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Guest Column: Will The National Park Service Centennial Bring Positive Change Or Merely Business As Usual?


If the old adage is true and wisdom comes with age, the National Park Service should be getting pretty smart as it approaches its one-hundredth birthday on August 25, 2016.

This milestone provides the agency with a golden opportunity to reflect back on its first 100 years, and to chart a course for the next century. It’s a chance to dream big, to re-vision, to rise to a higher level, and to identify ways to achieve the greatest good in our treasured national park system.

To prepare for its second century, the NPS and associated entities have created committees, convened meetings, and written a plethora of reports. In recent years at least six documents filled with thoughts and recommendations have been produced: The Future of America’s National Parks (2007); the National Parks’ Second Century Commission Report: Advancing the National Park Idea (2009); America’s Great Outdoors: A Promise to Future Generations (2011);  (2011); National Parks for a New Century—Statement of Joint Principles, which grew out of America’s Summit on National Parks: Taking Action for a New Century (2012); and Revisiting Leopold: Resource Stewardship in the National Parks (2012).

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The Future Of America's National Parks

On August 25, 2006, exactly a decade before the Centennial, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne announced that he’d been directed by President George W. Bush to establish specific goals to help prepare the national parks for another century of conservation, preservation and enjoyment. The Secretary was directed to identify projects and programs consistent with these goals, and to continue the NPS legacy of leveraging philanthropic, partnership, and government investments for the benefit of the national parks and their visitors. The effort was labeled the National Park Centennial Challenge/Initiative.

In response to this directive, the Park Service conducted a nationwide series of more than 40 listening sessions and collected 6,000 public comments.

The resulting report, The Future of America’s National Parks, started off on a promising note. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne’s introduction included the following:

The 21st-century National Park Service will be energized to preserve parks and welcome visitors. Stewardship and science will guide decisions. An inventory of all wildlife in parks will be completed, a vital baseline to monitor change and adjust management. Strategic acquisitions will protect landscapes. Parks will be known as America’s best classrooms. We will work carefully to add new parks to tell America’s stories. Facilities will be in better condition. Hallowed battlefields will be preserved. Majestic species that symbolize this nation, such as bison and bald eagles, will thrive in their native habitats. A new era of private/public partnerships will bring greater excellence to parks. More volunteers will add value to park experiences. The latest information technology will captivate young people with the national park story. Children will reconnect to the outdoors and lead healthier lives. A new generation of conservationists will convey parks unimpaired to the next generation.

The body of the report, however, gave little indication as to how these lofty endeavors would be accomplished. It presented five basic goals: to lead America and the world in preserving and restoring treasured resources; to demonstrate environmental leadership to the nation; to ensure that national parks are superior recreational destinations; to foster exceptional learning opportunities that connect people to parks; and to demonstrate management excellence.

Each goal had specific actions, but most reiterated the same tired text found in all park planning documents: rehabilitate historic buildings, restore habitat, inventory and monitor resources, increase visitation to lesser known parks, rehabilitate trails, increase attendance at ranger programs, meet diversity recruitment goals, establish a professional development curriculum, develop curriculum materials for schools, increase use of alternative energy and fuels, and reduce the impacts of park operations on air and water quality. There was nothing new here.

A Second Century Commission

The second report, Advancing the National Park Idea, was the product of an effort by the non-profit National Parks Conservation Association, a group dedicated to protecting and enhancing America’s national parks. A “Second Century Commission” of 28 private citizens, including scientists, historians, conservationists, educators, business people, and leaders with long experience in state and national government convened to “take stock and rethink the vision” of the parks.

The Commission met five times and held three public meetings across the United States. In addition to the main report, commissioners prepared eight individual committee reports.

I hoped this group would ask the hard questions: What are the most important functions of our national parks? Shouldn’t protecting natural and cultural resources always be the NPS’s highest priority? What constitutes impairment of resources and how can the NPS meet its mandate to keep resources unimpaired? Shouldn’t we be protecting ecosystems and their more-than-human inhabitants in parks for their own sakes, as well as for what they have to offer humans? Do economic interests have too much influence in park management? How much infrastructure is really needed in parks? Would the public and the national parks be better served if the NPS was removed from the Department of the Interior and operated instead as a trust, governed by a Board of Regents and Secretary, similar to the Smithsonian Institution?

Although it didn’t address my questions, the commission clearly put a lot of thought and insight into its work. The reports pointed out the need to strategically acquire new park land to ensure inclusion of all of our nation’s ecological diversity, and mentioned addressing threats coming from outside the parks. Other points emphasized the need for more education, partnerships, research, and funding. The Commission also suggested creating a public–private consortium, a Center for Innovation to facilitate quick sharing of information and lessons learned from on-the-ground conservation efforts.

America's Great Outdoors

The Obama administration’s America’s Great Outdoors Initiative was advanced to develop a 21st Century conservation and recreation agenda. This multi-agency effort led to production of America’s Great Outdoors: A Promise to Future Generations. Action items in this report were very general. The first two involved creating outdoor jobs and enhancing recreational opportunities. This was no surprise as job creation is such a high priority for the Obama administration, and the very lucrative outdoor recreation and tourism industries wield considerable political influence.

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The report also addressed education and organizational structures. Out of 35 recommendations, only three related directly to conserving, restoring, and managing federal lands and waters. One addressed the need for landscape-level conservation and restoration, the second advocated managing for climate change resilience, and the third promoted protection of wildlife corridors and habitat connectivity.

I still see no evidence, however, that anyone recognizes that restoration and protection of high quality, naturally functioning wild lands are the most critical action items. Without such lands, nothing else matters.

A Call To Action

On August 25, 2011, the Park Service released A Call to Action: Preparing for a Second Century of Stewardship and Engagement. This document drew from the three reports mentioned in preceding paragraphs.

The vision statement in A Call to Action spoke of creating jobs, strengthening local economies, and supporting ecosystem services—in that order.

The four “themes” outlined to support the vision were: Connecting People to Parks through recreation, education, volunteerism, and job opportunities; Advancing the NPS Education Mission using leading-edge technologies, social media, and collaboration with partners; Preserving America’s Special Places by increasing resource’s resilience to climate change and other stressors, cultivating excellence in science, scholarship, and stewardship, and collaboration with other land managers; and Enhancing Professional and Organizational Excellence.

Thirty-six actions accompanied these themes. Of the 36, only one actually set forth to preserve a natural resource: to return the American bison to our country’s landscape by restoring and sustaining three wild bison populations.

I was quite depressed by this report—once again the NPS failed to propose any serious plan to protect or restore natural resources.

The plan was heavily biased toward the social aspects of national parks—education, “relevance,” increased visitation, and revenue generation. While none of these is inherently bad, the plan was very short on actions designed to preserve, conserve, or restore resources. This bias will not serve the parks well in this ecologically turbulent new century; in fact, too much emphasis on the social aspects could lead to resource impairment.

Summit On America's Parks

On January 24-26, 2012, more than 350 participants representing conservation, philanthropy, recreation, tourism, education, health, and economic development convened in Washington, D.C., for America’s Summit on National Parks: Taking Action for a New Century. The event was co-sponsored by the National Parks Conservation Association, the National Park Foundation, and the National Park Hospitality Association.

A January 30, 2012, press release addressing the summit stated, “Among the most notable directives coming out of the Summit were to increase outreach to youth and other diverse populations; to make units within the NPS system more representative of the diverse makeup of the nation; to use technology, such as social media, smart phone applications, video games and other electronic technologies to attract visitors and improve park experiences; to highlight healthy food and opportunities for safe, active fun during park visits; to increase public awareness of the 2016 centennial; to create an endowment to provide the NPS with secure funding for the future; to encourage supporters and lovers of national parks to become more engaged with their members of Congress and other decision makers; and to grow the base of support for national parks, particularly among the health, education and tourism communities.”

While some of these directives are laudable, there was not a single mention of protection or restoration of natural or cultural resources. The Summit spawned a document called National Parks for a New Century: Statement of Joint Principles that also exclusively focused on the “use” side of the NPS Organic Act.

A few references to restoring, preserving, and protecting resources were included, but only “…so future generations can enjoy them as we do,” and because, “Families and friends expect to enjoy memorable, outstanding visits to National Park Service sites.”

I suppose this should come as no surprise, when one of the key players in this effort was the National Park Hospitality Association. Their website clearly reveals their views on the purpose of national parks in a Franklin K. Lane quote: "Every opportunity should be afforded the public, wherever possible, to enjoy the national parks in the manner that best satisfies the individual taste."

They are in it to promote business, pure and simple.

Updating The Leopold Report

On August 25, 2012, the National Park System Advisory Board Science Committee released Leopold Revisited: Resource Stewardship in the National Parks, a report prepared in response to NPS Director Jon Jarvis’s request to the committee to develop goals, policies, and actions for managing all natural and cultural resources in the National Park System.

One of the action items in A Call to Action (as described above) stated: “The NPS will create a new basis for NPS resource management to inform policy, planning, and management decisions and establish the NPS as a leader in addressing the impacts of climate change on protected areas around the world. To accomplish this we will prepare a contemporary version of the 1963 Leopold Report that confronts modern challenges in natural and cultural resource management.”

The report was only 23 pages long and was very broad in scope. A single “overarching” goal was presented that addressed resource stewardship, preserving ecological integrity and cultural resource authenticity, providing transformative experiences for visitors, and serving as the core of a national conservation system. This goal also discussed the need to steward park resources within a complex, ever-changing set of environmental conditions. To that end, the report suggested the NPS improve the representation of unique ecosystem types in the system, protect habitats that could serve as refugia for species in a changing climate, maintaining species corridors, and considering ways to strengthen the resiliency of ecosystems. In recognition of resource complexity, and the gaps in our knowledge, the committee stated, “…NPS managers and decision-makers will need to embrace more fully the precautionary principle as an operating guide.” The report recommended that the NPS, “…to the maximum extent possible, maintain or increase current restrictions on impairment of park resources.”

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The bottom line: Do no more harm to resources in parks.

The committee also called for a significant expansion of science and resource management capacity in the NPS, suggested increasing collaboration within and outside of the agency, and stated that NPS professionals, and especially superintendents, should be required to possess and maintain significant scientific literacy.

While all of these suggestions are worthy, the report leaves it up to others—NPS employees at the national, regional, or park levels—to figure out the details of implementation on their own. Once again, there is little or nothing innovative or progressive in the report.

An Opportunity Missed?

As far as I can tell, the upcoming Centennial is being used primarily as an opportunity to develop more political, public, and financial support for parks, and to grow the economy by adding jobs and increasing recreational and tourism opportunities.

It is true that the Park Service has never been adequately funded, and the Centennial may be a good time for a big infusion of cash. However, in our current economic situation, it may be even more important for the agency to get its priorities in order, to determine the best use of the money that is available to ensure long-term protection of parklands, and their suite of natural and cultural resources.

The conclusion to Revisiting Leopold ends with “an exhortation to the NPS to act immediately, boldly, and decisively,” and states, “The 2016 Centennial of the National Park Service offers an extraordinary opportunity for action and provides a critical benchmark for progress in meeting this enduring responsibility.”

My question is: When is the NPS going to truly take advantage of this opportunity?

When will the agency that has been charged with one of the most important missions in the world—caring for some of the most beautiful and sacred places on Earth—find the courage to shift its focus away from economics, and the destructive consequence of this emphasis: the need to pursue ever-increasing visitation?

My suggestions to the NPS as it moves into its second century are: add more land to the system and keep it wild; simplify operations (e.g., remove extraneous infrastructure and don’t build anything new); restore a balance between visitor enjoyment and resource protection; provide for visitor needs, not wants; focus the visitor experience on park resources; figure out how to resist political/economic pressure; and spend the bulk of your energy, time, and money on protecting and restoring park resources…unimpaired.

All across the planet, people are counting on you to continue your tradition as great stewards of America’s national park lands. You can do this, we know you can. We have great faith in you.

Barbara J. Moritsch worked for the National Park Service as an ecologist and interpretive naturalist in five Western parks. She holds Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in natural resources and environmental science and is the author of The Soul of Yosemite: Finding, Defending, and Saving the Valley's Sacred Wild Nature.

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We're In agreement with willj.'s narrative above. Our view:

Among the serious threats in national park operations rarely discussed

openly operates within the NPS through loyal cronyisms leading to

"fraudulent glowing" job performance reports (not seriously merit

based by any external peers).

Frequently, the NPS High Command rewards incompetence with

the classic "Peter Principle Solution" as we have witnessed at

Crater Lake NP in that both Natural Resources and Interpretation

Divisions have been homesteaded by very difficult personalities,

one claiming to be a scientist without credentials and bureaucratic

to the point of blocking scientific inquiry/debate into natural resource

questions. The latter personality rewarded for being AWOL and

apathetic toward many friends with a sincere interest in communicating

the value of park resources to the visiting publics. So, why does the

NPS Embrace such gross incompetence, lacking Leadership skills ?

Obviously, these complex personnel issues will not change for the 2016

Second Centennial PR.

Coming really serious Fed Budget cuts will generally harm the

younger, lower-graded personnel with a potential to change the

system. One special NPS Superintendent was quoted saying: that "our

best people are my seasonals passionate about the park's values."

Often, NPS Management is transferred to new park vacancies based

on their perceived need to maximize the last three years pay grade

compensation for the best pension benefits. Redwood NP has been

a very difficult park with complex natural resources issues; yet, we

have witnessed repeated new management selected without sincere

RNP interest transferred for relatively short periods: So, It's been

primarily EGO-driven, for the best Federal Pension benefits, sadly.

Lee, I've seen ideologues which can't see anything but their own deals, clueless to what these places can mean to individuals. Seen some great NPS individuals also but there has been a general direction that eliminates extremely meaningful human interaction and not in ways that damage the resource. Overreach, in my opinion. A bit insular in some cases. I have seen great efforts to bridge the divisions on serious issues at Grand Canyon with the settling in of Dave Uberuaga as Superintendent at Grand Canyon NP. A breath of fresh air to everyone.

But if the resource is not preserved, what will there be to enjoy in the future? That's the challenge that has dogged our parks ever since their earliest days.

"I disagree that resource preservation should be formally placed above visitor services, not because I don't think it is important, but because in practice it already is, and I think the balance needs to move back toward the visitors a little bit."

Glad to see someone else express this concern. The public is a bit to far down the food chain for my likes. Always wonderful to see young and old alike transformed to a better place after getting intimate with these wild places. Good for Americas soul when it's needed perhaps the most in history.

Hear, hear, willj for NPS Director!

I agree that NPS priorities are warped, and seem focused on political and financial gain for the agency and its highest managers, at the expense of the parks themselves. I disagree that resource preservation should be formally placed above visitor services, not because I don't think it is important, but because in practice it already is, and I think the balance needs to move back toward the visitors a little bit.

Where I have worked, nobody in authority speaks for the public. Visitor services and public safety have almost collapsed. The ranger division is a shell, and roads, trails, and campgrounds are falling apart. The one division that is thriving is resource management. They dominate the planning process by sheer numbers, and tend to have tunnel vision. Since they see no value in visitor services, even the most temporary, insignificant “impact” of a project is too much.

The idea that the NPS should expand its scientific capacity sounds good, but if it means expanding what it currently has, I don't think it is really a good idea. Currently there is a great deal of research being conducted by park staff, sometimes for the graduate work of permanent RM employees, with large crews of seasonal employees doing the field work. I think research is better left to the universities. They are better at it, and have a large supply of cheap, qualified labor. NPS resource management should focus on environmental protection and compliance, and project work like invasive species removal. Hire competent generalists for planning and compliance positions, and maintain relationships with universities. Make small grants and logistical assistance available for graduate students willing to do specific research the park needs.

The NPS is an agency funded by the public, and it gets its legitimacy from serving the public. There is certainly infrastructure that could be removed or abandoned, but biologists should not be deciding what the public needs. Their instincts could run toward making the parks into research reserves where the public is not really welcome. There has to be give and take. Roads, trails, and campgrounds are expensive, but they allow the public to enjoy the parks, and without them, public support for parks and the NPS would rightly fall.

Mundsy is correct about the biggest problem facing the NPS. The agency seems to be run by, and for the personal and professional aggrandizement of, an incompetent and corrupt itinerant manager class. They come to a park for a few years, change everything around so they can document their “leadership,” then move on after 3-5 years, at taxpayer expense, taking an entirely undeserved promotion and leaving a shambles in their wake. In some ways the NPS is divided between local staff who are focused on a particular park, and transient staff focused on the NPS as a whole. In general, the parks function because of the locals and in spite of the transient managers.

If there is any accountability for management, I haven't seen it in 20 years in the NPS. Nobody has ever come to me, or any other field employee that I know of, and asked what I think of management's job performance. I have seen managers utterly destroy the program they are supposed to be running, and just continue to move up as if nothing had happened. The NPS has a super accelerated Peter Principle thing going, where people move far and fast above their level of incompetence, based entirely on connections, sucking up, and not rocking the boat. The rot seems to be working its way down, as incompetent yes men hire incompetent yes men, to the point where we even have them in the field now.

There needs to be a serious accounting in this agency. It needs to be done by an outside organization that doesn't have connections to NPS insiders, and that has some kind of dispensation from OPM for expedited firing of permanent employees. After cleaning out the Washington and regional offices, they need to go park to park, talk to everyone, and decide who stays and who goes. A lot of expertise could be lost, but if it was done well, it would mostly be the dead weight. It would be traumatic, but the NPS would come back much stronger.

After that, there needs to be continuing oversight to ensure that this doesn't happen again. Competent, ethical, dedicated managers need to be hired, and encouraged to stay in their jobs. Hiring needs to be reformed so good people can move up. The NPS needs to stop paying employees to move, unless a position really can't be filled locally. Park operations need to be audited regularly, on the ground. The patronage networks must be prevented from forming again. Upper managers need to be told to stay away from Congress. End the Bevinetto Fellow program, and when someone's career track doesn't appear to reflect their abilities, investigate. This kind of oversight would be a drag on an organization with good managers, but it is absolutely necessary with the current crop. Maybe someday we will get to the point where we have a self sustaining, well functioning agency, but we are nowhere near that today.

It's too bad that this very interesting article got wrapped up with general budget debates. With about 0.1% of federal spending, the NPS is irrelevant to the budget debate.

Of course, Barbara's arguments for less development in the parks would (mostly) save money and make a teeny-tiny contribution to better federal budgeting. It would (mostly) preserve the natural resources better, too.

Thanks to the people above who talked about reforming staff, rewards, and reporting lines (Interior). That's an important conversation here.

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