in the cold?" wondered Dr. Runte. "Is there no room at the table for those teachers, scholars, and 'contributors' who happen to be in private life? Is every 'partner' to remain impersonal, 'foundation this' or 'council that'? Again, no authors, no accountability, no ideas tied to a single, authoritative voice?"
Tom Kiernan, NPCA president, said the Call to Action was "a very strong and important step towards ensuring our spectacular national park landscapes, wildlife, and American history and heritage are better protected for future generations.”
At the same time, the NPCA chief called on the Obama administration and Congress to "confront the full array of park challenges and opportunities" addressed in the Second Century report.
"Such work includes improving air and water quality, managing invasive species, reintroducing native wildlife, improving cultural resource conditions, and addressing chronic funding shortfalls," NPCA said in a release.
Among other things, the vision laid out in the Call to Action document calls for:
* Strengthening the Park Service's efforts to connect with all generations and races;
* Expanding the National Park System by submitting to Congress a detailed plan that "delineates the ecological regions, cultural themes, and stories of diverse communities that are not currently protected and interpreted;"
* Boosting connections with younger generations by, among other strategies, involving "at least 10,000 youth each year in a multi-year progression of experiences from education programs to internship/volunteer opportunities to employment;"
* Connecting urban communities to the outdoors through a program revolving around parks, greenways, trails and waterways;
* Introducing new audiences to the national parks through an arts outreach program that would involve "25 artist led expeditions that involve youth in creating new expressions of the park experience..."
While ambitious in many areas -- the report calls for developing a "contemporary version" of the Leopold Report (a 1963 report on managing wildlife), promoting creation of "continuous corridors" to support ecosystems, and restoration of three American bison populations somewhere in the central and western United States -- some question whether the report isn't too wide-ranging.
"It's gratifying to see that finally something came out from the NPS that acknowledges the hard work and excellent recommendations of the NPS Second Century Commission," said Bill Wade, chairman of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees' Executive Council. "I worry, though, that trying to 'cover the waterfront' -- as this document apparently does -- at the beginning of a time of austerity will be seen as 'pie in the sky' and will be ignored by many both in and outside the NPS.
"I'd rather have seen some focus, or priority, on fewer things where a real difference might be made over the next few years, and an acknowledgment that the other things, while important, will have to wait," Mr. Wade said.
Rick Smith, a member of the Executive Council, agreed.
"The echoes from the 2nd Century Commission are welcome, but doing a couple things well is better than starting a lot of things and then being unable to finish most of them," he said.
Back at the NPCA, though, Ron Tipon sees the document as a "substantial" strategy for leading the Park Service into its second century. The desire to see an analytic formula for adding units to the National Park System has long been needed, said Mr. Tipton, the group's senior vice president for policy.
"I think that they framed that recommendation the right way," he said. "That one is of particular importance to us because it makes all kinds of sense to come up with a plan to guide future expansion of the system. Both because that’s a logical thing to do -- and we might not agree with the whole plan, I’m not saying the plan will dictate everything -- but right now it’s so haphazard with Congress.
"Besides, I think it is a way of saying, in some ways to what’s a skeptial Congress right now, and future administrations, 'Look, we’ve got criteria for determining whether areas belong in the system or are needed in the system. And we’re going to evaluate any proposal or any congressionally directed special resource study that way.'"
While Mr. Tipton agreed that the plan could be seen as overly broad, he noted that many of the action points the Park Service could implement with relatively little effort.
National Park Foundation officials, who would play a key role in developing the $1 billion endowment, could not be reached for comment Friday.