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"Designing the Parks"


For three years National Parks Traveler has served as a forum not just to inform the general public about issues concerning the National Park Service and its system, but to encourage debate and discussion over how the agency and its parks can become stronger. Now there's another forum with a similar goal in mind.

Designing the Parks is a joint effort by the National Park Service and the National Parks Conservation Association. The initiative featured a three-day conference held in May in Charlottesville, Virginia, that explored both the park system's natural landscape and its cultural components.

Another conference is scheduled for December in San Francisco and "will focus on contemporary challenges and opportunities and will produce a set of design and planning principles to guide future park policy, development, and management over the next century."

"The goal is to bring together forward thinking designers, planners, park and resource managers, scholars, preservationists, conservationists, social scientists, students, and other professionals who understand the critical issues that must be addressed in public park design and planning to maintain their relevancy and sustainability in the 21st century."

There's one other component of this initiative that is open to the public: an on-line forum intended to stimulate discussion in advance of the December conference.

It should prove interesting to see what fruits this effort and that of the National Parks Second Century Commission bear. Will their work be inclusive or exclusive of the general public? Will their efforts be combined, or fork off in different directions? Will they succeed in charting a strong course for the National Park System? Only time will tell.


I would have to agree with the statement provided by Frank C. on the on-line forum, submitted below.

After having witnessed firsthand what can happen to a National Park Unit when sued by special interest groups, (Specifically the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area (CHNSRA)), I would agree that the need for a decentralized park service is painfully evident.

Groups like the Audobon Society and the Defenders of Wildlife are simply nothing more than “Special Interest Groups” themselves, although they detest the moniker, and do their very best to distance themselves from such descriptions. However, the AS and DOW, through a partnership headed by the Southern Environmental Law Center, (SELC), was able to successfully sue the NPS for failure to implement a “Final” management plan that took into account both ORV beach access and species protection. The final outcome was a “Consent Decree”, (CD) issued by a single Federal Judge. The CD transformed the wishes of the AS/DOW/SELC into a legally binding document that is essentially running the entire CHNSRA. This decree was reached without public input as well, and although signed by local government officials, was more like a “gun to the head” of the localities. They were faced with total beach closures and certain financial ruin should they not sign.

These parks belong to the citizens of this great county, but are slowly and systematically being taken away from their rightful users, the taxpayers, and their natural stewards, the NPS itself.

Is it time for the DOI and the NPS to separate? Should the NPS be broken down into smaller areas, maybe even state-by-state? If the DOI/NPS has to cater to every single special interest group with a questionably relevant concern, we shall all soon find the park operators mired in constant lawsuits, and ourselves locked out of these national treasures that we merely wish to save for our children.

Retired national park ranger
written by Frank C., August 20, 2008
“The bureaucracy that manages our national treasures is out of control. The government spends twice as much on regional offices and national administration than it does to operate the 58 national parks in the system.

During the last decade, the NPS has been lobbied by 30-50 interest groups per year representing a plethora of interests. There’s an association of museums, mountain bike and ATV groups, “hospitality” groups, and even hiking groups (who lobbied for and got a million dollars for an outhouse in Glacier’s backcountry in the late 1980s).

National parks are subject to political forces and pressured by interest groups. To cut political interest, it is necessary to depoliticize national parks, and to do that we need to remove national parks from a political system. The Organic Act (the founding charter of the Park Service), written almost 100 years ago, is anachronistic and was heavily altered by interest groups of the time (such as railroads, hotel owners, and the National Park Transportation Association, a government-sanctioned monopoly that promised no visitors to Yellowstone would be “subjected to the hazard and inconvenience of walking … through the park”).

Special interests shaped the Organic Act by forcing rhetorical changes from the word “preserve” to “conserve” and by redefining “unimpaired”. We need new charters for the management of our national parks, charters that shun interest groups and mandate preservation and scientific management of our national parks.

We ought to investigate decentralized management of our national parks, and non-profit conservation trusts offer an opportunity to free the national park system from its political shackles and the political tides that wash over Washington, DC.

Conservation trusts are managed by a board comprised of local business members, university staff, scientists, and conservation organization members. Conservation trust boards, due to their diverse composition, are less likely to be influenced by corporations and political pressures.

Funding could become more stable using conservation trusts. People could become members of individual parks or of all parks (similar to how people become members of zoological societies). Conservation trusts would eliminate government-granted concession monopolies in parks, which currently return a paltry (as little as 2-3%) franchise fee. Conservation trusts would receive the lion's share of revenue from camping fees, gift stores, restaurants, and lodging that currently goes to large, multinational, for-profit corporations and their shareholders.

Only by removing national park management from the grip of the heavily lobbied and fickle federal government can we ensure the preservation of our national treasures.”

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