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Reaction to Rethinking the NPS


    Last week I questioned whether it was time to "rethink" how the National Park Service approaches its job to managing the world's most incredible national park system.
    While that post didn't generate any comments to this site, it did spawn some interesting debate on another private list-serve. Those voices came down on both sides of tinkering with the agency. While no general consensus was reached, the dialog was healthy and exactly what I want this blog to do.
    So "turn the page," if you will, and I'll share some of those comments.

    Spurring me to write last week's post, and two companion pieces that looked at the NPS's budget problems, were the Bush administration's dogged efforts to rewrite the agency's Management Policies in such a way that many groups say would allow for more commercialization of the parks, as well as more motorized recreation within them.
    Combined -- the further commercialization (some would say privatization) of the parks, the weakening of the park system's protective covenants, and insufficient federal funding -- this nightmarish trilogy threatens to recast the image and future of the national park system as the NPS nears its centennial.

    How to address that threat, though, does not generate consensus. But some of the chatter on that other list-serve provided some ideas, as well as some helpful background.
    Scott Silver, the executive director of Wild Wilderness, a watchdog group that works awfully hard to see that public lands remain just that, has an incredible working knowledge of threats to the privatizations of public lands. In responding to my post, he referred to one of his own posts from 1998 in which he pointed out the privatization threat to public lands.
    "(U.S. Sen. Frank) Murkowski and (U.S. Rep. Jim) Hansen were anti-environmental congressmen who were engaged in an effort to privatize management control of our public lands. ARC (the American Recreation Coalition) is the wise-use, business consortium leading the effort to bring the profit motive to outdoor recreation planning and management," Silver wrote almost eight years ago. "ARC's ultimate objective is to acquire, for its corporate members, the 'rights' to develop and PROFITABLY operate recreational facilities upon public lands.
    "Unnecessary and inappropriate budget cuts to recreation programs were orchestrated by Murkowski and Hansen so as to create an apparent maintenance crisis for federally managed recreation lands and facilities. The rescue of a visibly decaying public system by ARC's private investors and corporate sponsors is the intended outcome. Fee-demo does not exist to raise needed funding for trail and facility maintenance. It exists to circumvent and eventually repeal the long-standing legal prohibitions upon the charging for recreation on federally managed lands."
    Moving up to the present, Silver added that, "The names of the guilty have changed but the accuracy of this statement has become more apparent with the passage of time."
    "I would just add that having (Deputy Interior Secretary) Lynn Scarlett (Libertarian) and (Interior Secretary) Gale Norton (FreeMarketeer) running the DOI makes the situation considerably worse than I described above," he said. "In 1998, I foresaw declining budgets leading to functional privatization. In 2006, declining budgets are leading to land sales."
    Another commenter to my suggestion that we "reinvent" the Park Service urged that I "be very careful what you wish for."
    "I do not have faith the privatizers and their intellectual kin will not succeed. They are powerful, well-financed, and well-organized -- much more so than their opponents (us)," she/he wrote. "Furthermore, some of 'us' will agree with all or parts of their agenda. Reducing the size of the national park system or culling it of 'unworthy parks,' for example...
    "People advocating radical change need to have a lot of confidence the changes will go the way they ultimately want. Such is not the necessary outcome," she/he continued.
    "I also do no agree the present system is fatally flawed. Actually, the National Park Service has not done all that badly over recent decades, especially when compared to the rest of government. NPS is part of the whole federal system, and what happens to the programs we support is also happening to others (except, of course, defense and war). No matter where the National Park Service is located or how it is financed, there will never be as much money and other resources as we would wish."
    As to my mention of creating a blue-ribbon commission to take a close look at the NPS and its operations, the writer added that "any so-called blue-ribbon group ... will inevitably have among its membership the interests that we now regard as a major part of the problem. I would have little confidence such a group invented by this administration or this Congress -- and perhaps the next ones, given what I see on the political horizon at this time -- would be anything more than mirror images of similar groups set up to examine Social Security, tax reform -- you name it."
    Yet another member of that list-serve, echoing thoughts the Outdoor Industry Association's Myrna Johnson shared with me, was in favor of "a conference to plan for a revamped NPS."
    "I agree with that concept," he said. "I would go one step further, however. The conference should involve all federal, state and local land-managing agencies, everyone who manages parklands and recreation areas of any sort. I suggest this because part of the problem may be that some units now managed by the NPS perhaps ought to be managed by other agencies and some units now managed by other agencies perhaps ought to be managed by the NPS....The only way to fit parklands with their 'best' managers is to throw everything into one basket, decide what kinds of units each agency ought to be managing, and then pull each unit out of the basket and give it to the most appropriate agency."
    To that suggestion, though, Mr. Silver said, "I would personally avoid exploring the possibilities you suggest at this time under the current political climate. I would feel far more comfortable continuing to protect the systems we now have and the laws that currently exist, then to renegotiate them with the current administration and with the recreation industry and free-mark ideologues running the show.

    "Those in the recreation industry, those who have long advocated for privatization, and those of the wise-use movement view 2006 as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to push their agendas beyond anything they have imagined possible," he continued. "Now is NOT the time to open Pandora's box.


Myrna Johnson is absolutely right that any look at revamping the National Park Service aught to encompass a broader look at the organization of Federal Lands. All too often I get the sense that the National Park System's vision of itself is as "the custodian of whatever lands happened to be assigned to us." Not only has this attitude resulted in a bewildering array of designations within the Park System, but it has also created a system of federal lands that is seemingly without rhyme or reason. For example, the Park System includes some fairly pedestrian National Recreation Areas, such as Amistad NRA, Whiskeytown-Shasta-Trinity NRA, and Chickasaw NRA; yet places such as Seneca Rocks NRA in West Virginia, Valley of Fires NRA in New Mexico, or Flaming Gorge NRA in Utah are not. Why? Or as another example, why are places like Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (NM), Hovenweep NM, or Lava Beds NM considered to be National Parks, but places like Canyon of the Ancients NM, Misty Fjords NM, Grand Staircase-Escalante NM, and Mt. St. Helen's NM are not? Is there any overaching vision for what federal lands and what federal designations should be National Parks (presuming that all National Parks should be treated more-or-less the same), and what federal lands and federal designations should not be National Parks? So far I haven't seen much sign of such a vision, to the detriment of the whole system - and the whole thing can only be untangled by taking a comprehensive look at all of our Federal Lands.

I agree. How is anyone supposed to know which federal agency manages the many scattered National Monuments across our country. The distinction is very important. Mt. St. Helens National Monument is managed by the Forest Service, and within the monument Weyerhaeuser presumably still holds some logging rights. In Utah, the BLM manages Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and still have cattle grazing all over the place. So imagine trying to explain the management objectives of the Park Service within an NPS managed National Monument to a family traveling through the west. Confusion city. All are federally managed, all are National Monuments, and yet, none follow the same guidelines. Just like the office of Homeland Security was supposed to bring many separate federal intelligence groups together, maybe it isn't such a fantasy to imagine a single organization which would bring an overarching vision to all federal wildlands.

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