With the Obama administration nearing the end of its first, and possibly only, term, it has a track record for its stance on public lands in general and national parks specifically, though it's not as rosy as many conservationists had hoped for when the president came into office.
Potential wilderness has been waylaid in places such as Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida, energy projects have been expedited to the detriment of some park units, and the administration hasn't been as aggressive in designating national monuments as had been hoped by some groups.
At the same time, President Obama can count one new monument in the National Park System to his credit, and his administration's America's Great Outdoors initiative has been crafted to engage more Americans of all ages with the outdoors. Through the initiative trails have been blazed, water trails have been designated, connectors have been identified to link urban areas with natural areas.
Too, his Interior secretary removed roughly 1 million acres surrounding Grand Canyon National Park from hardrock mining.
While the president's proposed FY 2013 budget for the National Park Service is relatively flat (following a proposed $138 million increase for FY12), there have been concerns voiced over steep declines in the agency's construction budget -- funds often used for road repairs and facility maintenance as well as new visitor facilities -- and some would have liked to see the president be more aggressive in urging Congress to provide more funds for the Park Service.
Lack Of Monuments?
There have been hopes the Obama administration might work to "complete" Canyonlands National Park, or perhaps designate as a national monument the San Rafael Swell or Cedar Mesa, both in Utah, or a section of Montana's northern prairie.
None of those have come about, perhaps due to the administration's reluctance to tangle with House Republicans who dogged him to turn over every shred of paper that might have contained some Executive Branch thoughts on potential monuments.
Although, President Obama did turn to the Antiquities Act to designate Fort Monroe National Monument (still contentious in the eyes of some supporters who thought it should have not only been larger in size, but also not potentially compromised by infill private development options). And more new monuments could be in the offing: Cesar Chavez in California, Harriet Tubman in Maryland, the Charles Young home in Ohio, and Woodlawn Property, an 1,100-acre tract along the Brandywine River in Delaware that, if designated, would become the first NPS unit in the state.
Still, the president has been lobbied by academics and economists to be aggressive in protecting public lands and creating new National Park System units. Western public lands are not only an iconic slice of America's national identity, but also a valuable driver of economic activity if properly protected and managed, said a group of more than 100 economists and academics in November 2011. They thus urged President Obama and Congress to set aside more public lands as national parks, monuments, and wilderness areas.
Howling Mad Over Wolves
The administration's official decision in August to remove Endangered Species Act protections from wolves in most of Wyoming was strongly condemned by environmental and conservation groups, which promised to challenge the decision in court.
Wyoming officials, who would be handed management of wolves at the end of September, have announced plans to open a hunting season for the predators on Oct. 1, with as many as 52 wolves permitted to be killed in the northwestern part of Wyoming. Outside of the state's northwestern corner wolves could be killed on sight as predators, with no bag limit.
“Removal of Endangered Species Act protections for Wyoming’s wolves is a disaster for the state’s wolf population and for recovery of wolves to Colorado and other parts of the West,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Like past versions of Wyoming’s wolf plan that were rejected by the Fish and Wildlife Service, the current plan fails to ensure the long-term survival and recovery of the state’s gray wolves. Today’s decision to remove protections for Wyoming’s wolves fails to rely on best science and represents the worst kind of political intrusion by Secretary Salazar into management of an endangered species.”
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Servie officials, though, counter that the grey wolf recovery program launched in the mid-1990s with the initial release of 14 wolves into Yellowstone has been highly successful. They say the Northern Rocky Mountain wolf population stands at 1,774 adult wolves and more than 109 breeding pairs, and that the recovery goal population has been exceeded for 10 consecutive years.
Hiking And Biking
Though its origins date to the administration of George W. Bush, a single-track trail that would be open to mountain bikes in Big Bend National Park wasn't cut until this year. While the trail officially is considered to be open to hikers and bikers, opponents see it as a way to open more national parks to single-track bike trails specifically for biking.
The proposed loop trail would start near the visitor center at Panther Junction, cross the Chihuahuan desert and wrap Lone Mountain while providing sweeping views of the Chisos Mountains, the southern-most mountain range in the country.
While Big Bend officials have maintained the trail is simply another recreational outlet for park visitors, they do note that it's part of a deal IMBA struck with the National Park Service years ago to explore more mountain biking in the park system.
Most of the backcountry trail would be single-track – approximately the width of a bike, with one-way traffic moving counter clockwise. Horses would be barred from the trail.
In July the mountain biking issue grew more prominent, as the Park Service passed a rule change that gives park superintendents the authority to allow bicycles on roads that are closed to the motoring public – like fire roads and roads used by park maintenance vehicles. The rule continues to prohibit bikes in wilderness and other areas where they would have significant impact on the environment or visitor safety.
However, there are growing concerns that without sufficient and clear direction from Washington, individual superintendents might not evaluate the potential impacts stringently enough before approving bike trails.
The Obama administration drew harsh criticism for its decision, announced in draft in March and in final form in August, to allow a utility to enlarge its transmission corridor through a slice of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, through the Middle Delaware National Scenic River, and across the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.
The project calls for a double circuit transmission line carrying a new 500kV line atop 200-foot-high towers. Delaware Water Gap NRA officials endorsed a proposal that would enlarge the transmission corridor across roughly 4 miles of park land to possibly as much as 350 feet despite another alternative that would impact only about 1.5 miles of park lands, according to the final Environmental Impact Statement.
Furthermore, the Park Service's preferred alternative, the EIS states, "would cause significant adverse impacts to geologic resources; wetlands; vegetation; landscape connectivity, wildlife habitat, and wildlife; special-status species; rare and unique communities; archeological resources; historic structures; cultural landscapes; socioeconomics; infrastructure, access and circulation; visual resources; visitor use and experience; wild and scenic rivers; and park operations .
“America’s national parks are treasured places and we need to keep them that way. If the NPS allows 200-foot power lines to degrade these three park sites, what parks will be next?," Ron Tipton, the National Parks Conservation Association's senior vice president for policy, asked in March when the Park Service announced its intentions. "We encourage the administration to avoid America’s national parks when siting transmission lines – this will ensure future generations can enjoy national parks as visitors do today. Meeting energy needs is an important priority, but not at the expense of our national parks.”
Wilderness Vs. ORVs
Just as disconcerting to conservation organizations was the Park Service's decision not to designate official wilderness within the "Addition Lands" of Big Cypress but rather open the landscape to upwards of 130 miles of off-road vehicle routes and hunting.
"The American people expect our national parks to be highly protected," John Adornato, NPCA's Sun Coast regional director, said in October 2011 after the advocacy group filed a lawsuit over the plan. "That our national parks are a place of refuge, and pristine. Unfortunately, the Park Service did not deliver on that expectation with this plan."
NPCA officials and their attorney said the Park Service had, in essence, done a shabby job in putting together the GMP for the 147,000 acres that came to the Park Service in 1996 as part of a land exchange with the state of Florida.
"We think we have a very strong case of showing that the Park Service has violated numerous laws in a misguided effort to open up the Addition lands to off-road vehicle use," Robert Rosenbaum, an attorney with the Washington, D.C., firm of Arnold & Porter, said when the lawsuit was filed. "Normally, the Park Service follows its legal mandates and the scientific and other studies that it has in front of it to guide it to a decision. What we believe happened in this case is that instead the Park Service wanted to open up the Addition to off-road vehicle use, and therefore bent or ignored the legal mandates or the science in order to permit it to reach that decision.”
While that lawsuit is still working its way through the system, this past July a federal judge ruled that the Park Service acted without sound reasoning in 2007 when it reopened more than 22 miles of off-road vehicle trails in Big Cypress.
Mr. Adornato told the Traveler in July that that ruling should send a message to the Park Service about its decision for ORV use in the Addition Lands.
"I think the clear message is that the Park Service’s decisons were irresponsible," he said. "The stewardship of the preserve is ultimately for the primary purpose, which is to protect this unique wetlands, this incredible cypress swamp.
"Now, NPCA has defended the 400 miles of off-road vehicles (in the preserve), so we believe there is responsible stewardship that can happen with the use of off-road vehicles in the preserve," the NPCA official added. "But the decision to reopen the Bear Island trails, to maximize ORV trails in the Addition Lands, at the expense of wilderness, and minimizing wilderness designation in the Addition Lands, that’s irresponsibile stewardship.”
Obviously, public lands and how they're managed has been, is, and will continue to be a contentious issue, particularly with the desire to see more energy production in the country.
Recent history (prior to the current administration and reaching back to 1978) has shown that Democrats in the White House have created many more national monuments than their GOP brethren. But in light of the rancorous political climate in Washington these days, the past decidedly is no roadmap for the future when it comes to managing these landscapes.