Friday, October 21, 2005

The National Parks Under Siege

The New York Times

The National Parks Under Siege

Year after year, Americans express greater satisfaction with the National Park Service than with almost any other aspect of the federal government. From the point of view of most visitors, there is no incentive to revise the basic management policy that guides park superintendents, a policy that was last revised in 2001 and is usually re-examined only every 10 or 15 years. Longtime park service employees feel much the same way. Yet in the past two months we have seen two proposed revisions. The first, written by Paul Hoffman, a deputy assistant secretary in the Interior Department, was a genuinely scandalous rewriting that would have destroyed the national park system.

On Tuesday, the Interior Department released a new draft. The question isn't whether this revision is better than Mr. Hoffman's drastic rewrite. Almost anything would be better than his version, a glaring example of the zeal to dilute conservation with commercialism among political appointees in the Interior Department. But the new draft would still undermine the national parks.

This entire exercise is unnecessary, driven by politics and ideology. The only reason for revisiting and revising the 2001 management policy was Mr. Hoffman's belief, expressed during a press conference earlier this week, that the 2001 policy is "anti-enjoyment." This will surely come as news to the 96 percent of park visitors who year after year express approval of their experiences. The kind of enjoyment Mr. Hoffman has in mind - as clearly evidenced by his draft and by remarks from Interior Secretary Gale Norton - is opening up the parks to off-road vehicles, including snowmobiles. The ongoing effort to revise the 2001 policy betrays a powerful sense, shared by many top interior officials, that the national parks are resources not to be protected but to be exploited.

This new policy document doesn't go as far as the earlier version. But it would eliminate the requirement that only motorized equipment with the least impact should be used in national parks. It would lower air-quality standards and strip away language about preserving the parks' natural soundscape - language that currently makes it hard, for instance, to justify allowing snowmobiles into Yellowstone. It would also refer park superintendents to other management documents that have been revised to weaken fundamental standards and protections for the parks.

Mr. Hoffman and National Park Service officials have tried to argue that this new policy revision offers greater clarity. What it really offers is greater flexibility to interpret the rules the way they want to. The thrust of these changes is to diminish the historical, and legally upheld, premise that preservation is the central mission of the park system.

Here, for instance, is what this proposed policy revision would remove from the very heart of the park system's mission statement: "Congress, recognizing that the enjoyment by future generations of the national parks can be ensured only if the superb quality of park resources and values is left unimpaired, has provided that when there is a conflict between conserving resources and values and providing for enjoyment of them, conservation is to be predominant."

These unambiguous words contain the legal and legislative history that has protected the parks over the years from exactly the kind of change Mr. Hoffman has in mind, allowing all the rest of us to enjoy the national parks in ways that are more respectful of the future and of the parks themselves.

One of the most troubling aspects of this revised policy is how it was produced. Instead of being shaped by park service professionals thinking in a timely way about how to do their jobs better, this is a defensive document that was rushed forward to head off the more sweeping damage that Mr. Hoffman's first draft threatened to do. It is a tribute to the National Park Service veterans who worked on it that they were able to mitigate so much of the harm, even though they, too, were working directly under Mr. Hoffman's eye. They risked their jobs to protect the parks from political appointees in the Interior Department. This is a measure of how distorted the department's policies have become.

There is more potential damage on the way. At least two deeply worrying new directives have been handed down. One allows the National Park Service to solicit contributions from individuals and corporations instead of merely accepting them when they're offered. This is another way to further the privatization of the national parks and edge toward their commercialization. Privatizing the government's core responsibilities - like the national parks - is unacceptable, and so is the prospect of any greater commercial presence in the parks.

More alarming still is a directive released last week that would require park personnel who hope to advance above the middle-manager level to go through what is essentially a political screening. What we are witnessing, in essence, is an effort to politicize the National Park Service - to steer it away from its long-term mission of preserving much-loved national treasures and make it echo the same political mind-set that turned Mr. Hoffman, a former Congressional aide to Dick Cheney and a former head of the Cody, Wyo., chamber of commerce, into an architect of national park policy.