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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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.So, if Eugene O'Neill's home or a site which led and supported women's right to vote are not worthy of National Park status, what is? O'Neill's writing influenced American writing (He was the only American playwright to win the Nobel Peace Prize) and giving women the right to vote was a National movement, both would seem to meet the National part of the National Park system?

We have lots of parks run by local authorities....they are called city, township, regional and county parks.

Before you criticize the maintenance divisions in the national park service units, go and spend a day walking in their shoes. They have faced some of the highest cuts at the field level. That’s why campgrounds are understaffed; not as spiffy as they once were. They work harder than anyone else in the park, clean the poop off the walls, pick the rotten food out of the bottom of the trash cans and still provide better visitor information than the fee collectors. All I see here are a bunch of people who are willing to offer up a bunch of "if I ruled the world" statements without spending any time in the trenches. This never accomplishes anything. We need to find ways to build consensus, support each other and find ways to create the strongest park service--especially in light of things we all see as bad (like private parties). Throwing the baby out with the bathwater isn't the solution.

Maybe it's the August visitor stress of answering the same questions hundred times a day, but I used to enjoy the traveler. Now I just see it as a bunch of old white men whining about their entitlements.

"...they [maintenance workers] provide better visitor information than the fee collectors."

"We need to find ways to build consensus, support each other..."

Yeah, the first statement, a slam against fee collectors, is very supportive.

"Before you criticize the maintenance divisions in the national park service units, go and spend a day walking in their shoes."

I spent a decade doing dirty work for the NPS like cleaning up dog poop, human vomit, human blood, performing first responder duties, removing stinking rotting 800 pound pygmies sperm whales from the beach, busting trails, busting fire lines, breathing thousands of cubic feet of forest fire smoke, picking up trash, and so on. Don't give me the old cliched "spend a day walking in their shoes" bit because a lot of NPS employees (well, those who don't spend their days in air conditioned offices) have seen the "trenches". So I--or anyone for that matter--have a right to criticize the sense of government entitlement (and the "good enough for government work!" attitude) that I've observed in maintenance and other divisions.

The Park Service spends $133 dollars per visitor to operate the O'Neil. Would you pay $133 OF YOUR OWN MONEY to visit it? That's the point being made about such entitlement sites.

Frank it is an uphill battle but someone's got to do it! The new paradigm of self-sustaining market friendly parks is a no-brainer. It is happening in every other sphere of modern life. Yet most people have been taught to distrust the benefits of self-interested action and to look instead into the all enveloping arms of Big Brother to take care of what they believe true freedom of action would never accomplish. The fact that government fails at every endeavor never diminishes their capacity for believing in Him.

All this talk of "Soviet-style bureaucracy" and "Big brother" and "Who's Eugene O'Neill?" is getting tiresome. The old "repeat your mantra often enough in the hopes that people will eventually stop rebutting it" has gotten out of control... Privatizing everything will just make it more expensive for everyone as these companies attempt to raise enough cash to pay their exhorbitant contractor salaries.

The market for the National Park Service does not change over time. The same principles for the Park Service's existence did, do now, and always will apply... They're not there to entertain you like a birthday bash at Chuck E. Cheese. The notion that the Park Service needs to adapt to today's consumers is utter nonsense. So you'd have Yosemite competing against Yellowstone, Everglades, and Grand Canyon to attract the tourist dollar? Give it 20 years and we'll have casinos, thrill rides, and movie theaters with buttered "cave popcorn" popping up all over the NPS system.

Whether you can manage to appreciate a playwright's work, an artist's scuplture, or a former president's policies, it's all part of our national heritage and with 391 units in NPS, pick and visit those you find interesting. I don't expect white supremecists to visit Frederick Douglass' home in Washington DC, nor do I expect people who haven't read much beyond Dr. Seuss to visit Longfellow National Historic Site. To each his own, and with the variety and depth and breadth of the American experience that the Park Service encompasses, everyone can find something to enjoy, while at the same time, realize that others find value in things they might not. I support the existence of Isle Royale National Park and Aleutian National Historic Area, whether or not I ever visit there or even plan to visit there. Just knowing they're there is good enough for me.

Having the NPS pendulum sway back and forth from left to right, from administration to administration, is more of a problem than ANY of the superlatives I've seen mentioned here. No, that doesn't mean privatize it. It means create some buffers to protect the parks from the direct influence of a potential idiot in the oval office, whether left or right. In all their haste to make the president du jour happy, in the long run, NPS can easily wind up going nowhere and having spent a lot of money in the process. Perhaps consider installing NPS directors in the same way that Federal Reserve or CIA directors are... subject to approval by congress, and largely independent of the whims of politicians.

-- Jon Merryman

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