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Presidential Politics and the National Parks


With the Democratic National Convention under way, and the Republican National Convention soon to follow, it's natural to wonder what these two parties are thinking of in terms of the environment in general and national parks specifically.

Of course, earlier this year the Traveler touched on where Senators Clinton, McCain and Obama stood on national parks in response to questions from the National Parks Conservation Association.

At that time Senator Barack Obama said he believed the National Park Service needed more funding, but didn't make any suggestions on how that might be accomplished. Senator John McCain, however, voiced support of the president's Centennial Initiative, which is intended to generate $3 billion for the National Park Service by the agency's centennial in 2016 but isn't yet on pace to reach that goal.

Where do things stand today? Well, although there doesn't seem to be an available draft of the Republican Party's platform, the Democratic Party's draft platform (attached below) does make mention of both public lands in general and the parks specifically:

We will create a new vision for conservation that works with local communities to conserve our existing publicly-owned lands while dramatically expanding investments in conserving and restoring forests, grasslands, and wetlands across America for generations to come. Unlike the current Administration, we will reinvest in our nation's forests by providing the federal agencies with resources to reduce the threat of wildland fires, promote sustainable forest product industries for rural economic development and ensure that national resources are in place to respond to catastrophic wildland fires. We will treat our national parks with the same respect that millions of families show each year when they visit. We will recognize that our parks are national treasures, protected for special values, and will ensure that they are protected as part of the overall natural system so they are here for generations to come. We are committed to conserving the lands used by hunters and anglers, and we will open millions of new acres of land to public hunting and fishing.

Sounds nice in general, but, again, there are no specifics.

Against that backdrop, NPCA is mounting a public awareness campaign that includes a petition Americans can sign urging the next president and the incoming Congress to provide greater federal funding and protections for the National Park System. The campaign includes radio ads featuring actors Amy Madigan and Sam Waterston and print ads featuring Petrified Forest National Park and the National Mall as examples of national parks nationwide in need of greater funding.

A nationwide survey (attached below) conducted for NPCA earlier this year by Peter Hart Research Associates showed that 76 percent of respondents were much more or somewhat more likely to support a presidential candidate who has a strong commitment to protecting national parks; 83 percent of respondents indicated that it was extremely or quite important for the federal government to protect and support national parks such as Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and the Everglades.

The print and radio public service advertisements, developed by the PlowShare Group, Inc., are being distributed to magazines, newspapers, and radio stations nationwide.

"Americans expect the federal government to take care of our national parks," says NPCA President Tom Kiernan. "We’ll be looking to the new administration and Congress to fulfill that promise."


Thanks, Kurt! Check out the ads here: or watch a video production of Sam Waterson's radio PSA created by a Law&Order fan.

The polling results demonstrate that national parks are a key positioning issue for candidates; they help to define a candidate’s character in a positive way, reflecting a forward-looking agenda that embraces what is best about America. In the following memos posted on NPCA's website for public access, the pollsters offer counsel to candidates, campaigns and consultants as to why Democrats and Republicans should talk about the national parks, and how to do it effectively. Let's hope they do.

Memo to Republican candidates, campaigns and consultants here:

Memo to Democratic candidates, campaigns and consultants here:

Andrea Keller
National Parks Conservation Association

Good wrap-up, Kurt!

The quote that you extract from the Democratic Party draft platform uses the word "conserve" for non-Park lands, and "protect" for the Parks. It then segues back to "conserve", in mentioning millions of new acres for hunting & fishing. Nowhere in this passage do we see "preserve", and that may be significant.

Acknowledging, as you do, that this is a very general statement lacking specifics, had I read the same words credited to the GOP, I would have shrugged, nodded noncommittally, and given it passing marks as reflecting the interests of rural conservatives.

"Conservation" and "Preservation" are the two key words in environmentalism. To conserve denotes multiple uses, and accepts imperfection. We "conserve" our Nat'l Forests, while logging them at the same time. We "conserve" elk-populations on public lands, while hunting them, thinning them if necessary, and feeding them if we think that enables multiple goals.

To "preserve" is to reduce or eliminate multiple uses, and to focus on the single goal of unmodified natural habitat, "untouched". Preservation is the preferred policy-term for today's dominant environmentalist factions, especially for Park lands. Nonetheless, conservationist-environmentalists have made large contributions to our habitat-base, and wield meaningful political influence.

This platform-statement reads like it was substantially guided by conservation-principles, rather than preservation-ideals.

Ahh, Ted, you dare to embark on the debate over the meaning of "conserve" v. "preserve."

When placed in the context of the national parks, as I'm sure you're well aware, that's a minefield. Perhaps more so when you look at the Organic Act and its reference to "conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired...(emphasis added.)

If one is really to leave the parks unimpaired, shouldn't the mission be to "preserve" as opposed to "conserve"?

That said, there are better minds than mine to kick that idea around.


Oops. Though I can be a bit daring, I try to recognize when conflicting viewpoints are no longer 'discussing'; when the struggle is whether the glass is half-full, or half-empty. "Semantics", etc.

My perusal of early literature of the Movement impressed me that a period ensued in which leaders who espoused a 'loose', 'accommodative', 'less-formal' form of protection for exceptional public assets, butted heads with other leaders who wanted a strict form of protection which made much-reduced use of compromise. I thought the former type represented a "Conservation" ethic, while the latter stood for a "Preservation" ethic.

Since today the so-called Preservation ethos commands the high ground of talking-points and public-visibility, while the so-called Conservation camp plays a background (but significant) role, I assumed the 'victor' was secure in their position, and the 'contender' was content with theirs. If the meaning & use of the terms conserve & preserve is a troublesome matter, then I made an inadvertent error in framing the Democratic Party draft platform statement in those terms. If so, my apologies.

As for National Parks, I agree without reservation that the main view is that they be "Preserved". I pick up little hint that 'Conservation' notions have meaningful traction with the public, viz Nat'l Parks.

The 'draft platform', though, spends most of its time discussing non-Park lands. I brought up the conserve-preserve dichotomy, on the basis that most of the talk in the draft does not pertain to Parks, but to other public lands. While the main sentiment certainly appears to me to favor what I called 'preservation' for all the major, habitat-encompassing Parks, there does not appear to me to be a similarly dominant sentiment with respect to our diverse public lands.

... And I did not mean to wade into or create a dust-up over the use of 'conserve' or 'preserve' language in the case of non-Park lands, but rather thought the Democratic draft platform might be tipping their political hand with their choice of vocabulary. Whether 'open' lands should be 'conserved' or 'preserved' (or even what the 2 words 'really' mean) was not a chain that I meant to rattle.

The Democratic Party draft platform appears to depict a relatively, um, 'conservative' political posture - and that was perhaps what I should have stuck with! ;-)

NPT Readers and commenters--

I was born in 1938. Whatever one's politics are, I never thought I would live long enough to see a black nominated by one of the major parties to be its candidate for the Presidency. It's one measure of how far we have come in race relations in this country. The campaign itself will be another measure. It remains to be seen whether it will be forward progress or not.

Rick Smith

Sure sounds like fire management is going to be given even more money if the Democrats win the White House: "we will . . . provid[e] the federal agencies with resources to reduce the threat of wildland fires . . . and ensure that national resources are in place to respond to catastrophic wildland fires."

The Los Angeles Times published a story last month claiming that air tanker drops in wildfires are just for show and that their use "can be a needless and expensive exercise to appease politicians".

Increased use of aircraft is helping to drive up the cost of fighting wildfires. The Forest Service spent $296 million on aerial firefighting last year, compared with $171 million in 2004. Aviation costs amount to about one-fifth of the agency's fire-suppression spending.

That's a huge jump. How much higher of a jump can we expect next year? Of course, lobbyists are involved:

Aviation contractors, including many smaller companies, look after their interests in Washington through Helicopter Assn. International. The trade group has reported spending $856,000 lobbying Congress over the last 10 years on a variety of issues, including funding for wildland firefighting.

The "change" promised by the Democratic party seems skin deep at best. Americans need to end the cult of the presidency and realize that the presidency was not intended to be an office of monarchical or messianic powers:

The chief executive of the United States is no longer a mere constitutional officer charged with faithful execution of the laws. He is a soul nourisher, a hope giver, a living American talisman against hurricanes, terrorism, economic downturns, and spiritual malaise. He—or she—is the one who answers the phone at 3 a.m. to keep our children safe from harm. The modern president is America’s shrink, a social worker, our very own national talk show host. He’s also the Supreme Warlord of the Earth.

Whomever we elect as president, it will be business as usual in Washington. Lobbyists, such as aviation contractors, will set the agenda. The president will not "save" our national parks, so we ought to stop looking to that office for help. If we want to protect our parks, we ought to start looking for answers outside the political system.

Dear Mr. Kiernan,

Who are the "we" which you make reference to that will be expecting the assistance of Washington politics in maintaining the NPS? Through what precedent are you anticipating an abrupt shift in position that will release the influx of capital required to return the park infrastructure to the state of adequacy, let alone render the necessary improvements that would encourage an increase in attendance by nationals of this country? Your optimism, while admirable, has no basis in logic or recent history; indeed, only rhetoric and "good intentions", or shall we more accurately say, the outright lies that are election year lip-service, have served the NPS in terms of support from our national fund-masters on The Hill. I cannot support your position that the new administration has the slightest notion of fulfilling the past promises of administrations gone by, and will all of a sudden discover a windfall of available funds that they deem "expendable" and might even stop for a moment and consider routing to the park service. In case you aren't very astute with how political processes function, when a new administration is sworn in, their primary concerns and the immediate focus shift to those chits that supporters are calling in as repayment for "a job well done". The graft system is alive and quite well in our national political scope, and does not deviate or discern along party lines. Your optimism is best saved for the lame-duck era; for the most poignant and recent example, reference Wild Bill Clinton and the Utah land-grab that was the creation (also called expansion by some) of Grand Escalante.

I fully realize that most of the American public is so woefully out of touch with reality as to believe that the federal government is actually making progress in maintaining our public lands, but as we both know that position is folly. Americans have the misguided impression that any group with the term "national" affixed to it's title is indeed the sole responsibility of our political system (e.g., the National Guard, the National Transportation and Safety Board, the Washington Nationals.....ok, bad example) and thereby the public can safely assume that these organizations obtain proper levels of funding, quality management, and a higher level of "immediacy" in the political process in which to operate. If the truth of the process be known, Americans should have the opportunity to witness the first-hand disintegration of the park service system as is related to political pandering, or at times just ignoring the issue just long enough to have it become less than a hot-button issue, thereby sequestering thing from public view and opinion. In the public sector, such behaviors are reprehensible at best, and are the root of termination from positions at worst. Yet the people whom you are counting on for the redemption of our public land holdings are not only encouraged to partake in this spectacle, they lose standing in the process by not mastering the techniques. I somehow doubt whether your support and faith in the system are justified. Please don't assume that all citizenry of this nation are as easily duped into joining your mindset as you would like us to be.

If anyone even THINKS that Obama/Biden (with only 1 national park between them in their home states) will be better for our parks than McCain(19 park units)/Palin(17 park units) they need to have their heads examined!
McCain and Palin will be the best ticket to ensure our parks are fully funded!

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