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Centennial Report: Long on Vision, But....


Centennialinitiative_copy_3       Introduced via a slick, multi-media web portal, the 19-page Centennial Initiative Report that Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne has forwarded to President Bush is long on vision ... but short on details.
    And perhaps that's by necessity, as the Interior secretary frankly has no idea how much money Congress will make available to support the centennial initiative and because superintendents across the national park system have not completed work on how they would like their parks to commemorate the National Park Service's 100th birthday in 2016.
    What the report does do, though, is ratchet up the level of accountability expected from the Park Service and, in the process, directs some keen attention on how, for instance, the agency ultimately decides the issue of snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park and other questions regarding stewardship of the park system's 84 million acres.

    What the report -- which reads a lot like a mission statement for the Park Service -- also does is lay out five key areas the Park Service will focus on between now and 2016:
    1. Stewardship
    2. Environmental Leadership
    3. Recreational Experience
    4. Education
    5. Professional Excellence
    Within those five, the Park Service will be tasked with improving, rehabilitating and restoring the natural, cultural and historical resources within its realm; demonstrate "environmental leadership to the nation" by reducing the impacts of park operations and inspiring "an environmental conscience in Americans"; work to boost visitation to lesser-known parks within the system; better Americans' knowledge of the parks, and; create an agency with the "highest employee  satisfaction rate of all federal agencies."
    Again, the report presents a broad, sweeping vision, one for which an implementation plan still needs to be fully fleshed out. Later this summer, on August 25, Mr. Kempthorne plans to report again, this time "on each park's centennial strategy as well as projects that should be funded in 2008. All projects will meet the highest standards of accountability and transparency."
    That document should provide a clearer scope of the current administration's plans for moving the Park Service forward into its second century.
    With that in the offing, reviews of today's report have been encouraging.
    "I think it is a very good report," Bill Wade of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees told me this morning. "Of course, the devil is going to be in the details and implementation and how they adhere to some of the statements they make in it. I think it is very encouraging. We certainly support it in terms of what's written up to this point."
    At The Wilderness Society, Kristen Brengel had pretty much the same take on the document, applauding the concepts and the language used to express them. But she expressed concern between the written words in both the centennial report and the revised Management Policies adopted by the Park Service last year and what actually is happening on the ground in the park system.
    "They continue to say that they want tranquility, preserving landscapes, to use the best technology in the parks," Ms. Brengel noted. "But then, the decisions that they're making outside the report and the policies don't reflect those principles at all."
    Along those lines, she questioned the administration's position that the Interior secretary should have full control over selecting "signature projects" for the centennial initiative.
    "If they can endorse the Management Policies and come out with a proposal to allow over 700 snowmobiles in Yellowstone, I'm not sure the trust can be completely put in their hands" to choose and implement those projects, said Ms. Brengel.
    Tom Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association, said the report "presents a thoughtful vision for the National Park System that builds on several important prior efforts by champions of the system."
     "We appreciate the secretary’s continuing effort to engage and listen to the American public, including this latest step to further define the goals of the Centennial Initiative," he added. "The report presents an opportunity for Congress to help further frame and define a compelling vision and goals for the second century of the National Park System."
    Furthermore, "the report effectively outlines the need for a sustained, aggressive influx of additional resources for the National Park Service leading up to 2016," Mr. Kiernan said.

    On Wednesday the Interior secretary and Park Service director held a conference call with a select group of individuals -- Derrick Crandall of the American Recreation Coalition, Mr. Kiernan, Mr. Wade, Ms. Brengel, representatives from some philanthropic organizations and others -- to brief them on the report.
    During that call it was "almost like they were characterizing (the centennial report) as a strategic plan for the National Park Service between now and 2016," Mr. Wade told me. "I think that's significant. ... In fact, (Secretary) Kempthorne very, very clearly emphasized that the National Park Service should be held accountable by everyone to meeting those performance goals between now and 2016.
    "I think that's a very encouraging thing, that they're looking at it as such a strong document."
    Here are some of those strong statements:
    * Stewardship and science will guide decisions, Mr. Kempthorne said in his cover letter to the president. An inventory of all wildlife in parks will be completed, a vital baseline to monitor change and adjust management. Strategic acquisitions will protect landscapes.
    * Much has been accomplished and more remains to be done to fulfill a common American dream -- to leave things better for those who follow us,
added Ms. Bomar in her own letter.
    * This is not only a report to the president, but a pledge to the American people, who are the shareholders in the greatest system of parks and special places in the world ... a pledge that the men and women of the National Park Service will continue in preserving these wonderful places for the generations yet to come, Ms. Bomar added a bit later.
    * Improve the natural resources in parks, as measured by the vital signs developed under the Natural Resource Challenge, reads a performance goal outlined under the Stewardship section of the document.
    * Reduce environmental impacts of park operations, states a performance goal under the Environmental Leadership section.
    * Be one of the top 10 places to work in America, reads the Professional Excellence section.
    These are all worthy ambitions. But they seemingly conflict with on-the-ground practices as I noted above in pointing to the case of snowmobiles in Yellowstone. How can the Park Service, whose own studies have said Yellowstone's environment would be better off with fewer snowmobiles, propose to roughly triple the number that have been entering the park in recent years?
    How will Secretary Kempthorne, who writes in his letter to the president that under the Park Service's stewardship "majestic species that symbolize this nation, such as bison and bald eagles, will thrive in their native habitats," react to the state of Montana's plans to kill hundreds of Yellowstone bison? How will the Park Service improve employee morale when it intends to double the number of hours volunteers work in the parks to 10.4 million hours?
     There is much in this report to be optimistic about. But there also is much to be concerned about.

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