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NPCA's 5-Step Program for the Parks...And Other Ideas


    It's time for some demonstrated leadership out of Washington, folks. Enough of the rhetoric.
    There has been a fair amount of talk the past year over what's wrong with the national park system, about what ails it. Too, there have been more than a few suggestions on how to turn things around. But it doesn't appear anyone in Washington is biting.
    For instance, for more than a year Congressman Mark Souder, and to a lesser extent Brian Baird, has been traipsing about the country -- visiting Boston, Seattle, Flagstaff, Gettysburg and other locales -- to conduct hearings into the struggles of the national park system. Yet despite all those hearings, the two have yet to present their findings to Congress.
    At one of those hearings, in Flagstaff just about a year ago, Rick Smith of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees suggested that a blue-ribbon commission be created to study how the park system should be managed. No word yet on whether anyone besides the coalition took that suggestion seriously.
    More recently, of course, President Bush instructed Dirk to mount a "National Park Centennial Challenge" with hopes someone out there in America has some good ideas for buffing up the national park system in advance of its centennial in 2016.
    The latest bit of advice along those lines comes this week from the National Parks Conservation Association, which trotted out its 5-step program for healing the park system in advance of its 100th birthday.

    The NPCA's suggestions are largely predictable, yet laudable just the same:
    1. Restore the health of the parks' cultural and natural resources by combating invasive species, restoring native species, cleaning air-sheds, considering public transportation to relieve congestion and pollution, and enforcing off-road vehicle laws.
    2. Reinvest in the park system by wiping out the annual operating shortfall, last estimated at more than $800 million, fund the president's (currently undefined) National Park Centennial Challenge (with an unspecified amount of money); pass the National Park Centennial Act introduced by Congressmen Souder and Baird and designed to wipe out the park system's maintenance backlog of billions of dollars by 2016; reverse the decline in interpretive rangers.
    3. Reinvigorate the park system's managerial ranks by recruiting personnel suitably trained "to handle the complex financial, political, and managerial responsibilities of our national parks"; increasing the Park Service's training budget "so that interpretive rangers, law enforcement, and park planners alike are all using the latest tools and technology to engage and inspire the public"; properly equip the parks with business plans and up-to-date general management plans.
    4. Boost research in the parks by adequately funding the Park Service's Natural Resource Challenge and the agency's Research Learning Centers.
    5. Represent the "full range and diversity of American history and culture" by expanding the national park system.
    Fair enough. But will they garner any traction?
    For the life of me, I can't understand the slow pace at which Washington toddles along. Perhaps if Congress didn't waste so much time on recess or being petulant over matters such as whether drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will solve our energy addiction (it won't), same-sex marriage (this is important because....?), flag burning (it's only a piece of fabric, folks, not the Constitution), or a slew of other inconsequentlial time-wasters it could accomplish some substantial good in the realm of the economy, national affairs, health care, Social Security, and the parks.
    After all, the problems facing the park system are not murky or new; rather, they're well-defined and getting worse. As I've previously noted, Wallace Stegner, a dean of conservation writing, more than 50 years ago warned of our decaying national park system.
    So you wouldn't think we need to convene a focus group to identify problems.
    I also struggle with the words that come out of the administration's collective mouths ... and the lack of substance to back them up.   
    Please, enough of the rhetoric. Let's get to work, folks.
    The National Park Service well-knows the ills that confront the national park system, the politicians know, and much of the public knows. Isn't it time for Dirk, or Mary -- whose appointment was hailed by many as she was a "career" employee, an insider who supposedly is well-aware of the problems out there -- to take the proverbial bull by the horns and set sail with an on-the-ground program that will begin to actually combat these ills?
    If they need help getting the ball rolling, here are some ideas:
    I don't think there's a need for a "Chainsaw Jack" -- former GE Chairman Jack Welch -- to come aboard, slashing here and there to get the agency and its system up to snuff. But if the National Park Service were a private corporation, it would have filed for bankruptcy long ago and its assets auctioned off.
    There is a need for some aggressive leadership that will quickly identify what's best about the park system -- and how it became the best -- as well as what's not working, and get to work righting this boat. At the same time, the administration and Congress need to accept the responsibility that comes with protecting what long has been called one of the best ideas America has ever had. So guys and gals, open up the checkbook.
    Along that line, let's replace that "presidential campaign" checkoff box on our federal tax returns with one that would allow you to contribute to the national park system. After all, we all know how to contribute to presidential candidates...if we really want to, and most of them lately have been eschewing the public funding due to the limits it imposes.
    True, the National Park Foundation lets you contribute to the Park Service via its web site. But when was the last time you visited that site? For most of us, filing taxes is an annual chore, and an NPS checkoff box would be front and center and easy to check.
    As for NPCA's suggestion that the park system be expanded, fine. But let's require that any legislation creating a new unit of the NPS provide a means for adequately funding that unit. That'd be a big step in preventing the system's backlog from continuing to grow out of control.
    Now, about those entrance fees. They're not going to go away overnight, unfortunately. So let's force Congress to provide matching funds. That's right. For every dollar the public hands over to get into the parks, and for every dollar the public commits via my proposed NPS checkoff box, let's let the Treasury match 'em. Once the existing maintenance backlog is wiped out, sunset the matching requirement.
    Oh yeah, get the NPS out of the Homeland Security business. Did you know the agency spends upwards of $40 million annually
handling security chores that rightly belong to the aforementioned department? And it isn't reimbursed for that expense, either, folks. That $40 million could be better spent on at least a zillion park-related needs, be they interpretive rangers, exotic species combat, or cleaning the restrooms.
    Now, can we at least get started on solving some of these issues? No one expects an overnight success story when it comes to battling the park system's ailments. But a little progress surely would be nice.

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