There is, I understand, so much going on behind the scenes in Washington that it would be foolish to judge what Mary's truly up to if you're not behind the scenes with her. I hope that's right, because what is seeping out to the public is awfully disconcerting.
A month ago I questioned how much of a grace period Mary should be given. Some suggested that she deserved more time to develop her plans, that some interesting things were coming together behind the scenes.
Hopefully today's news is an aberration, then, as in a story disseminated by The Associated Press the director of the Park Service talks of seeking more operating funds from private sectors and plans to build new visitor centers to mark the agency's centennial in 2016.
No mention of how she plans to attack the agency's massive backlog, no word about bolstering the Park Service's ranks of interpretive rangers, not a peep about approaching Congress for more adequate funding.
My initial belief that the AP rewrote a newpaper's story turns out to be misguided. Another version does indeed carry an AP staffer's byline. Which makes me wonder why the story is so short on details and direct comments from Mary?
In the story Mary is quoted as saying, "We're much more business savvy than we used to be."
Now what exactly does she mean? Is the NPS being run more like a business, or is it working more closely with businesses?
Late last year Mary disseminated a memo that said, in part, "The President was clear ... that he expects us as an agency to work closely with our many partners to leverage government investment with philanthropic and partnership contributions and to establish clear, measurable performance goals that will ensure that all the investments made in the parks are contributing to the long-term protection of the priceless resources entrusted to our care."
I suppose the need to leverage more private investment becomes more dire when federal investment is lagging. It was just about a year ago when President Bush proposed a $100 million cut in Park Service funding. It will be interesting to see what his next budget proposal calls for.
The lagging federal funding has forced the Park Service not only to cut its staff levels and programming but be more creative in how it funds its operations. Indeed, today's AP story notes that while a decade ago none of the Park Service's revenues came from sources other than the federal government, today about 12 percent comes from outside sources. And the agency is working to boost that total, according to the story. If in the next decade that 12 percent blooms to 25 percent, what can we expect in terms of how the national park system is managed?
The growing reliance on outside funding is alarming if you believe the national park system is owned by all Americans and that commercial interests should not be allowed to get their roots deep into the system. Corporate America should donate to the parks...without strings attached.
But what we've seen under the Bush administration is a weaning of federal dollars for the Park Service and a greater reliance on private funds. A glaring example of that is the agency's intent to turn over three dozen buildings at Fort Hancock in the Gateway National Recreation Area because it can't afford the upkeep.
While Mary has yet to directly comment on the Fort Hancock deal, what stories have seeped out indicate that she's more than willing to turn to private funding to run her agency. What needs to be clarified is to what extent she'll go to obtain that funding. What will she trade off in return for a donation?
Out in California, it seems as if Mary has traded off 60 years and historic Fort Baker. an outpost that's part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, in return for $95 million. While the Park Service gets the money, a private developer gets to turn the fort into a high-end destination. With nightly room rates expected to range between $315 and $320, it's not hard to see which class of Americans this corner of the national park system is being turned over to. You can read more details about this trade-off at Scott Silver's Wild Wilderness blog.
Now, as to her thoughts on the Centennial Challenge, lack of clarity again is troubling. In the AP story she talks of building "signature projects" such as new visitor centers at Pearl Harbor and at Ellis Island. Hopefully after months of meetings there's more meat to the agency's plans.
My apprehensions in the wake of today's AP story are shared by Rick Smith, a 30-year NPS veteran whose career included stints in Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Everglades, Carlsbad Caverns, Guadalupe Mountains, the Service’s Washington, DC headquarters, and two of its regional offices, Philadelphia and Santa Fe. His last assignment with the NPS was as the associate regional director for Natural and Cultural Resources in the NPS’s Southwest Regional Office in Santa Fe.
"I must confess that I am disappointed in this article if it really represents what Mary thinks," he told me after I pointed the article out to him. "In my mind, the most important signature 'project' for the centennial would be a decade-long attempt to reinvigorate and re-energize the NPS. This is something really worthwhile and would contribute more to keeping the system well-protected than any other single thing I can think of.
"Sure, we need a new VC at the USS Arizona. The current one is sinking. And, yes, we need to revitalize Ellis Island. But, these kinds of things are all bricks and mortar."
Too, Rick pointed to the current state of low morale among Park Service employees and the agency's relationships with Congress.
"What we need to urgently repoint is park employee morale. What we need to retrofit is the service's relationships with the Congress. What we need to rehab is the interpretive program that connects people to the compelling stories that exist in the parks," he says. "What we need to repair is the NPS protection program so that there is sufficient staff to protect parks and their visitors. What we need to restore is the NPS dedication to resources protection and management. And, what we need to upgrade is our attention to park infrastructure.
"Playing around with Ford, Kodak and the Discovery Channel is working at the margins. No private corporation is going to provide the financial support needed for the urgent restoration work," he adds. "The service needs the Congress to get serious about funding the system."
Now, when Mary's confirmation hearings were held, she pledged to run the Park Service with transparency. Hopefully some of that transparency will be forthcoming soon. Let's learn about what Mary, Dirk and the National Parks Conservation Association have been talking about behind closed doors regarding the Centennial Challenge.
Let's see whether those plans for celebrating the Park Service's 100th birthday go beyond a new visitor center here and there. Let's see if the planning calls for directly addressing the agency's funding problems and rebuilding its core mission.