Plenty of National Park Issues for Next Administration, But Will They Get Tackled?

Lower Falls of the Yellowstone. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Lower Falls on the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Kurt Repanshek photo.

With the days of the Bush administration vanishing more quickly than the fall colors, what's in store for the next administration in terms of national park issues? Quite a bit, actually. The real question is whether they'll get tackled.

One could start with the increasingly obscene maintenance backlog, but that's been beaten to death. So let's take a look at some of the priorities identified by the National Park Service (with Traveler's thoughts in italics):

* NPS Centennial

Gain full passage of the National Parks Centennial Initiative and Centennial Challenge, a ten-year commitment leading up to the anniversary of the NPS in 2016.

While the current administration contends this "will preserve the nation’s parks in partnership with others for generations to come," it's hard to see such a lofty goal accomplished with so many projects that don't address existing needs in the parks.

* Reauthorize National Park System Advisory Board.

This board’s authorization expires January 1, 2009. The board was created in 1935, and has been statutorily reauthorized several times since then, operating almost without interruption for nearly 70 years. According to NPS headquarters, "the Secretary has administratively authorized an extension; however, this process traditionally takes 6-9 months. Securing a legislated extension would allow the continuation of the current Board and not hold up their work. The NPS has requested a one-year extension of the Board as part of the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2008."

While the board is not a bad idea, its suggestions are not always embraced. For instance, in July 2001 the advisory board published its own thoughts on where the National Park Service should go in the 21st Century. Though appropriately titled Rethinking the National Parks for the 21st Century, the report failed to gain traction. Among its comments was the following: Over the nearly 90 years since its founding in 1916, the National Park Service has been widely recognized for its success in providing an unparalleled level of visitor services and experiences to citizens of the United States and visitors from around the world. In contrast, Park Service development of the science capability necessary to fulfill its natural resource preservation mandate has been slow and erratic, at best.

* Reauthorize National Park Concessions Management Advisory Board.

This board was established by Congress in 1998. It's 10-year authorization sunsets December 31, 2008. Congress has not looked at the issue of extending the Board on a long-term basis. The NPS has requested a one-year extension of the Board as part of the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2008.

* Preserve America and Save America’s Treasures.

According to the Park Service, "Congress has provided funding for both programs for a number of years in appropriations bills but neither program has been permanently authorized by Congress. On July 11, 2007, the administration sent a legislative proposal to Congress requesting authorization of both programs. This legislation was passed in the House on July 8, 2008 and was reported in the Senate on May 7, 2008. Permanent authorization of the programs has been included in the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2008."

How successful are these programs? Remember the Vanishing Treasures program, which is intended to preserve ancient rock art, Native American ruins, and homesteader cabins located within Southwest parks from continued decay and collapse? It suffers from a chronic lack of funding.

* Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, Washington, DC

The clock is ticking on this project, as congressional authorization expires November 12. According to the Park Service, "it is probable that the Secretary of the Interior will extend the authority, assuming certain conditions have been met by the [Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Foundation]. The Foundation must still resolve certain design issues (such as the design of security provisions) and raise additional funds before a construction permit can be issued."

* New Park Areas in Omnibus Legislation

Legislation establishing three new NPS areas is included in the omnibus parks legislation being considered by Congress: Paterson, NJ Great Falls; River Raisin Battlefield, Michigan; and Clinton Birthplace Home, Arkansas. The legislation establishing all three of these areas would be dependent on the lands associated with these areas being donated to the NPS.

If it could, the Park Service should place a moratorium on new units until it can afford the ones already in the fold.

* Studies of Potential New Park Areas

According to the Park Service, studies on the following three prospective park units are nearing completion:

"The Waco Mammoth Special Resource Study (SRS) was authorized by P.L. 107-341. The legislation provided that the NPS investigate the discovery of a Pleistocene Columbian Mammoth herd uncovered within the city limits of Waco, TX. The SRS is scheduled to be completed in late 2008.

This sounds like a great state-managed project, but should it be under the NPS?

"The Harriet Tubman SRS was authorized by P.L. 106-516. The legislation provided that the NPS study resources associated with Harriet Tubman, including named sites on the Eastern Shore of MD and in Auburn, NY. The SRS is scheduled to be completed in early 2009.

"There are currently no units of the national park system in Delaware. Title VI of P.L. 109-338, enacted in the final days of the 109th Congress, authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to conduct an SRS for the coastal region of the State of Delaware. The study is expected to be concluded in late 2008.

Not to disparage Delaware, but is the Park Service looking for a potential unit there just because there currently are none?

* Winter Use of Snowmobiles and Snowcoaches

Here's what the Park Service's crystal ball has to say about this fun issue:

On September 15, 2008, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia rejected the latest Winter Use Plan, Record of Decision and the associated rule. The parks are now bound to the 2004 rule. The 2004 rule, which authorized the operation of snowmobiles and snowcoaches, expired at the end of the 2006-2007 winter season. Therefore, snowmobiles and snowcoaches will not be allowed unless a new Environmental Assessment (EA) can be completed with a subsequent temporary rule.

The parks anticipate having an EA available for public review by early November, with implementation of another temporary rule expected prior to the December 15, 2008 winter season start date. The temporary rule arising from this process is expected to include a 2008 separate agreement regarding Sylvan Pass and the avalanche and safety-related constraints. The temporary plan is projected to be in place through the 2010-2011 winter season. The matter has been repeatedly litigated in different courts and there is a reasonable expectation that regardless of any new Interim or Final rules, one constituency or another will seek judicial review.

Sadly, it's hard to argue with that final comment.

* Bike Regulations

Park Service officials want to "complete (a) rule to streamline process for opening national park trails to bicyclists. It would authorize park superintendents to designate existing trails open to bicycle use within park units upon completion of appropriate management plans addressing trail use and compliance required by existing authorities such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the National Historic Preservation Act, the NPS Organic Act, and the park’s enabling legislation. The rule also clarifies the ability of superintendents to allow bicycles on administrative roads that are closed to public motor vehicles. Special regulations would still be required for building new trails, if opening existing trails to bicycle use is of a highly controversial nature, or if there would be a significant change in visitor use or resource condition."

Opponents to this regulation are not as confident as the Park Service that it won't lead to any environmental shortcuts. They point out that while the Park Service might be trying to say, 'See, we may still have to do a special regulation under 36 CFR 1.5(b) for a certain bike trail designation.' But, that is not the same as requiring a special regulation for ALL bike trails designated outside of developed zones, as is now required.

These opponents point out that rulemaking under the superintendent's compendia receive no public notice when signed and adopted. Rather, they simply must be made available to the public. The NPS might or might not do NEPA for a designation in a compendium. In some cases, the NPS will fall back on that trusty tool of a "categorical exclusion" and call that NEPA compliance.

Officials at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility add that, "If the NPS were not about to propose a significant weakening of the rule at 36 CFR 4.30(b), then why is the International Mountain Bicycling Association in favor of it? The goal of the pending proposed rule is PRECISELY to make it easier for park managers to designate bike trails outside of developed areas than the current regulatory procedures allow. No one can deny that. Not even the NPS officials who dispute PEER.

* Gun Regulations

Similar to the bike situation, this political football would "provide guidance and controls for the possession and transportation of firearms in national park areas and national wildlife refuges. The proposed amendments would update the regulations to reflect current state laws authorizing the possession of concealed firearms. The (Interior) Department believes that Federal firearms regulations on the possession of firearms in the parks should be amended to reflect State law. States have the prerogative to develop their own policies and standards in many areas, and this principle has long been honored by federal agencies with respect to policies governing the possession of firearms. The Department proposes to amend existing regulations in order to allow individuals to carry concealed weapons in park units and refuges to the extent that they could lawfully do so on analogous state-administered lands."

If the department feels so strongly about making sure its gun regulations "reflect state law," perhaps concealed carry could be extended to federal buildings in states where concealed carry is legal.

* Park Planning, Facilities and Lands

Flight 93 National Memorial and Land Acquisition

On September 24, 2002, Congress enacted the Flight 93 National Memorial Act (P.L. 107-226, 116 Stat. 1345). The Act authorizes the Secretary to “acquire from willing sellers lands or interest in lands for the Memorial site by donation, purchase with donated or appropriated funds, or exchange…” A subsequent amendment authorized the use of condemnation if necessary.

The NPS and Families of Flight 93 have agreed to complete Phase 1 of the memorial by September 11, 2011 in time to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Flight 93 tragedy. In order to meet this schedule, eleven privately owned tracts must be acquired by May, 2009. Key parcels yet to be acquired include those on which the crash site is located and properties needed to begin construction of the Memorial.

A key policy decision for the Department will be whether to pursue condemnation authority for the parcels. Preliminary staff level indications from the Department of Justice are that this case could be pursued, with the understanding that any valuation determination will require NPS to pay the full amount awarded by the court immediately. If this amount exceeds the -$9 million already appropriated and available for Flight 93, this could require an emergency reprogramming, directing funds away from other projects funded by Congress.

The cost estimate for the Memorial construction has grown from $45 million (2004) to an estimated $58 million today. Escalated costs are being managed by constructing the park development in phases, with each phase being able to operate independent of phases that come after it.

What does $58 million buy? And if this memorial is to be constructed and managed by the NPS, why is not a similar one being established on the site of the World Trade Center?

* Georgetown University Land Exchange and Boathouse

The NPS is working on determining the preferred alternative and completing the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) under which the NPS would acquire a historic feature of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and exchange park land to facilitate the construction of a private boathouse on the Potomac River. This is a high-profile location with a very high level of local interest on both sides of the issue. The NPS is working to complete the DEIS for release in November for a 60-day comment period.

* Presidio (Golden Gate NRA) Contemporary Art Museum Proposal (CAMP)

The Presidio Trust has issued a Draft EIS and Amendment to the Presidio Trust Management Plan that includes the construction of a 98,000 square foot museum of contemporary art owned by GAP founder Don Fisher at the head of the Main Parade Ground. The Fisher modern art collection is considered by some art critics to be the finest in the world. Mr. Fisher has generously promised to pay for all construction, pay all lease costs up front, endow the museum, pay for the renovation of one of the Montgomery Street historic barracks (43,000 square ft) and donate $10,000,000 for restoring the Main Parade Ground.

The main issue is the impact the proposed museum will have on the National Historic Landmark District (NHLD) of which the Main Parade is the core. The Presidio Trust, an independent federal agency from the NPS, allowed Mr. Fisher to go forward with near complete design of the museum by New York architect Richard Gluckman before taking the issue to the public, community or to the various organizations with interests in historic preservation such as the California SHPO, Advisory Council for Historic Preservation (ACHP) and the National Trust.

Reaction to the very modern design has been vocal and negative and the general assessment is that the museum will have a significant negative effect on the NHLD unless downsized and redesigned. Mr. Fisher has other options outside of the Presidio and may chose to withdraw his offer. Public comment period on the DEIS has been extended to November 17 and a public meeting Nov. 13.

The NPS has been tasked by the ACHP to prepare the Section 213 report (summary of affect on the NHLD) and it is due November 3. The NPS-Pacific West Region has been working behind the scenes with the Presidio Trust to evaluate alternative designs that would be compatible with the Secretary's Standards for Historic Preservation. Preservation and conservations groups are preparing to litigate should the Presidio Trust decide to go forward with the museum as proposed.

* Haleakala National Park – Advanced Technology Solar Telescope (ATST)

The National Science Foundation (NSF) proposes to construct an ATST within the 18.166 acre University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, Haleakala High Altitude Observatories site. The NPS has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the National Science Foundation (NSF) dealing with the proposed ATST project. The signed MOU provides a framework for interagency communication, NPS cost recovery, and negotiations necessary prior to the Park’s issuing the required special use permit. (Use of park road for the construction of the ATST will require a special use permit pursuant to 36 CFR 5.6.)

The MOU also establishes that any NSF environmental documentation for the SUP will meet NPS standards. Within the next 60 days HALE will be providing comments to NSF on their draft compliance documentation. Reviews of previous drafts have found unsatisfactory consideration of substantial project effects on significant park resources and visitor experience.

* Natural Resources Stewardship and Science

Bison

Bison management, in the view of the National Park Service, continues to be the most controversial and complex issue facing Yellowstone National Park. Following the removal of approximately 1,700 bison via hunting, quarantine and shipment to slaughter during the winter of 2007-2008, the bison population was estimated at approximately 3,000 animals during August 2008.

For the winter of 2008/2009, bison population numbers could drop to levels necessitating risk management activities that are focused on conserving the bison population as prescribed in the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP). During summer 2008, the State of Montana lost its USDA Brucellosis-Free status through a second positive case of brucellosis in cattle within 12 months (presumably from wild elk), resulting in more pressure to control brucellosis.

Did that second paragraph grab your attention? The one in which Park Service officials now are saying bison management plans could have been too extreme?

Colorado River Water Issues

The operations of Colorado River Storage Project dams can result in flow regimes that adversely affect water-related resources in Park Units along the Colorado River and its tributaries. Examples include Grand Canyon and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Parks. Congress created the Park Units and also authorized the dams so management of river flows must maintain both of these obligations of the Secretary. Clear lines of communication and the right balance between the influence of the Bureau of Reclamation and NPS are needed to achieve a good balance between parks and dams.

The Grand Canyon Adaptive Management Program has been established to produce the science and adaptively manage Glen Canyon Dam operations to achieve this balance. Protection of downstream resources at Grand Canyon National Park, as required by the Grand Canyon Protection Act, should be a major factor driving the need for science and resulting dam operation modifications. Likewise, resource protection required by the GCPA should be a factor to be considered by the Secretary when developing the annual plan of operations for the Colorado River System.

An agreement in the form of a water right decree for the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park will guide the Secretary in balancing the many federal mandates on the Gunnison River while at the same time protecting the many other private and public interests. The decree describes specific flow targets designed to protect park resources but also preserves the Secretary’s discretion to achieve park protection while also balancing a variety of federal interests on the Gunnison River including downstream endangered fish, the Bureau of Land Management’s Gunnison Gorge Conservation Area, and the Bureau of Reclamation’s Aspinall Unit reservoirs.

Implementing the decree will require close, but not strict, consistency in meeting the flow targets. Management of a large reservoir system such as the Aspinall Unit is not precise so we expect that rather than hitting specific flow targets, proper operation will likely produce flows that are near, but either above or below, the target. On rare occasions, exercise of the Secretary's discretion may dictate that other federal purposes are not maximized so that target flows occur or, vice versa, that meeting non-park purposes may result in flows that do not benefit the park.

Everglades National Park – Modified Water Acquisition

The Modified Water Deliveries (MWD) Project was authorized in 1989 as part of the Everglades National Park Protection and Expansion Act with the purpose of improving water deliveries to the park through structural and operational modifications to the Central and South Florida (C&SF) Project.

When completed, the components of the MWD project will improve the conveyance of water to the park from the watershed north of the park, provide for flood mitigation in adjacent urban and agricultural areas, and provide improved connectivity of the Everglades marsh ecosystem Since costs have increased dramatically, the project is currently being reassessed through a Limited Re-evaluation Report (LRR). Costs of the project are shared between the National Park Service (NPS) and the Corps of Engineers.

* Visitor and Resource Protection

Southwest Border Patrol Issues

With the large flow of illegal aliens and drugs coming over the southwest border, primarily in Arizona, impacts to park resources and visitation, and the potential for violent crime to occur in the parks are significant concerns. The Border Patrol is a strong presence at several national park units, including Organ Pipe Cactus, Coronado, Big Bend, Padre Island, and Amistad.

The NPS and the Border Patrol have conflicting agency missions, and at times, park resources are negatively impacted by Border Patrol operations or by homeland security initiatives. For example, in Organ Pipe, six or seven Secure Border Initiative Towers are proposed, one of which is to be built in wilderness. To accomplish this, a waiver of the Wilderness Act may be initiated by the Department of Homeland Security.

* Intellectual Property

Use of Hot Springs National Park name by non-NPS entities

Since early in the 1920s, the City of Hot Springs began to use "Hot Springs National Park" as its name; however, the name was not formally changed. In 2003, the City of Hot Springs trademarked a logo which incorporated the name "Hot Springs National Park" and uses the logo on police cars, city garbage cans, and uniforms, and allows its use by Oaklawn Gaming and Racing, as well as extensive advertising through the Hot Springs Promotion and Advertising Commission.

In January 2008, a solicitor's opinion determined that such use of the logo was an infringement on the intellectual property of the Department and filed a petition to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to cancel the logo. That case is still pending.

Of course, there are many, many more issues to be addressed. Should more volunteers be taken on at the expense of full-time rangers? What about the maintenance needs? Can the National Park System be more climate friendly? How can more diversity be injected not just into the ranks of the National Park Service, but into the ranks of the visitors? Is more diversity needed? And the list goes on.

Whoever becomes president, he will have to appoint not only a dynamic and visionary Interior secretary, but a National Park Service director with similar qualities. To be even bolder, the next president should push for an apolitical director, one who can manage the National Park System with the system's best interests at heart, not those of special interest groups.