You are here

Setting Precedents in the Parks


A dozen tents with alcohol were set up at the Charlestown Navy Yard to cater to a special event held there earlier this summer.

There's a passage in Director's Order 53, one of the many documents that guide National Park Service management decisions, that warns of proverbial icebergs ready to assail superintendents who truly believe their mission is to "conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

The section really can't be missed, as it's right up front in the introduction to Director's Order 53, which governs special uses in the parks. Here's how it reads:

The approval or denial of requests to engage in special park uses is an important and continuing responsibility of superintendents. Superintendents should be aware that local decisions relating to permitting special park uses may have Service-wide implications, and set precedents that create difficulties for other superintendents. In such instances, the superintendent should consult with the regional or Service-wide specialist.

The key word in that paragraph, of course, is "precedents." If something is approved in one park, that approval very well could be used in a bid to open up another park to a similar use. And with the new breed of superintendents who are looking for ways to generate revenues to offset budget shortfalls, hosting special events just might be the key.

While there no doubt will be some special events that dovetail perfectly with a specific park's mission and history, there are others that seem highly questionable.

Already this summer there have been two special events that some have called into question: The Toyota Scion party at Alcatraz in Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and the McKesson bash at the Charlestown Navy Yard of the Boston National Historical Park. What some have found objectionable is that neither event meshed, culturally or historically, with their respective settings. Rather, the decisions to OK both events seem to be based simply on drawing crowds to the park units for after-hours affairs.

Will we see private parties on the boardwalk that wraps Old Faithful? I'm told not. But who knows? Whether the Alcatraz and Charlestown Navy Yard affairs were the only special-use events that have been at odds with their settings is not easy to ascertain, as the Park Service's Washington headquarters does not track special uses.

Indeed, in the case of the Alcatraz and Charlestown affairs, the Park Service's point person for special uses had no advance knowledge of the parties.

Were the Alcatraz and Charlestown parties big deals? Considered in a vacuum, probably not. But if they set precedents that will open other units of the national park system to similarly questionable uses, these bashes were very big deals.

Another concern is that while NPS Director Mary Bomar promised Congress that she would see that transparency is key in how her agency conducts business, that message does not seem to be trickling down to all units of the Park Service. While the folks at Golden Gate were more than willing to discuss how they handled the Toyota party, those at Boston National Historical Park largely have turned a deaf ear to questions about how they manage special uses in general and, more specifically, why they approved the McKesson party.

So far they refuse to discuss:

* The parameters of the contract with Amelia Occasions, a wedding and special events planner, and what it requires from Amelia in terms of payment for the use of the Navy Yard's Commandant's House or whether Amelia is responsible for maintenance of the house;

* How many special events they allow each year;

* How much revenue, if any, these events generate, and;

* Why the McKesson party, which required a dozen tents to dispense alcohol to roughly 3,500 invitees, was permitted when Director's Order 53 clearly states that special uses that are contrary to the purposes for which a park was established or which unreasonably impair the atmosphere of peace and tranquility maintained in wilderness, natural, historic, or commemorative locations within the park should not be allowed.

They have said, though, that the best way to preserve a historic building is to use it.

"And that is what we are doing and will continue to do in the Charlestown Navy Yard. If we used the wrong instrument or authority to permit the special event that was held in the Navy Yard on July 10, it was unintentional and we will fix it," BNHP spokesman Sean Hennessey told me in an email. "But we will continue to hold special events that expose new audiences to the stories and resources associated with the birth and growth of America, and we will continue to collaborate with arts and cultural organizations to interpret our resources in new and exciting ways."

While efforts to lure new audiences are laudable, there are some within the Park Service who question how these efforts are being carried out.

"My feeling is that this is out of control. I think the message from (Director) Bomar and others is see if you can make money," one ranger told me. "I think you can do these events without desecrating or bastardizing the resource or the image. But we're not."

Featured Article


"Pvt enterprise seems only to be good at making huge salaries for the CEO's. There certainly isn't much evidence that they are in it for the public good." This type of thinking is the real problem. The idea that self-interested action is a bad thing is drilled into the skulls of children everyday in the government run schools. The fact that the government achieves its results through coercion is not something that gets much air time or critical thought by the powers that be for a good reason. It is the underpinning of their ill gotten power.

Is Mr. Allen saying that he doesn't get anything "good" out of his automobile, digital camera, washing machine, home computer or the clean underwear he's now wearing? When he uses these things does he only visualize the greedy CEO who is making a profit from his voluntary purchase of these products? Does he really think that private enterprise does the not benefit the public good?

The government, on the other hand, acheives all of its results through coercion. If I don't like bloody tyrannical war, the lazy bums at the post office, the billions ladled out to sugar and tobacco farmers or the idea of a Eugene O'Neill national park well too bad. Pay up or go to jail. That is the government paradigm. There is nothing volutary or free will about what they do.

The beauty of free enterprise is that I DON'T have to buy a Toyota, shop at Wal-Mart, use an Apple computer or answer the door when the Avon lady comes knocking. IT IS ALL VOLUNTARY! I can pick and choose as my wants and desires dictate. I can use my principles and morality when I decide what to purchase in the free market. With the IRS I have one choice, "pay me now slave or suffer the consequences." That's a wide gap in legitimacy Mr. Allen.

"The honest among us realize that the resort to coercion is a tacit confession of imbecility. If he who employs force against me could mold me to his purposes by argument, no doubt he would."

-------Carl Watner

You're right; between the 1950s and 1990s the ratio of citizens who said government wastes "a lot" of their tax money rose from under 50% to 75%; Washington's "golden age", stretching from the New Deal to the lunar landing, is over. Citizens began asking the government to do a million things through a million programs which were defended by countless constituencies, all when Washington's ability to adapt had been diminished by so many interest groups. Government now lacks the adaptability to solve problems, and its citizens (most of whom belong to interest groups and benefit greatly from a transfer economy) are pissed off.

Parks can still be owned by the public (public trusts), but managed by either state, local, or non-government organization (none of which are exactly the same as "private enterprise").

But to answer your question:

1. First, 391 is too high a number. Look at the parks in the San Francisco Bay Area. Who the heck was Eugene O'Neill, and why is there a park for him? Oh, guess he was a play write of some sort, although I've never heard of him, nor had my lit degree holding fiance (national significance?). And Port Chicago Naval Magazine? And the 500-acre Muir Woods? Surely, these could be managed by California State Parks or a trust. Congressional representatives pushed for most of these to please their constituencies to get re-elected.

But, no, you don't need a huge bureaucracy, just a legal charter (I'm not sure the legal charter even needs be the same for each national park--think how varied state constitutions are) and some type of oversight (preferably locally--maybe non-governmental "watchdog" groups). And why should all parks abide by the same policies? No boats on Crater Lake doesn't mean no boats on any bodies of water in national parks. And no dogs on trails in natural parks should not automatically mean no dogs in Washington DC parks. For an example, read the news story, "Wake up, National Park Service!" ( ) which states in part:

Most of the parks where people take their mutts, particularly on Capitol Hill, are federal property. And the National Park Service has a broad "no dog parks" policy — highly sensible for preserving the integrity of a national treasure like Yellowstone. But how much majesty is at stake when we're talking about little old Stanton Park?

"They [the NPS] need to be more responsive to the constituents of the urban area in which they’re located," an advisory neighborhood commissioner said.

The NPS and the Feds are too calcified in red tape to be responsive. Decentrilization provides the flexibility to adapt to local conditions and needs.

So, I think IF there were to be a "cohesive system", it should be very basic, something along the lines of the Organic Act--updated for the 21st century--but without establishing a national, political bureaucracy.

2. After the passage of the Air Cargo Deregulation Act of 1977 and the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, airfares fell by more than 20%, the number of passengers doubled, and air accident rates fell by almost half (with more non-stop service). The railroad deregulation of 1980 saved shippers $5 billion a year, with lower accident rates. Charter and private schools typically outperform public schools, and they typically do it with less money. Again, the authors of "Reinventing Government" cite studies that claim on average "public service delivery is 35 to 95 percent more expensive than contracting, even when the cost of administering the contracts is included."

I'm reminded of the Schonchin Butte rehabilitation where maintenance workers worked for an hour, then declared break time, which lasted 30 or more minutes and consisted of smoking, coffee drinking, swearing, and repeating the phrase "good enough for government work!" When you consider the NPS maintenance backlog, how much of that figure is inflated due to inefficiency? What if contractors were allowed to bid on the work? How much could parks save by introducing competition?

Food for thought. I don't have all the answers. Just some ideas.

Continuing the thread...

The discontent in this country is humongous. Never before in my 75 years have I witnessed anger, disgust, and disdain for just about everything. What Frank and Beamis are suggesting is on the minds of many of the taxpayers: "the answer is Private Enterprise". Judging from the talking heads in the media and their many polls, the public is disenchanted with the President (me too), the legislature, the justice system, health care, education system, national security...... hell, you name it and the US citizens hate it. Not without cause, that's for sure.

Two questions:

1. If NGO's ran 391 parks, wouldn't they have to have a bureaucracy to insure all park areas abide by the same policies and keep the individual parks within a cohesive system?

2. What evidence shows that privatizing any part of government operations makes it better. Pvt enterprise seems only to be good at making huge salaries for the CEO's. There certainly isn't much evidence that they are in it for the public good.

Of course, this is just my opinion, and I could be wrong, as Dennis Miller likes to say!

Frank you're becoming quite the spokesperson for libertarian thought and the local control of natural areas. If Ron Paul is elected President I will suggest that he make you the new NPS Director with the specific task of de-commissioning the parks from federal to local administration. There are many fine foundations and trusts out there that could begin the task of park administration immediately and I know that many more would spring up to lovingly care for many more areas.

Having had a ten-year career in the NPS I agree that the problems are deeply rooted and systemic and definitely transcend the mere presence of a so-called "friendly" administration in the White House or a particular majority in Congress. I saw the same blatant incompetence and self-advancing careerism during both Democrat and Republican administrations. The parks were always trotted out at election time to be touted or clucked over, depending on the crowd or contributor base, and then kicked around the political football field with wild abandon. After all was said and done the same lame brains were still in charge at park HQ after Inauguration Day regardless of who marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to polish a chair with his butt in the Oval Office.

As for Art's question: "Where would the managers, maintenance specialists, cultural and resource managers, architects, landscape architects, planners, Law Enforcement, Interpreters, administrators that are working in the parks come from?" I would answer from the private sector. There are many talented people out there in this big wide world of ours that can do all of the things mentioned above and probably, in most cases, much more efficiently than is being done at present. With no federal work rules personnel can be hired and fired as managers see fit.

At the present time in our history government monopolies are fast losing favor with the public due to poor service, rising fees and a perception of arrogance due to a lack of market accountability. I don't think the majority of Americans would be sad to see the current park system replaced with something new and better. As much as the NPS brass would disagree most visitors come to see the wonders of the Grand Canyon or Yosemite and not the people dressed in WW I era uniforms skinning them for $25 to experience outdated and run down infrastructure. The old days of Soviet style park management is quickly drawing to a close and a new era of free market local will soon be dawning. Mark my words. The current regime is BROKE! They will have no choice.


I just re-read an article by John A. Baden, Ph.D. who wrote "National Parks' Future Lies in Trusts".
You can read the full article here:

Baden argues that "A public treasure does not inherently require governmental management" and gives specific details on how we can eliminate government (mis)management.

Endowment boards, like those running museums, hospitals, and private schools, would operate under a legal charter to steward individual parks. After receiving a one-time Congressional endowment, each park’s individual trust would be "on its own." The board, established by local environmental groups, business leaders, and citizens, would promote ecologically sensitive economic activities as part of their trustee responsibility.

Creative mechanisms such as a "Friends of Old Faithful" program could entice membership, dues, and democratic feedback from park lovers everywhere. Park trusts would free our parks from their precarious dependency on national politics, encourage long-term planning, and reintroduce accountability in management.

Perhaps Hoffman’s [DOI deputy assistant secretary] recent assault is an aberration we can ignore. More likely, the dangers to our parks will become more obvious as the threat of commercialization looms larger. Should this occur, those who care most deeply will look for alternatives to political management. Think trusts.

First, I wouldn't compare apples and oranges.

Secondly, cooperative associations are NGOs, and they have a good track record in national parks.

I think every park should be managed locally, not by the Soviet-style bureaucracy that the NPS has become. I think local NGOs, currently formed or yet to be created, could do a better job of managing local resources and responding quickly to changing needs than the bureaucrats thousands of miles away in the petrified government who have never even been to places like Crater Lake. Speaking of Crater Lake, I think the non-profit Crater Lake Institute could do a far better job than the current sinecurists entrenched in the park.

Labor would come where labor comes from: the free market. Without federal red tape, local parks will be able to hire fairly according to the need of the individual park.

When the adminstration (sic) changes over and new politically appointed leadership makes its way to the NPS, USFS, BLM, etc. is when things (hopefully) may change.

Wishful thinking, Matt. The problem is systematic and not party-specific. Politicians, of any leaning, are beholden to the transfer-seeking parasitic economy. No reform will occur as long as every federal program is an entitlement, or at least behaves like it is. By removing parks management from the federal government, we can prevent or reduce interest groups' influence. By decentralizing park management, it becomes much more difficult and expensive for interest groups to operate (imagine the difficulty lobbies would face if they tried to get subsidies in each of the 50 states rather than from just DC).


Consider physicist Freeman Dyson, who urged us to:

"never sacrifice economies of speed to achieve economies of scale. . . . Judging by the experience of the last 50 years, it seems that major changes come roughly once in a decade. In this situation it makes an enormous difference whether we are able to react to change in three years or twelve. An industry which is able to react in three years will find the game stimulating and enjoyable, and the people who do the work will experience the pleasant sensation of being able to cope. An industry which takes twelve years to react will be perpetually too late, and the people running the industry will experience sensations of paralysis and demoralization (emphasis added).

That last line seem familiar? It describes the latest survey on NPS job satisfaction, which if I remember correctly, was below that of prison workers.

Finally, for those who take offense at the suggestion breaking up the NPS monopoly on park management, I quote David Osborne and Ted Gaebler, authors of "Reinventing Government":

"It is one of the enduring paradoxes of American ideology that we attack private monopolies so fervently but embrace public monopolies so warmly."

The NPS (like all other federal agencies and bureaus) takes its marching orders from the top. The precedent is being set by the administration, not the NPS. They are simply doing as they are told - the same thing everyone else here would do if they were in that position. When the adminstration changes over and new politically appointed leadership makes its way to the NPS, USFS, BLM, etc. is when things (hopefully) may change.

The NPS has it a lot better than the USFS, though - at least the Park Service doesn't have to answer to Mark Rey!

I have read several references to Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO's) with the idea that somehow they could do better than the National Park Service. Do you compare their possible success with the abundance of NGO's operating in Iraq?

OK, let's get specific.... Who are these NGO's that could move into the parks and do it better? Do you have an organization/ company in mind? Where would the managers, maintenance specialists, cultural and resource managers, architects, landscape architects, planners, Law Enforcement, Interpreters, administrators that are working in the parks come from?

IMHO, the problems we all bemoan usually derive from folks without adequate background in the natural sciences or history or training in resources management. The NPS has been recruiting people from career fields far removed from park operations, and this lack of understanding is beginning to show up.

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide

Recent Forum Comments