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NPS Priorities: Be Watchful of The Administration's Games


    Say something often enough, and not only will you begin to believe it, but your audience likely will as well. That seems to be the Bush administration's goal in tearing apart the National Park Service's Management Policies.
    While the Interior Department's Paul Hoffman has shouldered the brunt of the outrage over his proposed revisions to the NPS's Management Policies, there's a long, well-established trail of bread crumbs that indicates that Gale Norton's Interior Department has been working for years to alter reality over the true intent of the National Park Service Organic Act of 1916.

    Where's the Trailhead to This Charade?

    What's interesting about this charade is that it seems to have worked so well with Fran Mainella, the director of the National Park Service. Back on April 25, 2002, Mainella was summoned for an appearance before the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Recreation and Public Lands.
    The topic? The 2001 National Park Service Management Policies.
    The hearing was chaired by Representative George Radanovich, a Republican who hails from Mariposa, California, a relatively small community on the front door to Yosemite National Park. And right from the start Radanovich made his sentiments clear: to him, the Clinton administration's 2001 rewrite of the 1988 Management Policies placed a higher emphasis on preservation of national park lands than on enjoyment of those lands.
    "That is a very significant change from the direction given by Congress and from the policy direction relied upon by the (National) Park personnel for decades," said Radanovich.

    Ummm, No it Wasn't Congressman

    Obviously, the congressman, who fortunately no longer heads the subcommittee, needs to bone up on his park service legislative history. For starters, the National Park Service Organic Act of 1916 said the park service's foremost task was resource conservation. And through the years, the federal courts have upheld that mandate.
     Congress has, as well. In fact, in 1978 Congress passed what has come to be known as the Redwood amendment. This legislation, tacked onto the NPS General Authorities Act of 1970, essentially underlined in bold the section of the Organic Act that placed conservation as the park service's No. 1 concern:
    "The authorization of activities shall be construed and the protection, management and administration of these areas shall be conducted in light of the high public value and integrity of the National Park System and shall not be exercised in derogation of the values and purposes for which these various areas have been established, except as may have been or shall be directly and specifically provided by Congress."
If that's not clear enough, the 2001 version of the Management Policies summed up the Redwood amendment:
    "This single interpretation is necessary to allow as little ambiguity as possible; to ensure consistency in decision making; and to show the courts that decisions made by the Park Service are logical and reasonable, and thoroughly thought through in accordance with the Organic Act. Section 1.4 of the NPS Management Policies states that the no-impairment term of the Organic Act and the no-derogation term of the Redwood amendment define a single standard for management of the national park system, and the terms can be used interchangeably."
    That seemed pretty much to be Fran Mainella's thinking when she appeared before Radanovich's committee. In discussing impairment of park resources with Radanovich, she told him very directly that "the 1916 Organic Act, as I read it, it always has been existing that the enjoyment (of parks) was always under the contingency of the fact that it had to be that the resources were still always protected, or go unimpaired."
    A bit later Mainella added that, "you are always doing a balancing act, but your erring always has to be on the side of the resource."

    Fran, You're Off-Message!

    That hearing very possibly marked the beginning of the Interior Department's word games, for Mainella's testimony certainly wasn't what Radanovich wanted to hear. Here, thanks to the watchdog status the Coalition of Concerned National Park Retirees has unrelentingly maintained, are some of the "bread crumbs" that I alluded to earlier:
        * On September 24, 2003, Director Mainella, by now obviously have been taken to the woodshed over her previous testimony to Radanovich's committee, wrote a letter to Radanovich in which she stated that, "We do not believe that Congress has ever placed resource protection on a 'higher plane' than public enjoyment." Furthermore, in response to a question from the congressman over the legal basis that interprets the Organic Act to place conservation of resources over enjoyment of those resources, Mainella wrote: "We believe this statement is an inaccurate interpretation of the law."
    In that same letter Mainella added that, "We believe that there may be some areas of the 2001 Management Policies that may be inconsistent with the president and secretary's position regarding access by Americans to enjoy their national parks. We are in the process of reviewing and updating the Management Policies to eliminate these inconsistencies."
       * On January 12, 2004, Lynn Scarlett, assistant secretary of the Interior, told Grist Magazine that "you have a national park statute that requires that parks are managed to both protect the resources of the park and, on an equal plane with that, provide recreational opportunities and visitor enjoyment of the parks." (She, obviously, also needs to bone up on the park service's legislative and judicial history.)
        * Most recently, in a letter she wrote this past September 30 to clear up a comment she made to the New York Times, Interior Secretary Norton pointed out that (at least in her interpretation), "the law governing the National Park System establishes two primary goals: to further the enjoyment of current visitors and to do so in a way that leaves resources unimpaired for future generations."
        So, clearly, Norton believes, or wants to believe, that public enjoyment of parks comes above leaving the landscape unimpaired for future generations.
    Let the Games Continue

    That background should provide sufficient understanding for the current games being played in the Interior Department and in some halls of Congress over how our national parks are to be managed. Any day now we should be hearing what transpired last week in Denver, where the "Career Park Professionals" met to iron out Hoffman's revisions to the Management Policies. Once the latest version comes to light, hopefully it will get a thorough review, and not just by Congress, but by the American people.
    And, as I pointed out in a previous post, it's not likely that Hoffman's revisions, if adopted, could withstand a court challenge, because they conflict so much with the Organic Act that numerous courts have upheld.
    That's where the next, and possibly most dangerous, part of the game could come in. There's been scuttlebutt that Rep. Richard Pombo, who has suggested we sell off some national parks to help make ends meet, will direct Representative Steve Pearce of New Mexico, his new chairman of the House Subcommittee on Parks, Recreation and Public Lands, to hold a hearing into the Organic Act itself.
    We can have enjoyment of the parks and conservation of resources. From where I sit, there's no need to rewrite the Organic Act, or even the Management Policies. They're good compasses to guide us into the future.
    Hopefully, in light of the game being played in Washington, cooler heads will prevail.

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