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Guest Column: Congress Has Some Unfinished Business To Address When It Comes To National Parks


Editor's note: Kati Schmidt is a senior media relations manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. This column originally appeared in NPCA's advocacy blog, Park Advocate.

While “do-nothing” is the adjective du jour for the 112th Congress, we argue that it is not a fair description for individual elected officials, but instead for the unfortunate, collective sum.

Throughout the 112th Congress, NPCA supported or at least monitored 140 national park-focused bills. Within the House and Senate, numerous bills were introduced over the past two years with goals of enhancing our current national park sites, as well as expanding the National Park System.

Members of Congress introduced 11 bills to establish new National Park Service sites. The proposed new sites included the Manhattan Project National Historical Park in Washington, New Mexico, and Tennessee; Valles Caldera National Park in northern New Mexico; a Waco Mammoth National Monument in Texas; Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument in Nevada; the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park in New York and Maryland; and the First State National Historical Park in Delaware—the only state without a national park.

Legislators introduced another 13 bills that would have expanded current units of our National Park System, such as the proposed San Antonio Missions National Historical Park boundary expansion, the California Desert Protection Act (which included additions to Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Parks and Mojave National Preserve), the Gettysburg National Military Park Expansion Act, and the Oregon Caves Revitalization Act. Among many other benefits, these expansions would have enhanced wildlife corridors for endangered species, preserved iconic places in history, and provided a buffer to protect parks from development threats outside park boundaries.

Twenty-two of the bills introduced by the 112th Congress would have studied potential new national park sites, such as a historic trail that tells the story of early park management by the Buffalo Soldiers; the home in Xenia, Ohio, of the first African-American national park superintendent, Colonel Charles Young; and the Hudson River Valley of New York.

Legislation introduced during the 112th Congress proved that many legislators on both sides of the political aisle care deeply about protecting and enhancing our National Park System. This bipartisan support for our parks was mirrored in recent polling by NPCA and the National Parks Hospitality Association that found 95 percent of voters want the federal government to ensure our parks are protected for the future and available for their enjoyment.

Unfortunately, on Capitol Hill, good intention alone does not get the job done. Of these 140 bills, only a few very non-controversial items with little to no budget impact passed both houses of Congress to become law.

According to the Second Century Commission report, America is losing at least one million acres a year to development—roughly equivalent to the size of Delaware. Walking in Abraham Lincoln’s footsteps where he delivered the Gettysburg address; exploring the cool wonder of one of the world’s only marble caves; and discovering saber-toothed cat and dire wolf fossils, just miles from the Las Vegas strip are all at risk, if Congress does not begin to take action, now.

Fortunately, Congress does not hold the only power to create new national parks. Thanks to the Antiquities Act, a sitting president can also preserve natural and historic sites as part of the National Park System—a privilege which has been evoked equally by Republican and Democratic presidents over the years. President Obama used the Antiquities Act to establish two new national park monuments over the last two years: Fort Monroe National Monument in Virginia and the César E. Chávez National Monument in California. Fort Monroe preserves and honors the pivotal role that the site played in ending slavery in America, and the César E. Chávez Monument recognizes the leadership role of the influential labor leader in the farmworkers’ movement and history, and is the first national park to honor a contemporary Latino American. President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors initiative, the National Park Service’s Call to Action report, and the National Parks Second Century Commission report all call for advancing and diversifying our country’s national parks, to protect and honor our heritage.

Now we need Congress to help preserve more of America’s history before it is lost. As the 113th Congress takes office, we urge our new and returning legislators to do more than their predecessors and take the next step. Reintroduce and move forward these bills that will benefit gateway communities and urban areas, protect precious natural resources, and ensure that our National Park System truly reflects our rich history and shared heritage.

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Find a way to quit demeaning the private sector and jobs. Support reasoned efforts to extract resources that strengthen our security and economy where revenues originally come from that support the Parks both from government and private wealth contributions. Seems reasonable to me rather than continuing to wring the Golden Goose's Neck.

Kati - I recently received one of your "surveys" measuring the public's support for the parks. That survey was so slanted in its questions it can't have any meaningful validity other than to try to generate misleading statitistics.

Kati forgot to mention the Valles Caldera National Preserve bill which would elevate a Forest Service Preserve in New Mexico to NPS National Preserve status. The 89,000 acre property is spectacular and desperately in need of reformed management. The last two Congresses have seen a bill fail to get out of committee for the VCNP, thanks to obstruction from Senator Murkowski of Alaska who is holding about 60 bipartisan bills hostage to her Sea Alaska project that would transfer USFS virgin rainforest to a corporation for clearcutting. Widely opposed in Alaska and on Capitol Hill but she won't let anything else pass until she gets her huge stumps.

We will reintroduce our Valles Caldera bill in this Congress and we thank the NPCA for all of their past support.

Remember that national parks are huge economic drivers in the areas where they exist. They drive tens of millions of dollars into the private sector in nearby towns. This is sustainable business.

Where do all these people that come to the Parks get their money? China, like our government? Not uncommon to detect a little possessiveness from our Asian visitors already. Kind of disconcerting.

Dunno where others get the money, but I WORKED for mine. Isn't that what we're supposed to do?

I here you, Lee! But this shovel ready stuff has turned into lucrative Food Stamps programs. All funded by those smart fellow's accross the big blue. The new paradigm. So, getting back to the question where does money come from? Along the same lines as "where do baby's come from and where does NPS funding really come from (the source)." I really hope all three questions don't come out of the same book nowadays:).

While I am sure these would all be worthy additions to the Park system, a bill that was far more important for the proper management of the existing NPS units was left on the table by the last Congress. HR 6306, introduced by Rep. Gerry Connolly, would have given competitive status to long term “temporary” employees. This would fix one of the worst hiring abuses perpetrated by the land management agencies. The agencies have hidden for decades behind a legitimate need for temporary seasonal workers to avoid paying benefits for many critical long term employees. They are kept temporary to save money, which is unavoidable, but a side effect is that they have no standing to apply if a permanent job does come open. After years or decades of exemplary service, often in a temporary version of the very job they are applying for, their application will not even be looked at if a veteran wants the job. Veteran's preference was supposed to be for entry level positions, and once a person had a job with the federal government, had “status”, veteran's preference would no longer come into play. Temporary employees, who do the vast majority of the fieldwork for the NPS and other federal land management agencies, are not considered real employees, no matter how long they work, and are not given status. Therefore they have almost no hope of ever getting a permanent job, no matter how well qualified they are.

Long term temporary employees (and “term” employees, but that is another story) are the most critical component of the NPS workforce. The party line is that temps live a stress free, happy existence, living the dream in amazing surroundings while the permanents do the unpleasant stuff to make it all happen. This is true of the college kids who come for a year or two, then move to another park or leave the NPS, but not necessarily for the long term temps, who often live in the area, lead crews in the field, come back year after year, have most of the institutional knowledge, and do the heavy lifting of planning, logistics, and day to day operations. They have far more responsibility than the other temps they supervise, and often work huge amounts of unpaid overtime because they are limited to 1039 hours (1 hour under 6 months) of work in a year, and just have more than they can do in that amount of time. Most permanent employees outside of maintenance move every few years, and never really get to know the parks and programs they are in charge of well enough to manage them effectively. The good ones rely heavily on the long term local temps.

Most programs within a park are managed by a permanent employee, with one or more long term temps running the field operation, and a bunch of short term temps. When the permanent employee leaves, it is critical that the long term temporary employee who has been the program's backbone for years has a fair chance at the job, both for the sake of maintaining a well run program, and for morale among all employees. Seeing a respected coworker screwed is bad enough, but when all the other dedicated temporaries a park depends on think about what it means for their own chances of promotion, motivation can, and does, collapse across the board. Why work yourself into the ground for people who won't stand up for you when the time comes? It is made harder by the fact that there are ways to get a person without status a job, but they are not entirely on the up and up, and are usually used for politically connected patronage hires, rather than to help deserving field employees. The NPS has lost huge numbers of excellent employees to this situation, both directly when less qualified candidates get their jobs, and indirectly when they look around and see that they have no future in the agency. The damage that has been done, both to NPS operations and to the lives of some of its best employees, is immense. It is unacceptable and must be changed.

This bill obviously won't fix all the problems of abuse of temporary employees, and all the problems of favoritism and patronage in the NPS, but it does fix one of the worst injustices. This bill has winners but no losers. Veterans can still use their preference to get true entry level jobs, as was the intention of the law. It does not address the issue of which positions are legitimate temporary jobs, so there will not be the massive cost of adding thousands of new permanent employees to the rolls. It just means that when permanent jobs come open, existing employees will have a fair chance at getting them. I strongly believe that the NPS needs to get its house in order before it expands in any way, and this is a small, but effective, step in that direction. I hope the current Congress will take it up again and see it through this time.

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