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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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This is an excellent article that has put into words many of the vague worries that have nibbled on me for several years. It contains a number of ideas that, I believe, deserve some very careful consideration by everyone who treasures our parks and historic places.

The author mentions a possibility that I've heard of before, but have never really considered. One that might need to part of any careful consideration of the future of our parks -- and that is the idea of turning our parks over to some kind of trust like the Smithsonian. The trick, however, will be ensuring that the trust is indeed trustworthy. Perhaps, though, if enough people care and are willing to work on the idea, it could be possible.

I've long believed that the three greatest threats to our parks are MONEY, POLITICS (and politicians), and GREED that follows money. (Or are those really just a single threat?) A fourth one, however, may be even more insidious than those, and that would be an American public that doesn't really care.

Two of Ms. Moritch's final paragraphs seem, in my opinion, to sum up almost all the challenges faced by our parks: "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."

Thank you, Barbara, for giving us all some serious fruits for thought.

Lee, to your idea of turning our parks over to a trust, you might check out today's Parks Beyond Borders story on the Bahamas' National Parks. According to the story, the Bahamas National Trust is "the only non-governmental organization in the world responsible for managing the national park system of a country."

Thanks for the tip, Randy. I had skipped over that article this morning. I'll have to go back and be sure to read it. Without your note, I might not have done so.

This is one of the best articles ever published in The Traveler, and I do mean one of the best. Above all, Ms. Moritsch reminds us what the National Park Service should never be, in Horace M. Albright's words, "just another bureaucracy." Sadly, so much of this so-called centennial planning is merely the work of bureaucrats. The agency is chock-full of good people who want to do the right thing, and they are rarely invited to attend any of it. Mr. Jarvis, are you listening? I recommend Barbara Moritsch for your next committee appointment, whatever that committee might be. This is what the American people need to hear from your committees instead of the repetitive mishmash Ms. Moritsch cites here. Years ago, I recall the brave superintendent of Steamtown National Historic Site who made over his abandoned railroad tunnel into a Halloween graveyard. All of the graves were the Park Service's broken promises, and there was a newly opened grave for the Vail Agenda. The headstone, already cut, was simply propped up against the dirt. Not one of the Park Service dignitaries present could pass that headstone without laughing out loud. They got it. We all get it. These "reports" are just to prove that some bureaucrat is "busy." Broken promises come from bureaucracies. Vision comes from the heart. Barbara Moritsch has a heart as big as any I have ever known. She loves you and from that love has the courage to say what needs be said. Let her do a report for you, Mr. Jarvis. No one will ever be digging a grave for that.

I to enjoyed the Barbara Moritsch article on Traveler. Barbara makes an important point, we do need to consider carefully new development in our National Parks, not just respond to the increasing visitation pressure with even more facilities. A good example is Yosemite National Park where the NPS has been wrestling with Wild and Scenic River Plans for the Merced and Tuolumne Rivers since 1987. The current draft preferred alternative for the Merced River corridor is a case in point. Like all efforts, there are proposals that some like and others that people are opposed to. For example, the plan is calling for restoration of roughly 250 campsites in Yosemite Valley to replace the more than 500 removed post 1997 flood. The plan is not calling for much in the way of new motel/hotel development, but does single out some visitor uses by proposing to eliminate the bike stands, raft rentals, ice rink and horse stables. Weather I support all these uses or not, it is interesting to note these activities would be eliminated commercially when they do get visitors out of their cars and into an outdoor experience. Private, bikes, rafts, etc, would still be permitted. Perhaps the most confrontational issue is the effort to reduce the day use automobile congestion on both park roads and Yosemite Valley. Excessive congestion occurs on roughly 70 days of the peak 100 day visitor use season where roughly 7000 plus cars in the Valley are competing for roughly 5000 parking places at any one time. Currently, this is managed by an 18 person traffic unit that first tries to squeeze in every last car possible into a parking place and then transfers to intersection control officers whose primary purpose is to just keep the traffic moving. As Barbara so eloquently points out, the preferred alternative is leaning toward accommodating these ever increasing day use autos by building more parking lots with all the utilities, restrooms, etc. needed to service same. Its an interesting situation for the park and does beg the question Barbara poses. If we cannot determine a visitor use level for a finite resource, then the only alternative is to build the infrastructure necessary to handle it (or trash the place). I am wary of the suggestion that our parks be turned over to a non-profit or private sector/public sector partnership. My humble experience to date has been that these programs and the boards appointed to oversee them are adopting, more and more, the corporate board model so prevalent in America today. These entities are top down organizations that tolerate little in the way of grass roots participation in their decision making process or citizen input of any kind. At least, with our congressional representatives, we can have serious input into our agency operations. Even better are the grassroots citizen groups who can influence change if motivated to do so. Thank you Traveler for a very thought provoking and well researched article. My opinions are expressed with much humility as I am certainly no expert on any of this.

Ron, your thoughtful essay above was excellent. You're certainly more of an expert than many of us and you've shown your good sense every time you've posted here.

(Just one critcism, though. Could you break your posts into paragraphs so old eyes like mine can read them more easily?)

Thanks again, and I hope other readers appreciate your words as much as I do.

rmackie - I have to take issue with your characterization of the corporate board model. Unlike government entities such as the NPS - corporate boards are the most sensitive to citizen (customer) inputs. If they aren't, they will be out of business. Unfortunately, ineffective government never goes out of business.

I'm with Moritsch - like the rest of government, the NPS need to downsize. Building more parking in Yosemite isn't going to reduce parking congestion, only increase the number of cars. Roads, parking lots, park facilities are like closets, no matter how big you make them, they will fill up.

No, the "rest of the government" doe snot need to downsize. Discretionary, non-Defense spending is only 13% of the federal budget. Or, in 2013 terms, about $4.35 per American per day. For that $4.35 you get the Department of the Interior and all it does, including the national parks. You also pay for the Departments of Agriculture, Justice, Commerce, Transportation and so on. You get NASA, EPA, Federal Highways. Basically, every government service except the military, social security, Medicare and Medicaid. I submit that we do not need to downsize discretionary federal spending - it's a bargain now.

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