National Parks in Peril

National Geographic Magazine describes how Paul Hoffman, appointed by the Bush administration, tried to redirect US National Parks to emphasize recreation instead of preservation. Apparently conservative does not mean conservation when applied to wilderness in the Bush administration.

Link: National Parks in Peril @ National Geographic Magazine.

The legislation establishing the National Park Service 90 years ago, the so-called Organic Act, stipulated that the purpose of parks and monuments—indeed, the agency’s core mission—"is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life 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." But over the years there has been much disagreement over which comes first, the resource or the visitor. Not only that, but at what point does resource impairment begin to result from a good time being had by all?

Five years ago the National Park System Advisory Board, a distinguished panel appointed by the Secretary of the Interior, issued a report describing how the Park Service, early on, had discovered that the best way to win public support for the parks was to make sure the visitors derived pleasure from them. However, managing for people (as in the suppression of forest fires) often resulted in bad news for resources (a buildup of forest debris fueling deadlier fires). "It is time," the board declared in Rethinking the National Parks for the 21st Century, "to re-examine the ‘enjoyment equals support’ equation and to encourage public support of resource protection at a higher level of understanding. In giving priority to visitor services, the Park Service has paid less attention to the resources it is obliged to protect for future generations."

For the most part career professionals in the Park Service found the report much to their liking. But that was not the reaction among political appointees in the Bush Administration. Though Park Service Director Fran Mainella initially supported the report, it later became evident that it was not her agenda, and before long the Department of the Interior, under Secretary Norton, was suggesting the opposite of what the board had concluded: Preservation was trumping recreation; the Clinton Administration had taken the fun out of national parks. Now the stage was set for a clash of values.

In the summer of 2005, Interior was obliged to make public—after it was leaked—a 195-page revision of the Park Service’s basic policy document, essentially altering the way parks were to be managed in the future. The rewrite was the work of Paul Hoffman, at the time Interior’s deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife, and parks, a former executive director of the Cody, Wyoming, chamber of commerce, and congressional aide to Dick Cheney in the 1980s. Among Hoffman’s most radical policy tweaks were calls to open to snowmobiles all national park roads used by motor vehicles in other seasons, as well as a relaxation of restrictions on personal watercraft at some national seashores and lakeshores and on noisy tourist flights over such parks as Great Smoky Mountains and Glacier.

Charging that these revisions would override 90 years of established laws and court rulings, more than a few park superintendents expressed alarm. "I hope the public understands that this is a threat to their heritage," J. T. Reynolds, superintendent at Death Valley National Park, told the Los Angeles Times. Bill Wade, for many years superintendent of Shenandoah National Park but now retired and speaking as chairman of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, called the Hoffman document an "astonishing attempt to hijack" the nation’s parks "and convert them into vastly diminished areas where almost anything goes." And it came as no surprise that the rewrite paid scant attention to the importance of promoting science-based programs in the national parks.