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Outside magazine, December 1991
The National Park Service gets older, but no wiser
Last October the National Park Service threw a birthday party for itself. It was a posh event, held in Vail, Colorado, featuring speakers representing the inner sanctum of America’s conservation elite. Costing $500,000 and receiving financial support from a host of donors that included Laurance Rockefeller and Walt Disney, it was attended by more than 300 people from public
This event symbolizes the plight of the National Park Service. The agency, which turned 75 this year, is in deep trouble, but few Americans seem to care. Lacking strong leadership and a clearly defined mission, it is a rudderless ship in a stormy sea of ecological change, unable to steer a course that would bring it–and the national parks–to safety.
The list of threats to the national parks is almost endless: soil erosion, air pollution, oil spills, toxic wastes, insect infestations, feral and exotic animals, urban sprawl. Research reveals that 42 major mammalian species have already disappeared from our national parks, and more are at risk. The wolves of Isle Royale are dwindling in number, victims of a shrinking gene
Yet the Park Service is unable to respond effectively to these problems. Its ranger force is woefully lacking in professional training to cope with increasingly complex ecological problems. And a Byzantine bureaucratic structure makes rational decision-making all but impossible. But most important, the agency is suffering from an identity crisis. It is the nation’s premier
Saving the parks, therefore, requires reforming the Park Service. But this is not something the agency can do itself. Professionalization of rangers will only happen when outside political forces–environmentalists, members of Congress, and other constructive critics–force reform. Yet rather than growing as a political force, the Park Service’s circle of friends is shrinking.
These weaknesses were glaringly revealed in 1991, a year that was to have been a gala one for the Park Service. Manager of the Kennedy Center and sponsor of the Statue of Liberty celebration, the Park Service knows how to throw a party. And in 1991 it outdid itself. It orchestrated an orgy of publicity: National magazines obediently oozed syrupy stories on “The National Park
The Vail conference was intended to turn the boat around. Entitled “Our National Parks–Challenges and Strategies for the 21st Century,” it discussed recommendations from “working groups” that had been commissioned by the Park Service and supervised by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Conveying the authority and prestige of America’s oldest university, it was intended to
Yet, although many of the recommendations were very good, the conference was not a launchpad for reform. Few among even the most timid critics were asked to speak or chair panels. Historian Al Runte–a mild but hardly radical voice for change–called the meeting a “self-congratulatory cocktail party.” Thus it revealed why improvement is a long way off: The Park Service and its
Rangers often complain that the Park Service has two incompatible duties: to promote preservation and outdoor recreation simultaneously. In fact, it seldom tries to balance these two goals. It usually puts tourism first. More than 80 percent of the agency’s budget is spent directly or indirectly on tourism, while less than 3 percent goes to research. Having no academic freedom,
This situation has long bothered environmentalists, who want the Park Service to put greater emphasis on conservation. But bad as they are, an emphasis on tourism and a lack of professionalism are not the only threats to the national parks. More damaging is the Park Service’s confused jumble of natural-resource policies. The Park Service quite literally does not know what
Congress’s first attempt to define preservation was the Yellowstone Park Act of 1872, which commanded the Secretary of the Interior to “provide for the preservation from injury or spoilation of…natural curiosities or wonders within said park, and their retention in their natural condition.” The Organic Act of August 25, 1916, establishing the Park Service, enjoined the new
Unfortunately, even today no one knows what these statements mean. The more closely this language–calling for keeping “wonders” in their “natural condition” and leaving scenery and wildlife “unimpaired”–is examined, the more obscure it seems. As historian Lynn White put it, preservation cannot be “deep-freezing an ecology…as it was before the first Kleenex was dropped.”
In an attempt to frame a more scientifically respectable preservation policy, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall in 1963 charged a prestigious commission, chaired by the prominent biologist A. Starker Leopold, with the task of reexamining the purposes of park management. The Leopold Report, as it became known, concluded that parks should be re-creations of “the primitive
The Leopold Report was embraced by the Park Service that same year. But however attractive, it set the agency a chimerical goal. Reconstructing and preserving the “primitive scene” would turn parks into dioramas. Taken literally, it would be impossible to accomplish. We cannot revive extinct species, eliminate many nonnative plants and animals, or bring Indians back to live on
So while paying lip service to the Leopold Report, the Park Service ignored the document. Instead, in 1968, it adopted a policy called “natural regulation.” This scheme, still in force, stipulates that resource managers must “maintain all the components and processes of naturally evolving park ecosystems” but do so without “interference with natural processes.”
The premise of natural regulation is that parks are self-regulating ecosystems that if left alone will maintain ecological equilibrium. And that assumes that parks, visited by millions every year, can actually be left alone.
As a scientific hypothesis, natural regulation is as phony as the phlogiston theory. No park can be an island isolated from effects of civilization. Nearly all parks are missing major components, such as predators, needed for a complete ecosystem. And each continues to be disturbed by a range of human activities from acid rain to automobile traffic. So when “left alone” by
Natural regulation fails to preserve “the primitive scene,” but this fact has not prompted the Park Service to abandon the policy. Rather, the agency touts the strategy’s ineffectiveness as a reason for expanding it, while giving it another name: ecosystems management. Natural regulation has not worked, the Park Service says, because parks are not large enough to be complete
Unfortunately, this argument, too, is full of ether. Even the biggest so-called ecosystems cannot be isolated from destructive forces of civilization. And no one knows the size of the sanctuary needed to satisfy the evolutionary requirements of its inhabitants. We do not know how much land is required to ensure that grizzly bears, which evolved over half a continent, can exist
Faced with the difficulty of defending natural regulation, the Park Service and its friends try to cover the dogma with the clothing of science. But often the results are embarrassing. In 1989 the National Parks and Conservation Association, a Park Service booster group, convened a committee to reevaluate the Leopold Report. Treating the document with the reverence due a sacred
In this one sentence the Blue Ribbon Panel captured the nostalgia, amateurism, and gross intellectual deceit that passes for preservation-policy debate within Park Service circles. Demanding to keep parks as they “would have evolved” is like asking Native Americans to live as their culture “would have evolved” had Cortés not introduced the horse and gun to the New World.
The fits and starts of park service policy and the intellectually pathetic attempts to justify it reveal that while everyone wants preservation, no one knows what it means. Many biologists, for example, would say that preservation is the promotion of biodiversity; this is the goal of The Nature Conservancy and the United Nations Biosphere Reserve Programme. But even this
Partly scientific and partly a question of public choice, therefore, the issue of park preservation should be widely debated, both by ecologists and the lay public. Instead, discussion has been restricted to an elite clique of Park Service friends–the Leopold Committees and Blue Ribbon Panels. But by failing to frame intellectually defensible definitions of natural
Indeed, the NPCA embodies this cliquishness. Although technically independent, this group maintains an incestuous relationship with the agency. Its president, Paul Pritchard, was formerly deputy director of the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service, a federal agency later absorbed by the Park Service. The NPCA itself, established in 1919 at the suggestion of the first
Just as the Soviet Union was long embarrassed by Stalin’s insistence that Trofim Lysenko’s wacky theory of evolution–the doctrine of inheritance of acquired characteristics–be officially accepted, so the United States will eventually grow redfaced about endorsing natural regulation as the official theory of preservation. As with the Lysenko theory, confusions about natural
Thus kept out of the preservation debate, the public and the wider scholarly community have remained silent, and influence over policy has fallen by default into the hands of a small coterie of featherbedding congressmen, bigwig concessionaires, and grey-flanneled Beltway conservationists. But these interests do not want real reform. They view widening the policy debate or
That is why the Vail conference was disappointing. The public needed to be there. But principal speakers and panel moderators were either cabinet members who know nothing about park issues (such as the keynoter, Education Secretary Lamar Alexander) or the same old tired group of NPCA insiders.
Within the context of these political forces, it is not surprising that preservation policy remains in disarray. It is almost never discussed and indeed was not included on the Vail agenda. Yet until the circle of debate is widened, no amount of tinkering with the structure and budget of the National Park Service will save the national parks.
Copyright 1991, Outside magazine