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Guest Column: Chipping Away At The National Park Service Mission One Park At A Time


Editor's note: Joan Anzelmo had a long and distinquished career with the National Park Service, one that included tenure as superintendent of Colorado National Monument. Among the issues she had to grapple with during her stint at the monument was whether to allow a professional bike race to pass through the monument. She declined the request for reasons outlined in the National Park Service's Management Policies. When the Park Service's Intermountain Region last week announced that it would take a new approach to deciding what activities were appropriate in Colorado National Monument, she was understandably puzzled because of how it could affect the bike race. She explains why in the following guest column.

Beginning in December 2010, and most recently on August 14, 2012, the National Park Service has repeatedly told the Grand Junction Local Organizing Committee (GJLOC) for the USA Pro Challenge that it cannot utilize Colorado National Monument and its Rim Rock Drive, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, for a stage of the USA Pro Challenge bike race.

So you can imagine my surprise when on Friday, November 9, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, whose publisher is on the GJLOC, ran an exclusive story about a process the Park Service would implement when considering appropriate activities in the monument, including a reconsideration of the professional bike race. The article included quotes from Colorado Gov. Hickenlooper, GJLOC member John Hopkins, NPS Intermountain Regional Director John Wessels, and monument Superintendent Lisa Eckert.

Public to get a say on monument

Feds seek local input on activities inside the park

The local organizing committee that sought to conduct a leg of the USA Pro Challenge bicycle race along the 23 miles of Rim Rock Drive saw the Park Service announcement as an opening.

“It’s a good opportunity to more fully explore how we might make available the type of event we’ve been talking about,” said John Hopkins, chairman of the local organizing committee, calling it a “very positive development” for the community in general.

Gov. John Hickenlooper called the announcement a step in the right direction that will “ensure that the public has input when it comes to protecting and enjoying this national crown jewel. We appreciate the National Park Service’s interest in having an open and honest dialogue with the community about activities in the monument.”

Later that same day, the Park Service issued a news release that announced a process to begin in January that would look at all manner of activities, events, and commercial services to decide which would be appropriate for the monument. The subsequent news stories and editorials said the Park Service would invite the community to help the agency determine what should be permitted and what should not, whether weddings, family reunions, special events, rock climbing, and even the professional bike race. That's a rather unnecessary and pricey process to my way of thinking when specific regulations and policy already exist to evaluate and determine what is appropriate or not.

Are you scratching your head yet? I certainly have been.

The Bike Race Has Been Reviewed Before

The National Park Service went through a massive and expensive national public involvement process in 2005 and 2006 to update its Management Policies, the guiding field manual for how to manage the parks. The result of that long and costly process was the updated 2006 Management Policies that give greater weight to resource protection, even over visitor services.

These policies flow from the NPS Organic Act. Consequently, Park Service superintendents are specifically directed to follow these policies and to protect park resources first and foremost. Complementing the 2006 NPS Management Policies are the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) and other agency directives and guidelines.

When I served as superintendent at Colorado National Monument and in other posts ranging from Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks to the Director’s Office in Washington, D.C., I always followed Park Service policy to guide my decisions and all of my public communications. No more so than when I evaluated the first proposal from the GJLOC requesting to hold a stage of the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado National Monument.

The policies and Code of Federal Regulations were clear on how I would evaluate and decide this request. However, I made sure to consult with my supervisor, Regional Director John Wessels, various Interior Department solicitors, fellow Park Service superintendents, staff in the agency's Office of Policy as well as the special permits staff, and eventually with Park Service Director Jon Jarvis.

Despite the nasty assault I received in the community and the non-stop intense political pressure from Gov. Hickenlooper and many elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton and U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, to force the race, it was reassuring and Park Service mission-affirming to have both Regional Director Wessels and Director Jarvis emphatically support the decision I made not to permit the stage of the USA Pro Challenge inside of Colorado National Monument.

It was reaffirmed on several additional occasions while I was still at Colorado National Monument and after I retired. Most recently, on August 14, 2012, Regional Director Wessels in a letter to the GJLOC informed them that the Park Service would not permit the professional bike race in Colorado National Monument. This was the third time that Regional Director Wessels informed the GJLOC why the Park Service would not permit the pro bike race. Subsequently, members of the GJLOC confirmed to the news media an additional meeting with RD Wessels and Secretary Salazar during September on the subject of the race.

Surprising Change Of Heart?

So Friday’s news as reported initially by the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel and later by the Denver Post, and stories in Greenwire, as well as editorials in both the Daily Sentinel and the Denver Post were shocking. Again elected officials were quoted as praising the Park Service for its new decision-making process regarding the pro bike race with headlines stating “Monumental Change of Heart” and “NPS Change of Policy.

Adding to the chorus of those stating the Park Service would re-evaluate the pro bike race was the Intermountain Region’s spokesperson and associate regional director, Rick Frost. In a Greenwire story on Tuesday, November 13, Mr. Frost was quoted as saying:

"I think people are making too much of the race itself," said Rick Frost, associate regional director of communications for NPS's Intermountain Region in Denver. "Nothing about what we're doing here represents a policy change. This is an effort to engage the public, and to help them understand the process by which special-use permits are granted. We want to work with them to help them understand the things we can and cannot do and to show them where there's flexibility to do things and where there's not." However, Frost said all special-use activities will be up for discussion, including ongoing proposals to run a segment of the bike race through part of the monument.

Perhaps if Rick Frost had faced the unrelenting pressures I faced daily as park superintendent, including personal threats and attempts to get me fired during the protracted race debate, he would never say, “I think people are making too much of the race itself” or so badly confound the NPS message on its policy which expressly prohibits professional sporting events inside the nation’s national parks and monuments.

I remain hopeful that Director Jarvis, who has faithfully carried out the National Park Service mission throughout every step of his field-oriented career, will make the Park Service position crystal clear on this issue for Colorado National Monument and for all other units of the National Park System as a tangible manifestation of the agency’s Call to Action."

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I was visiting Colorado National Monument on the Saturday in September when Ken Salazar was there to discuss the race with park staff and race organizers. Originally, there had been a sort of open invitation to the public to attend the meeting in the park's amphitheater. But shortly before it was supposed to happen, the public part of it was abruptly cancelled due to "scheduling confilcts." (Which, in my experience seems to be officialspeak for "We don't want no protesting or unpleasant incidents.") The meeting was moved to the historic stone house near the visitor center.

It was easy to see what kinds of impacts a major bike race would have on the park. The road is narrow and winds along the edges of sheer cliff in many places. Biking is a very popular activity there, and I came upon a bunch of them while driving along the rim drive. Even though there were no more than two or three cyclists in each group I met, it was sometimes simply not possible to pass them safely. I had to slow down to bike speed and wait for a safe stretch. But in a place as spectacularly scenic as COLO, that wasn't a problem.

However, it was obvious that should a large-scale race be held there, normal visitor traffic would be virtually impossible. It also was not hard to imagine other serious possibilities. Where the road hugs the edge of cliffs, low rock walls line the road. I can imagine an excited race watcher -- particularly a child -- trying to stand on one of those walls for a better view and triggering a call to the park's Search & Rescue crew. It would certainly be necessary for the park road to be closed to other visitors while the race was held. Thus, would a family from far away who had stopped to see the place have to be turned away? What about littering and the extra loads placed on park maintenance?

I talked with a few people in Fruita and Grand Junction -- mainly clerks in a couple of stores -- and found local opinions to be somewhat divided. About half supported the race and the other half either didn't care or felt there were plenty of other places in the vicinity where a race could be held albeit with much less spectacular scenery along the way.

Either way, this is a prime example of the kinds of extreme political pressures that pound continually on park superintendents, regional directors and even those who inhabit the hallowed halls of Interior in D.C. One thing we can always be assured of in situations like these is the fact that somewhere behind it, someone stands to receive a financial reward from the proposed activity.

National Parks units are public land and used for a multitude of public purposes. I'm familiar with the park and some of the problems that might occur from a bike event but the fact that it was previously analyzed and rejected should not necessarily stand for all time. Parks change, management changes, public pressures change. The politics of all this is part of the game.

The message I got from the article is that Supt. Anzelmo is unhappy that her decision might not stand. She is still wounded by the unnecessary and uncivil comments she received during the planning process.

If current management or politics requires a new analysis so be it.... Maybe the event will be rejected again, maybe they'll find a way to hold it in conjunction with other public use. Current NPS 'policy' is not sacrosanct and the fact that the process was expensive isn't pertinent to the issue. Everything the NPS does is expensive.

Let the analysis begin!

In Big Bend NP the NPS is building a new trail in previously undisturbed country. It was planned as a mountain bike trail, but changed to a hiking trail after failing to go through the proper regulatory hoops. I just read that New River Gorge is promoting new single track mountain bike trails. The NPS director has made it easier for park superintendents to permit mountain bikes on trails outside potential or designated wilderness and I will be surprised if the new superintendent at Big Bend does not open the new hking trail to mountain bikes when it is completed.. I complemented Joan Anzelmo on her decsion to stop a commercial bike race in Colorado NM and am dismayed that the NPS is opening the door to reverse that decision. The pressures by the recreation industry, including IMBA, are growing and I sympathize with those managers trying to hold the line against increasing commercialization of the national parks. The businesses that make money off of the parks are doing what comes naturally where money is involved. But those who value the parks for their intrinsic values have seemed to prevail in the past. If younger and future generations see the parks primarily as recreational assets and no longer see them as special places then so be it. But I am glad I lived most of my life when they were considered special with natural values the primary reason for their existence. National Parks are some of the few places in the country where hunting is not allowed along with the associated gunfire, where dog are not encountered on the trails or heard barking in the backcountry, and until recenty where visitors were not carrying guns openly or concealed. I think they sould also be places where mountain bikes on single track trails are not encountered. If they are no longer to be special places let private companies like Disney, or other government agencies manage them to achieve maximum profits for the recreation industry.

It would have been helpful if Ms Anzelmo would have explained what she thought the negative impacts of the race would have been.

The impacts of the proposed race have been highlighted quite a bit on the Traveler in our coverage of this issue.

* The Park Service's Management Policies state that a special event may be permitted “when there is a meaningful association between the park area and the event” and “when the event will contribute to visitor understanding of the park area.” The bike race didn't meet either of those provisions. Additionally, Title 36 of the Code of Federal Regulations that governs what occurs in all areas of the National Park System requires that the Park Service deny permits for events that are “conducted primarily for the material or financial benefit of a for-profit entity; or awards participants an appearance fee or prizes of more than nominal value…”

* Ms. Anzelmo, when superintendent, pointed out that to conduct a stage of the race through the monument she'd have to close Rim Rock Drive through the park for 12 hours, permit feed zones, support vehicles, and overheard air support. Imagine a visitor who drove across one, two, or three states to see the monument arriving to find the park closed for a bike race. She did, however, offer race organizers the option of a ceremonial lap of the monument without all the logistical support.

It also should be noted that Yosemite National Park officials in 2009 rejected a similar request to allow a bike race through the Yosemite Valley, citing the "disruption" the event would have caused for park visitors.

The title of this article "Chipping Away At The National Park Service Mission One Park At A Time" summarizes a key problem with allowing such events, and the cliche of the little boy with his finger in the dike, trying to hold back a flood, is appropriate.

Once you agree to close the main public access to a park for a whole day for a commercial bicycle event, where do you draw the line for other future events? How many days of effectively reserving use of a park for a commercial activity are too many? One, two ... a dozen?

Kurt's comment above sums up the bottom line: "Imagine a visitor who drove across one, two, or three states to see the monument arriving to find the park closed for a bike race." Imagine lots of visitors encountering similar situations in multiple parks throughout the year.

Allowing such events establishes a dangerous precedent that weakens the core values of all NPS sites.

I totally agree with Jim's summary. I can't help but picture the scene in the movie "Vacation" when they reach Walleyworld and John Candy says, "I'm sorry the park's closed, the moose out front should have told ya"

I don't know the area well enough to make a judgment call. That being said, I don't buy the slippery slope argument that if you allow one event, then you have to allow all of them. It sure sounds like Ms. Anselmo is pretty unhappy about her decision being potentially reversed, but times change, and new blood might see things differently. As long as the event does not impact negatively the park, other than obviously closing access for 12 hours, I really don't see how that conflicts with the NPS mission. The NPS has to adapt to the times, even if Ms. Anselmo won't.

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