Commentary: Who Runs the National Park System?
Who runs the National Park System? Is it the National Park Service, or communities that stoke their economies off the parks? That's a good question to consider in the wake of the moxie and clout that tiny (pop. roughly 9,000) Cody, Wyoming, summoned to turn the heat up on its golden goose, Yellowstone National Park.
What "hold card" did Cody pull to convince Yellowstone Superintendent Suzanne Lewis to reverse the park's stance that it's just too dangerous and costly to maintain winter access through the park's east entrance and over 8,530-foot Sylvan Pass?
How did Cody in six months of meetings, some held in secret, convince the Park Service to reverse a safety and fiscal decision, while the American public in tens of thousands of written comments, backed by science produced by the park's own researchers, submitted during the most recent Environmental Impact Statement saga couldn't sway the park to phase-out recreational snowmobile use in the park?
They say public comment periods on park management proposals are not "votes," and yet when you examine the comments received on the question of keeping Sylvan Pass open, the feat Cody seems close to pulling off -- Intermountain Region Director Mike Snyder still needs to approve it -- is stupendous:
Public comment on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement ran from March 27 to June 5, 2007. Comments favoring closure of Sylvan Pass outnumbered those who wanted it kept open by 24 to 1. In raw numbers, 13,658 favored closure of Sylvan Pass and the East Entrance in winter and 562 stated support for keeping the pass and entrance open.
Pointed out in the comments of those opposed to maintaining winter access over the pass was that closure would be consistent with NPS law and policy; that the costs of plowing do not justify the small visitor numbers; that funds spent on plowing and providing avalanche control could be put to better use (hiring additional winter staff for enforcement and services); that the East Entrance has always had low visitor numbers; that keeping the pass open is dangerous to staff; that keeping the pass open is unique in the National Park System -- no other discretionary oversnow road in the U.S. uses active avalanche control measures; that no other national parks use artillery for controlled avalanches; and keeping the pass open sets a dangerous precedent for other parks.
Not only is Cody relatively tiny, population-wise, but it's also located 53 miles east of Yellowstone. And yet it was able to summon the political might -- very likely from as high up as Vice President Dick Cheney's office, in light of the vice president's Wyoming ties -- to overturn a decision based on cost and safety.
That decision drew applause from the editorial board of Wyoming's largest paper, the Casper Star-Tribune, and had Superintendent Lewis trying to put a "that's the cost of business" spin on the fact that last year's snowmobile traffic over Sylvan Pass translated into a cost-benefit ratio of $645.37 per person when you consider the nearly $300,000 the park spent ensuring the pass was safe, or at least presumably safe, from avalanches.
...the Park Service should be commended for finally listening to what local authorities maintained all along: that avalanches at Sylvan Pass can be successfully managed for a reasonable cost by the use of howitzers and explosives deployed by a helicopter crew, wrote the newspaper.
After some initially ridiculous assertions by the Park Service about the costs of avalanche control, the decision ended up not costing Wyoming too much, crowed the editorial board.[/i]
The National Park Service, which came out of the negotiations agreeing to somehow pay for the winter maintenance, can't be too happy with that last statement. Indeed, neither Cody nor Park County nor the state of Wyoming guaranteed that they would pony up any money to help pay for maintaining the pass in winter. Instead they offered only to work "in good faith ... to explore funding of safety and access improvements...."
These are not easy decisions for any park superintendent, and specifically not for the superintendent of perhaps the world's most visible park. Just the same, when you consider that hundreds of thousands of Americans from across the country wrote the Park Service during the multiple public comment periods held on the question of recreational snowmobiling in Yellowstone to say they wanted snowmobiles phased out in favor of cleaner-operating snowcoaches, you do have to wonder how a small town 53 miles away from the park can wield so much leverage in favor of so relatively few tourists.
If Cody can be the tail that wags Yellowstone, will Moab begin to look for more from Canyonlands or Arches national parks? What might be on the wish-lists of Estes Park, nestled at the front door to Rocky Mountain National Park, or Cherokee, North Carolina, which guards an entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, or Bar Harbor outside Acadia National Park?
The folks who make their livelihoods off Cape Hatteras National Seashore are pulling their political strings. After seashore officials, under threat of a lawsuit over their failure to produce an off-road vehicle use plan, earlier this spring reached an out-of-court settlement, local officials turned to their congressional connections with a request that they, in effect, nullify that settlement. This is not to say flatly that the locals don't have a point when they claim the settlement's provisions go too far, but rather that political solutions rarely are the best when it comes to managing the national parks.
Let's not forget, after all, that these are national parks with a national constituency, not state parks or city parks. What the above cases reflect are local complaints that don't necessarily take into account the national interests that should apply, no?
"Basing the management of Cape Hatteras on the desires of a handful of special interests would do a disservice not only to the wildlife and natural resources the seashore was created to protect, but also to thousands of visitors who travel to the seashore to enjoy those same resources each year," a Defenders of Wildlife attorney said in response to the effort by Dare (North Carolina) County, Hyde County, and a number of ORV groups to have Congress pass legislation to overturn the settlement's provisions.
The Cody and Cape Hatteras experiences raise the question of whether Park Service decisions should be based on what's best for the gateway communities or what's best for the parks. There's no doubt that parks owe a lot to their gateway communities and so should be cognizant of how their decisions impact those communities. But should those gateway communities also have an obligation in return to the parks? Should gateway communities be expected to develop sustainable economies that benefit both their residents and the parks without continually seeking more and more from the parks?
“There’s just been this reoccurring history of the communities feeling a real sense of entitlement and that the park is there, basically, to generate economic activity in their communities,” says Dennis Glick of the Sonoran Institute, a nonprofit that promotes community decisions that respect the land and people of the West. “There really has been a sense of entitlement. ‘How many feathers can we pluck from the golden goose?’”
In Alaska, how much of the Park Service's decision to increase the number of cruise ships to Glacier Bay National Park was related to former Gov. Frank Murkowski's complaints that the agency was too slow in boosting the number of cruises?
Bill Wade, whose long Park Service career included a posting as superintendent of Shenandoah National Park, recalls a time when he "tried to close two sections of the Skyline Drive during several months in the winter to save snowplowing and patrol effort. These two sections in total accounted for less that 20 percent of the total travel to the park during those months. But the local community of Front Royal raised a ruckus and got the Virginia (congressional) delegation to call (NPS Director Roger) Kennedy and protest. I ended up facing the entire delegation to try to justify my decision. Lost hands down!"
If you've ever visited Great Smoky, you no doubt are well aware of the tourist gauntlet that exists in Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville, Tennessee, near the park's Tennessee entrance. Owen Hoffman, another with a Park Service career on his resume, points out that "the huge commercial development in this now gigantic gateway community complex acts like a tourist filter, becoming a tourist goal in and of themselves, and becoming a tourist filter in such a manner that only the dedicated brave the traffic to enter the park itself to enjoy an afternoon's drive or hike."
"However," he adds, "this gateway complex has become so large that light pollution has become severe, substantially affecting star gazing from the observation tower on Clingmans Dome.
Mr. Hoffman, whose NPS career included stops at Zion and Yosemite national parks, says that whenever he returns to Zion he cringes "at witnessing the growth that Springdale has experienced over the decades since I last wore the NPS uniform in this great park (1969). This small rural Mormon village has now become semi-urban. It too has become a significant source of light pollution along with Hurricane, and St. George, and development now encroaches on the entrance into Zion Canyon itself."
When he was stationed in Yosemite, one of Mr. Hoffman's most popular campfire talks was titled "Of Ice and Men." That program revolved around "threats to the park experience and the park's resources caused by increased commercialism, traffic, and pollution generated far beyond the park boundaries."
"This talk was quite effective," he recalls. "Perhaps, in today's politically charged climate someone inside the NPS might have requested that I 'tone it down.'"
Is the Park Service losing control over the system to gateway communities that are lucky enough to have clout in Washington?
Concerning the decision involving Yellowstone and snowmobiles from Cody, one of the questions begging an answer is how the Park Service, after spending millions of dollars drafting and then finalizing an Environmental Impact Statement with a preferred alternative on the issue, can, essentially, go back in and not just tinker with but entirely reverse part of that alternative? Will that cast a cloud of doubt over the integrity of future EIS work in Yellowstone or other parks?
Mr. Wade, now chairman of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees' executive council, doesn't profess to have the solution. But he offers that until there are some changes in the decision-making process established by the National Environmental Policy Act, perhaps to change the emphasis currently given economic issues when park management issues are being made, "it isn't likely to get any better."
"Maybe it will take some economic incentives to work in favor of park values and benefits. The idea of trying to prevent other smaller gateway communities from becoming like Estes Park or Gatlinburg or Springdale is worthy of consideration as part of the Centennial issue," he says.
Mr. Hoffman believes it will take a groundswell to change the current playing field.
"I believe our national parks should be protected such that a park visitor can enjoy pure air and water, undisturbed ecosystems, natural soundscapes, and night skies free from light pollution. But, what happens when the quest to protect the natural resource effectively limits (or is even perceived to limit) the economic growth of local and regional communities?" he wonders. "Some years ago, I once posed this question to a superintendent of Great Smoky Mountains National Park during a meeting at the U of TN, but only received silence to my query.
"The parks and the National Park Service need to build a strong public constituency that cares deeply about resource protection. Building a public constituency for the park's resources should be one of the main goals of the National Park Service," he says. "In the absence of a strong public constituency, politicians representing commercial interests, including gateway and regional businesses and park concessions, will end up exerting more than their fair share of influence over how parks are managed, including the decision as to who is selected to become park superintendent."
There no doubt is a symbiotic relationship between parks and their gateway communities. But when one side, whether it's the parks or the gateways, begins to dominate to the detriment of the other, is that acceptable?
Of course, the questions raised above generate at least one more: Should special-interest groups, either of the environmental or business persuasion, also continue to be allowed to run to the nearest court to challenge park decisions they don't like? That, my friends, is fodder for another column.