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Some Thoughts on the Centennial Initiative


    Within days, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and National Park Service Director Mary Bomar will send to President Bush their report on the National Park Centennial Initiative. 
    Within its pages the two are expected to outline “signature projects” and programs intended to bolster commemoration of the National Park Service's 100th birthday in 2016. Needless to say, the report is a document much anticipated. Secrecy as to its contents has been paramount.     Regardless of whether Congress acts on the centennial initiative, this report will reflect greatly on the vision Mr. Kempthorne and Ms. Bomar have for the Park Service and the 391 units of the park system it manages. And even if Congress doesn't act on it, hopefully the Park Service can implement some of its suggestions on its own.
    In the year since Mr. Kempthorne was appointed Interior secretary, the former Idaho governor has crisscrossed the nation, publicly and privately, meeting with groups to spread his vision of the Interior Department in general and the Park Service specifically. He’s attended public listening sessions for the centennial initiative, and explained the scope of the initiative in private to park friends groups. And he’s been impressive, both from what I’ve seen personally and what others have told me.
    Mr. Kempthorne has the politician’s knack for engaging the public, of focusing in so keenly you think it’s just the two of you having a conversation. In his private meetings I understand he’s demonstrated a sound, broad, and long-term vision for the park system.
    His sessions, those who have attended them say, are not something scripted but most definitely sincere. The secretary is a “big thinker,” one who senses how philanthropy and partnerships can improve the park system, one person who met with Mr. Kempthorne told me, adding that the secretary provided a “true sense of what Teddy Roosevelt might have been like.”
    Pretty powerful words, and not from someone who has to kowtow to the secretary. Such descriptions not only heighten anticipation for the upcoming centennial report, but also raise the stakes for the Interior secretary’s reputation.
    With that said, here are some ideas it would be nice to see in the report to the president.

     Appoint a Standing Commission to Examine America’s Parks Movement

    Less than a month of public listening sessions are not enough to either fully understand the problems confronting either the National Park Service or the national park system or to come up with viable solutions. Not only does that approach give short shrift to public input and serious review of the state of the agency, but it creates an impression that this ramped-up concern for the parks wouldn’t exist if not for the centennial in 2016.
    The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees long has suggested creation of a non-partisan National Park Service Centennial Commission that would be charged with, among other things, identifying an effective organizational model for the governance of the park system and Park Service.
    “Enlightened national leadership must create the circumstances to begin this dialog on behalf of the broadest public interest. The commission will develop a report, or series of reports, on the status of the national park system, the issues the system faces, constraints that impact the system and challenges to be faced in the new century,” coalition member Rob Arnberger said recently.
    “The commission’s work would examine alternatives for addressing these issues and constraints that must be engaged, including fiscal and human resources required to accomplish the mission of the system for the long term. The commission’s work will result in a plan…a template that the American people can look to in assuring that our most special places stay protected and special for a second century."
    This body would report not just to Congress and the president but also to the American public on its findings and recommendations.
    Under the auspices of this commission, the retirees coalition suggests creation of a non-partisan National Parks Technical Panel that might sort “fact from fancy” and determine the true budget and personnel needs of the Park Service. Such a panel could identify what governmental processes “stand in the way of success and what is required to overcome them.”
    While some might argue little or nothing is gained by appointing commissions, in the case of the Park Service, whose director is a political appointee, such a body could not only help defuse the politics that swirl around agency decisions but also infuse both a pragmatic approach toward day-to-day management of the park system and long-term vision that could mute the impact caused by change in administrations.    

    Fully Fund the National Park Service
    Many of the problems that afflict the national park system today can be traced to a lack of dollars that prevents the Park Service from properly doing its job. We need to fully fund the agency. As the National Parks Conservation Association has pointed out from fiscal studies, the park system operates with an annual $800 million deficit, which is on top of a maintenance backlog the agency itself has estimated at roughly $8 billion.
    The president should propose, and the Congress authorize, full funding for the agency, funding that is not created by diverting money from within the Park Service’s various budget lines to its operations budget. While such manipulations create the appearance that the agency’s funding has increased, it creates underlying problems by limiting the agency’s flexibility to react to unexpected needs and by delaying needed projects indefinitely.

    Fully Staff the National Park Service

    The American public should not be asked to pay for bloated agencies. But the Park Service is not bloated. If anything, it is drastically understaffed, with officials trying to offset that fact by increasingly relying on volunteers.
     According to the Park Service’s Human Affairs department, from 1973 through 2006 there was a 1,849 percent growth in volunteers – from 8,328 to 154,000. Those volunteers replaced 2,451 full-time staff.
    Volunteers can, do, and should continue to play a vital role in operation of the national park system. Their talents and contributions should not be overlooked. But their role should not be that of replacing professional park rangers, particularly in the interpretive division.
    Sadly, current staffing is crippling the agency. When Julie Elmore, at the time a graduate student at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, spent months working on a project titled National Park Service Employee Satisfaction and Employee Retention, among the comments she received from rangers was this one:
    "Today's reality is that NPS managers at all levels are forced to concentrate all their energies on 'putting out fires' all day, every day. 'Doing more with less' is no longer an option. If preservation and protection of park lands is still important to the American people, then the case must be made to increase budgets and to hire and retain quality personnel."
    Suffice to say that fully staffing the Park Service would go a long way toward not only improving a visitor’s park experience but also toward improving staff morale.

    Climate Change and the Parks

    Climate Change is occurring. Regardless of whether it’s natural or man-caused, weather patterns are changing and they’re having a dramatic impact on the world. If we as a society somehow can slow those changes by operating in a more environmentally sensitive manner on a day-to-day basis, we’ll all benefit.
    National parks, by virtue of decades of research conducted both in-house and via outside parties, have some of the best records pertaining to environmental change, whether that pertains to Glacier’s shrinking rivers of ice or rising sea levels along some of our national seashores.
    Create within the Park Service a clearinghouse on climate change that not only can bolster research on how these changes will impact the parks and how parks might react but also educate the general public on climate change and how they might make a difference.

    Entrance Fees

    Let’s give the park system back to the people. Let’s either completely do away with entrance fees or set them at a token amount that all Americans can afford. With full funding of the Park Service, the past decade’s growth of entrance fees would not be needed to pay for the parks’ day-to-day operational needs.
     At park entrance stations, post a sign suggesting a recommended entrance fee or donation. Those who have long loved the parks won’t mind digging into their pockets, and those who have avoided national parks because of the rise in entrance fees will feel more welcome and hopefully return.
    Along with tightly limiting or eliminating entrance fees, resurrect the National Parks Pass so those who wish to donate directly to the park system can do so by purchasing this pass, with 100 percent of the revenues going to the parks.

    Encourage Philanthropy

    Giving to the national park system has a long history. It’s been a vital cog in funding land acquisition, construction, and even interpretation through assistance with various programs and visitor centers.
An early park philanthropist, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., spent roughly $25 million of his own wealth on national parks. He personally provided the land that today comprises the bulk of Grand Teton National Park, led the way to create the carriage paths that wind through Acadia National Park, and contributed greatly to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Shenandoah National Park and Yosemite National Park.
   While such philanthropy is needed by the park system, philanthropic dollars should not be used to replace federal funding for the parks.
    Rather, they should be spent on exemplary, non-core projects that heighten a visitor’s experience, that help underwrite park research, and perhaps endow a learning center for park staff that could reward rangers with sabbaticals of varying length to focus on a particular area or region of study.

    Endow the National Park Service

    Create a permanent endowment fund for the National Park Service. Such a fund could be used to offset, if not eliminate, entrance and so-called “amenity fees,” fund trail work throughout the park system, and eliminate the need for individual parks to choose between laying off staff or patching a roof.
    This fund could be created with an initial investment of $250 million in federal dollars coupled with a 1-for-1 match from the private sector. Establishing such an endowment fund would eliminate the potentially embarrassing task of asking charitable organizations for donations to pay for a sewer system or a fence along the border of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.
    Instead, their donations could go into a central endowment that could be used to help fund a wide array of needs across the park system.

    Bricks and Mortar

    We should suppress the urge to build new buildings simply for the sake of the centennial. Rather, efforts should be focused on repairing and maintaining existing ones across the park system and identifying new facilities crucial to fulfilling the mission of the Park Service.
    Facilities such as the rapidly deteriorating and currently closed visitor center at Dinosaur National Monument should not have to wait until 2009 at the earliest to be repaired or replaced. Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area should not have to wait until Fiscal 2011 to receive funding to demolish and remove hazardous structures within its borders. Correcting “critical health and life safety hazards at Many Glacier Hotel, Annex I” in Glacier National Park should not have to wait until Fiscal 2011.
    Understandably, some delays are created by the time it takes to analyze problems and devise and engineer solutions. Yet the Park Service currently has a construction program “wish list” that runs out to Fiscal Year 2012. Before centennial money is spent on new bricks and mortar projects, this list should be drastically reduced.

    Night Skies

    Gazing up into the night skies likely has fascinated humans for millennia. Yet society is slowly erasing those views through urban sprawl and poorly designed lighting systems.
    According to the National Park Trust (Download DarkNightSkies.pdf), “Urban sky glow can travel over 200 miles, affecting remote wilderness and parks. Moderate amounts of light pollution can cut the number of visible stars in half or more, while skies within a few miles of cities will be decimated. Not only can one’s backcountry camping experience be tainted, but nocturnal wildlife suffers ill effects of varying degrees.”
    The growing popularity of stargazing at parks such as Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Death Valley and Chaco Canyon attest to humans’ fascination with the night sky. We should invest in a program that evaluates lighting systems across the park system and minimizes their impact on night skies.

    These are just a few ideas that would seem worthy of including in the secretary's report to the president. There are many others out there. For a thorough and thoughtful approach to helping the Park Service successfully move into its second century, take a look at the NPCA's white paper on how to right the national park system.


Kurt, Thank you for this report and a wish list for the parks. As an Idahoan, I'd be pleased to see that our former gov might go down in history as one of a few (very few) bright spots in an otherwise disastrous administration. Then again, we know how to grow interior secretaries here. See: Andrus, Cece.

This is a great piece -- sensible and measured yet ambitious and inspiring. Let's hope it gets read widely!

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