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Setting Precedents in the Parks


A dozen tents with alcohol were set up at the Charlestown Navy Yard to cater to a special event held there earlier this summer.

There's a passage in Director's Order 53, one of the many documents that guide National Park Service management decisions, that warns of proverbial icebergs ready to assail superintendents who truly believe their mission is to "conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

The section really can't be missed, as it's right up front in the introduction to Director's Order 53, which governs special uses in the parks. Here's how it reads:

The approval or denial of requests to engage in special park uses is an important and continuing responsibility of superintendents. Superintendents should be aware that local decisions relating to permitting special park uses may have Service-wide implications, and set precedents that create difficulties for other superintendents. In such instances, the superintendent should consult with the regional or Service-wide specialist.

The key word in that paragraph, of course, is "precedents." If something is approved in one park, that approval very well could be used in a bid to open up another park to a similar use. And with the new breed of superintendents who are looking for ways to generate revenues to offset budget shortfalls, hosting special events just might be the key.

While there no doubt will be some special events that dovetail perfectly with a specific park's mission and history, there are others that seem highly questionable.

Already this summer there have been two special events that some have called into question: The Toyota Scion party at Alcatraz in Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and the McKesson bash at the Charlestown Navy Yard of the Boston National Historical Park. What some have found objectionable is that neither event meshed, culturally or historically, with their respective settings. Rather, the decisions to OK both events seem to be based simply on drawing crowds to the park units for after-hours affairs.

Will we see private parties on the boardwalk that wraps Old Faithful? I'm told not. But who knows? Whether the Alcatraz and Charlestown Navy Yard affairs were the only special-use events that have been at odds with their settings is not easy to ascertain, as the Park Service's Washington headquarters does not track special uses.

Indeed, in the case of the Alcatraz and Charlestown affairs, the Park Service's point person for special uses had no advance knowledge of the parties.

Were the Alcatraz and Charlestown parties big deals? Considered in a vacuum, probably not. But if they set precedents that will open other units of the national park system to similarly questionable uses, these bashes were very big deals.

Another concern is that while NPS Director Mary Bomar promised Congress that she would see that transparency is key in how her agency conducts business, that message does not seem to be trickling down to all units of the Park Service. While the folks at Golden Gate were more than willing to discuss how they handled the Toyota party, those at Boston National Historical Park largely have turned a deaf ear to questions about how they manage special uses in general and, more specifically, why they approved the McKesson party.

So far they refuse to discuss:

* The parameters of the contract with Amelia Occasions, a wedding and special events planner, and what it requires from Amelia in terms of payment for the use of the Navy Yard's Commandant's House or whether Amelia is responsible for maintenance of the house;

* How many special events they allow each year;

* How much revenue, if any, these events generate, and;

* Why the McKesson party, which required a dozen tents to dispense alcohol to roughly 3,500 invitees, was permitted when Director's Order 53 clearly states that special uses that are contrary to the purposes for which a park was established or which unreasonably impair the atmosphere of peace and tranquility maintained in wilderness, natural, historic, or commemorative locations within the park should not be allowed.

They have said, though, that the best way to preserve a historic building is to use it.

"And that is what we are doing and will continue to do in the Charlestown Navy Yard. If we used the wrong instrument or authority to permit the special event that was held in the Navy Yard on July 10, it was unintentional and we will fix it," BNHP spokesman Sean Hennessey told me in an email. "But we will continue to hold special events that expose new audiences to the stories and resources associated with the birth and growth of America, and we will continue to collaborate with arts and cultural organizations to interpret our resources in new and exciting ways."

While efforts to lure new audiences are laudable, there are some within the Park Service who question how these efforts are being carried out.

"My feeling is that this is out of control. I think the message from (Director) Bomar and others is see if you can make money," one ranger told me. "I think you can do these events without desecrating or bastardizing the resource or the image. But we're not."

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Frank you're becoming quite the spokesperson for libertarian thought and the local control of natural areas. If Ron Paul is elected President I will suggest that he make you the new NPS Director with the specific task of de-commissioning the parks from federal to local administration. There are many fine foundations and trusts out there that could begin the task of park administration immediately and I know that many more would spring up to lovingly care for many more areas.

Having had a ten-year career in the NPS I agree that the problems are deeply rooted and systemic and definitely transcend the mere presence of a so-called "friendly" administration in the White House or a particular majority in Congress. I saw the same blatant incompetence and self-advancing careerism during both Democrat and Republican administrations. The parks were always trotted out at election time to be touted or clucked over, depending on the crowd or contributor base, and then kicked around the political football field with wild abandon. After all was said and done the same lame brains were still in charge at park HQ after Inauguration Day regardless of who marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to polish a chair with his butt in the Oval Office.

As for Art's question: "Where would the managers, maintenance specialists, cultural and resource managers, architects, landscape architects, planners, Law Enforcement, Interpreters, administrators that are working in the parks come from?" I would answer from the private sector. There are many talented people out there in this big wide world of ours that can do all of the things mentioned above and probably, in most cases, much more efficiently than is being done at present. With no federal work rules personnel can be hired and fired as managers see fit.

At the present time in our history government monopolies are fast losing favor with the public due to poor service, rising fees and a perception of arrogance due to a lack of market accountability. I don't think the majority of Americans would be sad to see the current park system replaced with something new and better. As much as the NPS brass would disagree most visitors come to see the wonders of the Grand Canyon or Yosemite and not the people dressed in WW I era uniforms skinning them for $25 to experience outdated and run down infrastructure. The old days of Soviet style park management is quickly drawing to a close and a new era of free market local will soon be dawning. Mark my words. The current regime is BROKE! They will have no choice.

Continuing the thread...

The discontent in this country is humongous. Never before in my 75 years have I witnessed anger, disgust, and disdain for just about everything. What Frank and Beamis are suggesting is on the minds of many of the taxpayers: "the answer is Private Enterprise". Judging from the talking heads in the media and their many polls, the public is disenchanted with the President (me too), the legislature, the justice system, health care, education system, national security...... hell, you name it and the US citizens hate it. Not without cause, that's for sure.

Two questions:

1. If NGO's ran 391 parks, wouldn't they have to have a bureaucracy to insure all park areas abide by the same policies and keep the individual parks within a cohesive system?

2. What evidence shows that privatizing any part of government operations makes it better. Pvt enterprise seems only to be good at making huge salaries for the CEO's. There certainly isn't much evidence that they are in it for the public good.

Of course, this is just my opinion, and I could be wrong, as Dennis Miller likes to say!

You're right; between the 1950s and 1990s the ratio of citizens who said government wastes "a lot" of their tax money rose from under 50% to 75%; Washington's "golden age", stretching from the New Deal to the lunar landing, is over. Citizens began asking the government to do a million things through a million programs which were defended by countless constituencies, all when Washington's ability to adapt had been diminished by so many interest groups. Government now lacks the adaptability to solve problems, and its citizens (most of whom belong to interest groups and benefit greatly from a transfer economy) are pissed off.

Parks can still be owned by the public (public trusts), but managed by either state, local, or non-government organization (none of which are exactly the same as "private enterprise").

But to answer your question:

1. First, 391 is too high a number. Look at the parks in the San Francisco Bay Area. Who the heck was Eugene O'Neill, and why is there a park for him? Oh, guess he was a play write of some sort, although I've never heard of him, nor had my lit degree holding fiance (national significance?). And Port Chicago Naval Magazine? And the 500-acre Muir Woods? Surely, these could be managed by California State Parks or a trust. Congressional representatives pushed for most of these to please their constituencies to get re-elected.

But, no, you don't need a huge bureaucracy, just a legal charter (I'm not sure the legal charter even needs be the same for each national park--think how varied state constitutions are) and some type of oversight (preferably locally--maybe non-governmental "watchdog" groups). And why should all parks abide by the same policies? No boats on Crater Lake doesn't mean no boats on any bodies of water in national parks. And no dogs on trails in natural parks should not automatically mean no dogs in Washington DC parks. For an example, read the news story, "Wake up, National Park Service!" ( ) which states in part:

Most of the parks where people take their mutts, particularly on Capitol Hill, are federal property. And the National Park Service has a broad "no dog parks" policy — highly sensible for preserving the integrity of a national treasure like Yellowstone. But how much majesty is at stake when we're talking about little old Stanton Park?

"They [the NPS] need to be more responsive to the constituents of the urban area in which they’re located," an advisory neighborhood commissioner said.

The NPS and the Feds are too calcified in red tape to be responsive. Decentrilization provides the flexibility to adapt to local conditions and needs.

So, I think IF there were to be a "cohesive system", it should be very basic, something along the lines of the Organic Act--updated for the 21st century--but without establishing a national, political bureaucracy.

2. After the passage of the Air Cargo Deregulation Act of 1977 and the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, airfares fell by more than 20%, the number of passengers doubled, and air accident rates fell by almost half (with more non-stop service). The railroad deregulation of 1980 saved shippers $5 billion a year, with lower accident rates. Charter and private schools typically outperform public schools, and they typically do it with less money. Again, the authors of "Reinventing Government" cite studies that claim on average "public service delivery is 35 to 95 percent more expensive than contracting, even when the cost of administering the contracts is included."

I'm reminded of the Schonchin Butte rehabilitation where maintenance workers worked for an hour, then declared break time, which lasted 30 or more minutes and consisted of smoking, coffee drinking, swearing, and repeating the phrase "good enough for government work!" When you consider the NPS maintenance backlog, how much of that figure is inflated due to inefficiency? What if contractors were allowed to bid on the work? How much could parks save by introducing competition?

Food for thought. I don't have all the answers. Just some ideas.

"Pvt enterprise seems only to be good at making huge salaries for the CEO's. There certainly isn't much evidence that they are in it for the public good." This type of thinking is the real problem. The idea that self-interested action is a bad thing is drilled into the skulls of children everyday in the government run schools. The fact that the government achieves its results through coercion is not something that gets much air time or critical thought by the powers that be for a good reason. It is the underpinning of their ill gotten power.

Is Mr. Allen saying that he doesn't get anything "good" out of his automobile, digital camera, washing machine, home computer or the clean underwear he's now wearing? When he uses these things does he only visualize the greedy CEO who is making a profit from his voluntary purchase of these products? Does he really think that private enterprise does the not benefit the public good?

The government, on the other hand, acheives all of its results through coercion. If I don't like bloody tyrannical war, the lazy bums at the post office, the billions ladled out to sugar and tobacco farmers or the idea of a Eugene O'Neill national park well too bad. Pay up or go to jail. That is the government paradigm. There is nothing volutary or free will about what they do.

The beauty of free enterprise is that I DON'T have to buy a Toyota, shop at Wal-Mart, use an Apple computer or answer the door when the Avon lady comes knocking. IT IS ALL VOLUNTARY! I can pick and choose as my wants and desires dictate. I can use my principles and morality when I decide what to purchase in the free market. With the IRS I have one choice, "pay me now slave or suffer the consequences." That's a wide gap in legitimacy Mr. Allen.

"The honest among us realize that the resort to coercion is a tacit confession of imbecility. If he who employs force against me could mold me to his purposes by argument, no doubt he would."

-------Carl Watner

I've been going through a rough personal spell, but as I sit in my brother's home waiting to go to a funeral home, I can't help mentioning that this is turning into a re-run of a past conversation, one where I don't see where the force of my criticisms against libertarianism were actually answered. So, for those going down the lines of the so called free enterprise that gives us the wonders of automobiles, digital cameras, washing machines, and a number of other things that the privileged now consume and have identified as freedom and progress (let's throw in skewering laptops as well - for us who have them), look at this thread /2007/07/you-want-how-much-campsite .

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

The argue shouldn't be about libertarianism vs. socialism or conservative vs. liberal. These cliched lables have become utterly meaningless. The fact is that government is not responsive to its citizens, as so many things recently continue to demonstrate. It's unresponsive to its citizens because of interest groups that impose a government monopoly. Competition is good; it's how we all evolved and got to this point. Competition in the government will allow us to shrink the bureaucracy and allow government to solve real problems again. The core issue is the question: "What should government's role be?"

I think the government shouldn't give McDonalds half a billion dollars to market chicken nuggets in Latin America. I don't think the government should invade another country. I think the government should provide for the safety and security of its people. This means managing defense, health care, utilities, transportation, infrastructure and encouraging innovation. When government is given less to do, it performs at a higher level. Government should be flexible and responsive to its people.

Those are the issues as I see them.


Hopefully, my discussion wasn't about labels. My argument was that free enterprise actually does produce coercive realities, that there are a lot of people coerced into new realities by the free trade of others, that we are all connected by the acts of each other.

I agree with Beamis about the evils of government, would probably even go much further than Beamis on the ineptitude and evils of government. What I don't agree with is that private enterprise is actually an alternative. He derides this as "clear as mud." Well, I kind of like that, but I would argue to the bitter end that I am being coherent; my premise has been that the presumed rights of governments and the presumed rights of private property are actually based in the same fallacies. If we will allow ourselves to consider the force of that argument, a new world opens up to us - one that's muddy, one where we still suffer, where we still die, where people still hurt each other, but one that's better than these hopelessly abstract notions of things that don't exist.

I don't want to see McDonald's subsidized to market chicken nuggets in Latin America or in Yellowstone National Park; I also don't want to see the Park Police arrest homeless people in DC's city parks. I also don't want to see tenants forced out in the streets because someone decided to convert their home into a shopping mall. At the very least, we can work for a society where our voices and participation can happen, and where free associations really do exist. That those free associations have been equated with market capitalism is one of the most amazing sleights of hand that has ever happened. Somehow, the quasi-governmental corporations have been embraced as actual alternatives to government.

Okay, that's enough from me for a couple days.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

Okay I will distill my point: the national parks will be better off when they are removed from direct governmental control. The Deprtment of Interior is not the best container for the administration and management of these areas, nor should tainted politicians vying for "park barrel" plums in their home districts be choosing and approving new parks commerating Eugene O'Neill and Women's Rights. There should be a new era of stewardship that does not include the federal government.

I am clear?

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