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The Keys to the Kingdom


    The key to solving a magic trick is never to be caught by sleight of hand. In the case of Washington politics, the key to not being tricked is not to focus too closely on what's being said, but rather at what's not always quite so obvious.
    In the case of Representative Stevan Pearce's hand-wringing over visitation to our national parks, I'd urge you to take a closer look to what he's orchestrating. For while he's dramatically gnashing his teeth with the flair of Anthony Hopkins (and my utmost apologies to Mr. Hopkins), he's working to hand the keys to the kingdom to the commercial sector.
    The kingdom, of course, is our national park system.
    This one almost slipped past me, because it's hard to keep close tabs on what transpires in Washington when you're in your office some 2,067 miles away. But I've come to learn that one of the things Mr. Pearce has created over his proclaimed concern over national park visitation is the "Park Visitation Working Group."
    This group, you might be interested to know, seemingly has more concern over the economics it can wring from the parks than concern over the parks themselves, or the National Park Service, for that matter.

    Who makes up this group, you might wonder?
    Well, there's John Schoppman, an executive with Forever Resorts, Inc., a concessionaire with operations in Olympic National Park, Grand Teton National Park, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Isle Royale National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Mammoth Cave National Park, and along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
    And then there's Bob Warren of the National Alliance of Gateway Communities, which just happens to be a contributing member of the American Recreation Coalition. And there's Suzanne Cook of the Travel Industry Association; Scott Ahlsmith of Magellan Travel Technologies, a company that strives to improve reservation systems, among other things; and Michael Cerletti, who heads the New Mexico Tourism Department.
    That's it, folks. No one from the National Parks Conservation Association, no one from the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, no one that I can see from any advocacy group who might speak up for the parks' best interests along the way to attempting to solve this perceived visitation problem. No, this group is comprised of entities that have very narrow interests when it comes to national parks: How to make a buck off of them.
    Isn't it tad sad that at a time when the parks are foundering in red ink that President Bush, with an eye on the Park Service's centennial just ten years down the road, can do little more than call for an unfunded "National Park Centennial Challenge" and ask for suggestions on how to improve the park system?
    At the same time, Mr. Pearce has sprung into action by giving a conglomeration of special interests the red carpet treatment, complete with access to the Park Service hierarchy, one already suffering from reasonable questions swirling about its motives when it comes to managing the park system.
    Why all the concern about park visitation? Has anyone ever attempted to determine the park system's carrying capacity? How many visitors can Yellowstone bear? Some might say Grand Canyon, at least during the summer months, is already overrun and far above its carrying capacity. Ditto for Yosemite and Sequoia and Great Smoky Mountains and Grand Teton and Zion and many more.
    And let's not forget that the parks already are pouring billions of dollars into their surrounding communities. Earlier this summer the Park Service announced that parks generate $10 billion annually for those communities, along with 236,000 jobs. At a time when parks are struggling with a lack of funding, when air quality is a significant concern for many parks, when the Park Service at times struggles with feeding its steeds, why is Mr. Pearce so concerned about a slight drop in park visitation, which history shows is quite cyclical?
    What does his hand-picked working group want? Well, for starters it believes the Park Service needs to conduct a nationwide survey to find out why people do or don't visit national parks. That survey, among other things, will ask how well parks satisfy visitors' needs, something the Park Service already measures and scores quite highly on, with an approval rating above 95 percent.
    Any bets on whether this working group will take into consider the results of a survey conducted for the Outdoor Industry Association last year? That's the survey that found that more than two-thirds of those surveyed want a quiet, secluded national park visit, one without a corporate presence.
    But once again I digress.
    The working group a
lso wants gateway communities to have more access to park managers, in part so they can have a voice in which concessionaires the parks decide to work with. I didn't realize gateway communities were shut off by park managers. I've never had a problem getting through, and I'm hundreds of miles away from my nearest national park.
    I guess what needs to be defined is what the group means by "access." If it's "favoritism," well, I would hope park managers would manage their parks based on the park's best interests, not those of the gateway communities. And I'm not sure those interests are mutually exclusive. After all, an overrun, rundown park is not going to be a tourism draw.
    Of course, the working group wants more money from Congress to promote the parks. Along those lines, it cites the $750,000 Alaska's powerful congressional delegation was able to wrangle for the Alaska Travel Association. That money went, in part, towards a direct-mail campaign to some 500,000 people and paid for ads in national magazines such as Backpacker and Outdoor Photographer.
    While that campaign did help boost visitation to national parks in Alaska, Mr. Pearce's working group properly notes that the cruise industry's efforts to bring more visitors to the state also helped.
    Moving on, the working group believes gateway communities should be prominently mentioned on national park web sites. After all, the group says, "the gateway communities always mention adjacent parks on their websites. A true partnership offers reciprocal support."
    Well, if that goes through, perhaps I could get myself a mention on the parks' web sites, too.  After all, I've written three national park guidebooks and I could benefit from a little reciprocity as well.

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