Torturing national parks

Whenever an administration comes to power that possesses a philosophy totally at odds with an agency’s purpose, mission and traditions, you can expect fireworks. Since January 2001, the Interior Department has been transformed from a department of professionals concerned about the long-term preservation and sustained use of our nation’s resources to a cadre of politically-driven corporate puppets whose mission is to turn over America’s resources to the private business interests and the “wreckreation” movement.

Across the spectrum of government, we have seen the dramatic affect of this not-so-subtle transition from good stewardship to destructive policies affecting the environment. The administration has gutted the Clean Water Act, has crippled laws that were designed to reduce air pollution, and is moving rapidly toward dire changes in the Endangered Species Act that destroy its effectiveness. The administration is pushing current efforts to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil interests. Why, you ask? It’s really simple. In all these moves, private business interests benefit; the public suffers.

In the case of the National Park Service, it was clearly evident that the parks were under siege shortly after the Bush administration took office. Appointments were made to positions having responsibility to guard the people’s resources and health, with candidates having a belief that private industry should exploit the nation’s resources. This is only another form of “trickle-down” economic theory that simply does not work. Economists, political science majors, lobbyists, and spokespersons from the mining and oil industry and organizations supporting privatization were filling important resource positions in the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service. Formerly, resource-based individuals filled these positions.

Need convincing? Here are some examples:

• NPS set policy reducing ability to have air pollution controls in national parks.

• NPS overrode two decades of scientific study to allow the reintroduction of snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park.

• NPS proposed policy that would permit advertising in national parks.

• NPS began outsourcing of public protection jobs (lifeguards) at seashores.

• NPS rewrote policies and directives that once put protection of resources first, so that protection and use would be equal. This paved the way for more “wreckreational” use by motorized vehicles.

• The administration’s leadership introduced legislation to sell off 10 national park areas.

As a result of this enormous change in park administration and the obvious threats to the continued welfare of the National Park Service, a new organization was born: the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. Numbering over 500 retired park employees, including directors, regional directors, park superintendents and other supervisors, this group has proven to be the watchdog for responsible park stewardship. The coalition has created the fireworks. Every time the administration has put forward a foul policy that endangers the cultural or natural resources of the parks, this group has quickly responded through letters to the media, to the legislators and to the NPS officials. Simply bringing the administration’s flawed policies to the public’s attention has resulted in substantial victories for protection of our natural and cultural resources.

So there you have it, the gauntlet has been laid down. Which side are you on? I have always looked upon the national parks as the American equivalent to Europe’s ancient cathedrals and magnificent castles. Europeans have always accepted the burden of preserving and protecting their timeworn icons. For over 90 years those who govern have supported the national parks with adequate funding and philosophical support. Now the parks are in dire straits — they need your support. Speak out to your legislators, write letters to the editors and join conservation groups. Whatever you do, just remember these are your parks and your resources; let’s help ensure they will still be around for your descendants.

Art Allen retired as assistant superintendent of Blue Ridge Parkway in 1990, after serving as a park ranger, naturalist and numerous administrative capacities in the national parks. This article is reprinted from the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility web site, www.peer.org, with the author’s permission.