You are here

Secretary Zinke Pledges To Open Public Lands To More Recreational Endeavors


Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke (center) said Tuesday he would form a task force to explore ways to expand recreational access and infrastructure on public lands/DOI

In a development reminiscent of efforts by the George W. Bush administration more than a decade ago to place recreation ahead of preservation in the National Park System, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has created an advisory committee to suggest ways to "expand recreational access to public lands and waters."

The committee's end goal, he said Tuesday, is "expanding access to and improving the infrastructure on public lands."

It was back in 2005 that Paul Hoffman, then assistant deputy director of the Interior Department's Fish, Wildlife and Parks section, drafted a revision to the National Park Service's Management Policies that critics said would weaken the National Park Service's conservation mandate and threaten to open parks to more motorized recreation, among other things.

Among the critics was Bill Meadows, then president of The Wilderness Society. In a 34-page critique of Mr. Hoffman's draft, Mr. Meadows said, among other things, that "... the shift from referring to 'visitors' enjoyment' to 'recreation uses' carries several implications that are inappropriate to that which distinguishes the lands, waters and natural and cultural resources managed by the NPS from those managed under clearly differing philosophies by other agencies. Parks have visitor centers, ranger-led tours, and other programs to encourage the long-term commitment to conserve the park system. 'Using' the system just doesn't seem consistent with the mission -- the park system by law is far different than all other public lands, specifically based upon the preeminent preservation mandate."

At a time when the National Park System has seen record visitation in recent years, with more than 330 million in 2016, and when some park units are struggling to cope with that increased visitation and the impact it has on natural resources and staffing, the Interior secretary so far hasn't specifically addressed those issues.

Mr. Zinke's announcement Tuesday to create this new advisory committee was made during a roundtable discussion that included representatives from BoatU.S., the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, the Motorcycle Industry Council, Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association, Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, National Marine Manufacturers Association, and the National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council.

The Interior secretary said the committee once formed would be tasked with focusing on "expanding public-private partnerships on America's public lands." The end goal, he said, would be to "improve visitor experiences on public lands and waters, while also helping to reduce the Department’s maintenance backlog."

“One of my top priorities is to expand recreational access to public lands and waters,” said Secretary Zinke. “We already have thousands of private partners who operate on federal lands. Whether it's the iconic Jammers in Glacier National Park, the historic El Tovar lodge at the Grand Canyon, or the kayaks that you can rent on the Potomac River, American workers are at the heart of helping American families experience our great outdoors.”

The release did not draw a line across public lands to say where new infrastructure and recreational outlets would be desired and where they would not be considered, though some of those attending the roundtable mentioned the National Park System in their remarks.

“This opportunity to boost investment in outdoor tourism through public-private partnerships is a turning point for keeping America’s parks open for business and building even more American-made RVs and boats," said U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Indiana. "I look forward to working with Secretary Zinke to ensure RV and boat manufacturers continue to play a key role in strengthening outdoor recreation and our nation’s economy.”

Terry MacRae, chairman of the National Park Hospitality Association that represents many park concessionaires, said his membership is "more committed than ever to provide a broad range of high quality services to ensure NPS visitors have amazing experiences.”

Also in attendance was Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, an organization that has a goal to "improve boater access across the country." 

"We’re proud to be able to showcase the more than 35,000 U.S. businesses that make up the recreational boating industry and speak on their behalf, as we work together to protect boating for the millions of American boaters and the industry that produces the products that help them enjoy the lifestyle they love," he said.

It was just over a year ago when Mr. Dammrich's organization spoke out against efforts to create a 10,502-acre marine reserve at Biscayne National Park that would be off-limits for fishing, a prohibition park officials hoped would help restore the health of the coral reef at the heart of the reserve.

“After attempting to work in good faith with the National Park Service for many years to find a more reasonable path forward, it’s clear that Congressional action is needed to prevent this unwarranted marine reserve from going into effect,” Mr. Dammrich said at the time in a story in Boating Industry magazine. “Any decision as drastic as closing public waters must be based on sound science with efforts made to minimize negative impacts to stakeholders."

The association also complained in 2006 when Mr. Hoffman's emphasis on recreation over conservation was reversed.

“Congress did intend for parks to be used and enjoyed by the public,” said NMMA's vice president of government relations at the time. “The National Park Service cannot allow itself to be held hostage to those who argue for minimal public access. It goes against the spirit in which these parks were created.”

In a separate op-ed piece released Tuesday, the Interior secretary did state that "more partnerships does not mean privatizing our parks as some have wrongly suggested."

"Having partners on public lands also does not mean the tour bus will look like a race car covered in corporate stickers. Some of our most iconic features are only possible thanks to partnerships," he added. "Expanding partnerships will allow parks and public lands to deliver better services to more visitors, while allowing our rangers to focus on things like the health of the ecosystem, guided tours, educational services, and land management."

Please Support Independent National Park Journalism

Use the links below to make your donation to National Parks Traveler via PayPal, or send your check to National Parks Traveler, P.O. Box 980452, Park City, Utah, 84098. The Traveler is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit media organization. For U.S. residents, 100 percent of your contributions may be eligible for a tax deduction in accordance with applicable law. 


The only surprise in this is that it has taken six months for them to announce it. 

Gee, we shouldn't make public lands accessible to the public?  He didn't say "National Parks" he said "public lands".  Yes National Parks are public lands but a very small percentage of them.  There could be plenty of efforts to open recreation in public lands that would have little if any impact on the parks.  This is similar to the chicken little cries that public lands (immediately inferred as National Parks) could be sold or given to the states. There are plenty of public lands that could be given to the states with absolutely no impact on the Parks.

i am all for increasing access.  How about if there were some reps from non-motorized groups there, too?

I would have wanted more balanced reporting by National Parks Traveler, but instead we got another one sided pitch.   He said public lands!   And, while I've watched carefully the polarization of thought surrounding Grand Straircase and Bears Ears,  this could be a win win.   If you make public lands more accessible, it brings more dollars into cash striken areas like south eastern Utah, which in turn would nurture a better opinion base in the locals in having and taking care of their public lands, parks, monuments....   They become care takers as their bread and butter depend on the recreational use of public lands instead of pushing/wanting/something like a shortterm coal mine cash cow, which none of us want as it is fully distructive.    Anyway, just saying.        

Public lands ARE ALREADY ACCESSIBLE.  But there are some areas where, for any of a number of reasons, some access is restricted.  In some places, ATVs are restricted to established roads or may be banned completely because of such issues as erosion or damage to archaeological sites.

When people like Zinke and Hoffman use the word "accessible," they really mean "unrestricted."

And, by the way, the city council in a city in Utah County (sorry, it was just reported on the morning TV news and I didn't catch the name of the city) has just banned ATV use in hills above the city because of erosion, trash, fires, operating ATVs while drunk and a host of other problems.  But there's a kicker: apparently at least some of the land is part of the Wasatch-Cache National Forest and some folks are trying to object, saying the city can't restrict such use on federal lands.  (But at the same time, people argue that Utah's federal lands need to be "taken back" and managed by local governments.)

Might be interesting to see what "local" people think about unlimited access to lands around their homes.  Utah County, by the way, is said to be the "most Republican county in Utah." 

 Just heard that it was the city of Alpine. 

All you have to do is look at the list of meeting participants to know what kind of "recreation" Secretary Zinke is talking about. They represent intensive, commercial, mostly motorized recreation and advocacy for increased privatization of our public lands. Now they have a president who is one of them, and these corporate interests are making the most of this opportunity.

Here is a full list of attendees. Notice that there is not one wilderness-oriented recreation businesses, such as Patagonia, REI, Old Town Canoe, Black Diamond, and North Face, on the list.

And just because Zinke is generically talking about public lands doesn't mean the national parks are safe. They are the holy grail for industrial recreation interests, because they are still largely unexploited. You can bet that the National Off-Highway Vehicle "Conservation" Council would love to open up our millions of acres of pristine national parks to destructive -- and profitable -- off-road motor vehicles.

We dodged a bullet with President Cheney's boy Hoffman.  It took a real fight, though.  We have to be ready to fight again. 

As usual, it's all about $money$ and to hell with all the non-human inhabitants of our planet


Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide