In 1916, Congress—recognizing the importance of preserving the country’s most unique and treasured natural lands—passed the National Park Service Organic Act. The act created the National Park Service and directed that the national parks be preserved “by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
For the better part of the past century, the National Park Service (NPS) has managed the parks and historic sites under its care with preservation of park resources as its primary guiding principal. Under current NPS management policy—adopted in 2001—conservation of park resources trumps recreational uses of the parks.
But a new draft of NPS management policies crafted by officials within the U.S. Depart-ment of the Interior would, if adopted, diminish park protections and encourage commercial priorities in the nation’s parks.
“My biggest concern about new management policies is that they are just totally unnecessary,” says Bethanie Walder, executive director of Wildlands Center for Preventing Roads (CPR), a Missoula-based conservation group focused on reducing the impacts of off-road vehicle (ORV) use on public lands.
Walder says she is particularly concerned about language added to the introduction of the draft policies that would put more emphasis on commercialization of the parks. The draft policies direct park managers to “ensure that uses will not…disrupt the operations of park concessions or contractors,” when considering appropriate uses of park resources. The introduction goes on to state that “appropriate uses may include…uses that may represent new technology.”
Walder says the new draft policies could open the door to more ORV use in national parks as well as further commercialization and privatization of public lands.
“This new language reduces the clarity of the park service’s mission and gets away from the Organic Act,” Walder says.
NPS management policies are reviewed, on average, every 10 to 15 years. Prior to the 2001 revision, NPS management policies had been left untouched since 1988. Two proposed revisions have come out in the past five months. The first was crafted—without consultation from NPS staff—by Paul Hoffman, a politically appointed deputy assistant secretary at Interior who formerly headed the Cody, Wyo., chamber of commerce and once served as a congressional aide to Vice President Dick Cheney. Hoffman’s proposal—which was leaked to the press in August, meeting with widespread outrage and condemnation—was seen by many as an attempt to undermine the preservation mission of the national park system.
In response to criticism from conservationists, parks advocacy groups and former NPS managers and employees, the agency released a second draft proposal in October, but conservation groups deride the new draft as “Hoffman lite.”
According to Bill Wade, coordinator of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees and former superintendent at Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, while the current draft policy changes eliminate much of Hoffman’s most egregious language, the new draft still goes a long way toward undermining NPS’s historic mission.
“Most troubling by far is the fact that the current draft still drops the primary responsibility of the park service to conserve or protect park resources,” Wade told the Independent on his way to Capitol Hill Monday. Wade was scheduled to testify on the issue before a House National Parks Subcommittee Dec. 14 (after press time).
Wade said NPS policies could use some updating related to security in the wake of 9/11, but that the draft proposal goes far beyond that.
“We think those kinds of things can be done more with a bottom-up amendment process to the 2001 polices rather than the top-down radical process that has been initiated [by the Interior Department],” said Wade.
Walder says Montanans should be particularly concerned about changes in current policies regarding management of national park lands as wilderness.
“The draft policies specifically reduce protection for proposed wilderness lands within the park system,” Walder says.
The changes, she says, could open the door to ORV use in parts of Glacier that have traditionally been managed as wilderness. According to Glacier spokesperson Melissa Wilson, 95 percent of the park is currently managed as wilderness. (Wilson says managers and staff at Glacier are in the process of reviewing the 210-page draft 2006 NPS Management Policies, and would not comment on the proposal until early January or February. She did confirm that no Glacier officials were consulted by Interior on the new draft. Officials at Yellowstone National Park did not return calls by press time.)
Walder says both the Hoffman proposal and “Hoffman lite” are driven by political ideology.
“Hoffman is just an example of one more political appointee crony—and he has an agenda,” says Walder.
According to an article in the Jackson Hole (Wyo.) News & Guide, in 1995, when Hoffman was the director of the Cody Chamber of Commerce, he helped organize the Yellowstone Gateway Alliance, an informal meeting of chambers of commerce near the park. The Alliance got into hot water with conservationists when minutes of the meeting were leaked to the press. According to reports, topics of discussion at the secret meeting ranged from building new park roads to expanding existing roads to four lanes to curtailing strict regulations on snowmobile use.
“If you look at Paul Hoffman’s history, he was working toward a different perspective [than NPS]: private profit off of public lands in a multitude of ways,” says Walder. “There is an agenda within the [Bush] administration on whole to privatize public lands.”
The draft 2006 NPS Management Policies is available on the Internet at http://parkplanning.nps.gov. The agency is accepting public comment on the proposal until Feb. 28 via e-mail or through a form on the agency’s website.