Recap of Seattle NPS Listening Session

Secretary Kempthorne Speaks in Seattle for National Park Service Listening SessionI had the chance to attend the Park Service Listening Session here in Seattle last night. By now you know that these sessions have been set up across the country to give the federal government a chance to listen to how we the citizens would like to see our national parks celebrate the 100th anniversary of their managing agency.

The turnout was quite good. I estimate that 300 people were there to participate in the meeting. Representing the government listeners were Secretary of Interior Kempthorne, and Jon Jarvis, the National Park Service Pacific-West Regional Director. Before the meeting began, Mr. Jarvis recognized the 7 park superintendents in the audience, all of whom were dressed quite sharply in their class-a uniforms. There was also recognition given to 5 congressional offices which were each represented by staffers.

The program began with a short 5 minute video covering the iconic nature of the National Parks, and their place in American culture. Wonderful photos of Yosemite, the Statue of Liberty, Yellowstone, Mount Rusmore, the Vietnam Memorial, and many more faded through each other while the orchestral arrangement of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition played over the top. Throw in a couple of quotes from Leopold ('Conservation is the state of harmony between man and nature') and Ghandi ('You must be the change you wish to see in the world'), and you've got a pretty inspiring video. I love stuff like that.

The meeting was not what I had expected it to be. I was told that the format of the meeting would begin with formal introductions, then everyone in attendance would be broken out into smaller workgroups, that there would not be the opportunity to 'step up to the mic'. But, that turned out to be incorrect. Apparently it was a very last minute change, perhaps requested by the Secretary himself, that it be open mic. I hadn't come with a prepared 2 minute remark, but I knew what I wanted to say, so I signed up for the opportunity to give my suggestions. I was number 39 on a list that eventually topped out at 50.

Secretary Kempthorne began with a short statement. Rather than sit at the table, he got up, grabbed the on-stage microphone and recited his piece without the help of notes. I suppose it's a statement he's had a chance to memorize over the last couple weeks while he's been touring the country with these sessions.

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Then began the long line of folks who did have suggestions for the Centennial Initiative. It was quite interesting to me to see who was wanting to speak. It was a very diverse group. There were two representatives from the northwest regional office for the National Parks and Conservation Association (have the money used to facilitate the removal of the Elwa Dam in Olympic), there was a woman representing a Backcountry Horesman's group (prevent the spread of exotics by regulating horse feed), a couple folks from an orienteering club (have parks close to big cities encourage GPS cross-country hiking), many folks from gateway cities (partner with us to help promote the parks), Washington State Parks, Olympic Park Institute, North Cascades Institute, park volunteers, and concerned citizens. I counted four separate speakers which quoted parts of the 1916 Organic Act in their comments. And, of course, if anybody had even the most remote connection to Idaho, they mentioned it to Kempthorne -- outside of Boise, you've never seen a room with so many University of Idaho graduates.

All of the speakers were polite, no one had an axe to grind, there was no furious finger pointing going on. One speaker had been among the Japanese Americans sent to an internment camp during World War II. This fellow expressed how surprised he was that in his lifetime he'd get to stand in front of the Secretary of Interior and tell him how to spend his money. Another fellow got the crowd laughing. After a few serious and excellent Centennial suggestions, he concluded that, if aliens were to come to earth, their demand should not be 'take me to your leader', but instead, 'take me to your parks!'

There was a women who suggested that having the Centennial funding rely too heavily on private funding would be akin to opening the doors to corporate takeover of public projects. Another much older woman came to the microphone and suggested that Kempthorne work with Bush to get the billions spent in Iraq transfered back home, and into the parks.

My two minutes at the microphone went very quickly. I figured the point of the meeting was to suggest ideas for spending Centennial dollars, not to question if they will actually materialize, not to question their source, not to question inconsistencies in statements, etc. So, I presented simple ideas. Ideas that I thought might actually stand a chance if money arrives.

#1) Celebrate the history of the National Park Service (the agency). There is a museum collection without a home, gathering dust in a park building out of site of the public. The collection covers the history of the NPS. My suggestion was to take that collection out of hiding, put it on trucks, and drive it around the country, to take the parks to the people. I was impressed with the Lewis & Clark Tent of Many Voices which traveled the country for the last few years, and thought this could be a similar project.

#2) Change the lights. Get rid of all the exterior lighting that causes light pollution and replace them with fully shielded lights. I've been impressed with the recent news out of Natural Bridges along these lines. The suggestion seems so simple to me, and the impact so dramatic. An initiative like this puts the Park Service in a position as a leader in both energy conservation and night-sky resource protection. If part of the Centennial Initiative is to get kids excited about parks, let them see the Milky Way. If that doesn't a least set a seed for the next generation of outdoor leaders, I don't know what will.

Kempthorne was quite gracious to all that had signed up to speak. When it was clear that there were more people ready to speak than there was time alloted in the meeting, he said he would stay and listen, that he was in no hurry. All politics aside, Kempthorne appeared sincere. He showed genuine interest in the speakers and to their ideas. He had a big notebook that he used quite often during the evening. At the conclusion of the open mic session, he wrapped up with closing remarks. As folks were nibbling on the remainder of free cookies and coffee, Kempthorne paused long enough to talk with a lot of the park service folks who were there. They all gathered for a big group photo before he left in a parade of unmarked official-looking black SUVs.

I enjoyed the evening. I will be quite interested to see how all of these comments are compiled and made into plans for the Centennial. Maybe we've been heard, maybe not, but at least we were given the chance to speak. I'm glad that the meeting was an open mic format. We've got about 300 witnesses to what was requested of the Secretary in Seattle. I hope some of our ideas materialize.



A truly excellent report. Your experience was quite similar to mine two weeks ago in Gatlinburg, TN. Thank you for promoting NPS leadership in promoting awareness of the night sky as a cross-cultural natural resource. I hope Secretary Kempthorne hears this theme over and over again. Thank you also for speaking out on the state of the museum of NPS history.
Owen, I read your write-up before composing mine. I was also struck by the many similarities. I had figured that they had dressed up the first session in Gatlinburg for positive press, but would resort to the easier to manage break-out sessions at every other event. I was glad they didn't.

For others that are curious, here is Owen's listening session experience:
I received in email a clarification to the comments made by the representative from the Mountaineers. It is so good, I'm adding it here as a post-script:

"We encourage full, federal funding of our national parks and applaud the plan to add 3,000 new park rangers. We are concerned, however, about any plan that would use private philanthropy to fund park operations. As an organization whose greatest resource is people, we believe in-kind volunteer hours should be counted as a match to federal dollars. We need to provide ways for all Americans to contribute to their national parks."