National Park Foundation Leadership Summit: What Will it Foster?

National Park Foundation Leadership Summit

Does Autumn not exist in Austin, Texas? I left drizzle and 45 degrees in Park City, Utah, yesterday morning, and here in Austin it might as well be mid-summer, with the highs approaching 90 degrees. Is that a good atmosphere for incubating "the next century of our parks"?

Flying down here, I passed over the Grand Canyon, and probably Bryce Canyon as well, though I had an aisle seat and there was a good bit of haze, not to mention the jet's left wing, to obscure my sight-lines. I almost expected the pilot to bank a bit over the Grand Canyon to give us a good look, but I guess the FAA frowns on that kind of piloting.

The flight to Austin, which included a brief stop in Phoenix, gave me ample time to mull the current state of the park system. There's the 7-year-old battle over snowmobiles in Yellowstone, the shooting of brown bears in Katmai National Preserve, upcoming legal battles over off-road vehicles and personal watercraft in other parks, and the 10,000-pound gorilla in the next room, climate change.

On top of these resource issues, there's the longstanding matter of whether the Park Service is properly funded and whether it's fiscally prudent.

Those are the sorts of issues I hope will be in the background, not on the back burner, the next three days as the National Park Foundation convenes its first-ever conference on philanthropy and partnerships in the parks. While it's certainly nice to drum up support in the private sector for the parks, if some of that support doesn't address the current plight of the national parks the conference will have fallen short.

I'm hoping to get a glimpse of the tenor of the conference later this afternoon during a session titled, National Park Ideal: Articulating the Vision. While the Park Service's mission -- to preserve and protect the national park system -- remains true nearly a century after the agency was created, I wonder at times whether that mission is being carefully played out on the ground. Among the speakers on this topic is Robert Stanton, a former NPS director and former director of the National Park Foundation.

Mr. Stanton, you might recall, is one of seven former NPS directors who signed a letter to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne earlier this year asking the secretary to ban recreational snowmobiles in Yellowstone. Any guess as to whether that issue will come up during Mr. Stanton's talk?

The corporate philosophy on donating to the parks also will be outlined today as Mike Polk, president of Unilever Americas, will talk about his vision "for corporate stewardship of our national parks for the next century."

Now, I'm hoping that phrasing, "corporate stewardship of our national parks" was an oversight and not intentional. While Unilever has been generous, kicking off a 15-year, $50 million plan in 1992 to raise financial support for the parks, I'm not sure we want corporations calling the management shots of our national parks.

It should be an interesting three days.