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Why Is The NPS Trying to Rewrite Its Management Policies?


    The national media have let go, at least temporarily, of the debate over how, and even whether, the National Park Service needs to revise its Management Policies, which were last updated in 2001 by the Clinton administration.
    But that doesn't mean the topic should be tossed aside and forgotten. As I noted the other day, NPS Director Fran Mainella has extended the public comment period for another 30 days, until mid-February. She also said she doesn't understand where folks get the idea that the revisions would allow for more cell towers, overflights, snowmobiles and even ATVs in the parks.
    Rick Smith, a member of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees with a long service record that included stops in field and regional offices, the national office in Washington, as well as two postings as park superintendent, shared the following thoughts with me on the policies' revisions:
    One of the most intriguing questions regarding the Department of the Interior's intent to rewrite the Management Policies of the National Park Service is, why are we doing this now?  When national parks across the board are facing severe budget issues, a situation likely to get far worse as our country struggles to pay the bills for the war in Iraq and rebuild the areas affected by Katrina, Rita and Wilma, it seems like a strange time to spend the time, energy and money to completely rewrite policies that were last revised in 2001, a scant 4 years ago. 
    Let's look at what the political leadership of the DOI and the NPS have said.

    First, in an interview you conducted with Assistant Secretary Manson, Manson claimed that a rewrite of the policies was necessary because new, innovative areas had been added to the system that the current policies did not cover. The truth of the matter is that only seven or eight new areas have been added since 2001 and none is so significantly different from existing areas as to require new policies.
    Subsequently, DOI and NPS officials claimed that the 2001 policies were too restrictive and favored conservation over public use and enjoyment.  They claimed that changes were necessary to promote public enjoyment as a major component of the policies.  This, of course, flies in the face of every public opinion poll ever conducted by the NPS or about the NPS that shows upward of 90% of visitors expressed satisfaction with their visits to national parks. 
    Next, they claimed that NPS managers needed better guidance for their actions and that areas of the policies needed clarification.  In my career in the NPS and in the careers of my colleagues who are still working for the NPS, I never heard anyone express frustration about lack of guidance. 
    I have heard many current employees complain about the failures of the current leadership of the NPS, but that has nothing to do with the policies. Moreover, if NPS managers were complaining about the Management Policies, why were so few involved in the rewrite?  Previous rewrites have involved literally hundreds of managers and technicians, and underwent full field reviews. The NPS claims that 100 professionals saw the current rewrite before it went out for public review.  Even if one has confidence in this number, and I don't, this still represents something like less than 1% of the employees of the NPS. 
    And why do it so quickly and in such haste that in congressional testimony, the NPS said that it may have "inadvertently" left a few sentences out? 
    As to clarification, the current rewrite is much less clear about any number of issues and contains so many "qualifiers" as to render many policy statements almost impossible to understand clearly.  It was embarrassing to watch Deputy Director Steve Martin, an employee with solid experience as an NPS employee, struggle to answer the questions posed to him by the members of U.S. Senator (Craig) Thomas's subcommittee on why the policies were being rewritten at this time. 
    I suspect that it's because Steve, like many of us, recognizes that this is an attempt to impose a political agenda on the service's Management Policies, one that would relax the standards of care for park areas.
    In a recent note to NPS employees that provided them with a redline copy of the new policies, Director Mainella said the following: “The policies clearly underscore that when there is a conflict between use and conservation, the protection of the resources will be predominant.” 
    Letting English words mean what they normally mean, I don't see that in the policies.  It's one thing to say it in a memo; it's quite another thing to say it in the policies. 
    Additionally, the current rewrite eliminates references to further congressional action that underscored the service's responsibility to ensure that future generations can enjoy park resources by conserving them unimpaired and to court decisions that have upheld the service's obligation to make resources protection the primary goal of its activities.  Why leave them out if, as the director says, protection of resources will be predominant?

    Rick raises quite a basketful of good points. And I hope to raise them with Director Mainella, if she grants my request for an interview.

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