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Setting Precedents in the Parks

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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."

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