A National Park Service Regional Director Shares His Priority List for 2009

Intermountain Region Director Mike Snyder.

Editor's note: In the Traveler's constant search for diverse perspectives and opinions that might spur dialog about our national parks, it's always a good idea to get an inside slant. In what we hope will be the first in a long series of guest columns from National Park Service personnel, Intermountain Region Director Mike Snyder shares his thoughts on what he'd like the parks in his region to accomplish in 2009.

I am an avid reader of National Parks Traveler. Every day, you offer thoughtful, timely and often entertaining looks into what we in the National Park Service do and the special places we care for. As an occasional blogger myself, I write to the thousands of men and women who work in the eight states and 91 park units of the Intermountain Region.

So when you posted last month (January) the thoughts of several contributors and parks experts about what priorities the next National Park Service director should address, it caught my eye. In this time of such great change and challenge, where might he or she possibly begin? Your answers offered plenty – and there are plenty more priorities still to consider.

I cannot speak for the entire Park Service. But as we all move with great anticipation through the transition to new leaders, I’d like to share where we’re coming from in the largest region of the Park Service. Here are a few of the topics we are most focused on now, from Glacier National Park at the Canadian border to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Big Bend National Park and our other units along the Mexican border – and everywhere else in between.

Connecting Kids and the Parks

Everyone knows the powerful lure that video games, computers, TV and other indoor digital pursuits have on young people. We are learning that it all comes at a terrible price: The potential loss of connection and caring for the out-of-doors in an entire generation. If children don’t grow up to care about the wild places, the parks, the forests, deserts and grasslands, who will?

So last fall we brought the provocative speaker Richard Louv, author of the best-selling Last Child in the Woods, to Colorado for a weekend that highlighted programs and activities that get kids outdoors. This “no child left inside” notion has been spreading all over America, and we aim to keep the Park Service deeply involved in promoting it.

Here in the Intermountain, we also invented a program that the Park Service nationwide is now embracing: Teacher-Ranger-Teacher. Educators from primarily low-income urban and rural neighborhood schools spend a summer working as rangers in our national parks. In the fall, they take their park experiences back to the classroom in curriculum-based instruction, especially in the sciences. These “teacher-rangers” wear their park ranger uniforms to school on some occasions, including National Park Week in the spring, to help emphasize and bring to life the lessons they teach. They even organize school field trips to the parks.

Safety

After the tragic deaths of a couple of valued Park Service colleagues in the past few years, we have ratcheted up our commitment to safety across the region. Safety training is a priority, and we now have full-time safety managers at our largest parks and “circuit riders” to work with clusters of smaller parks to address safety. As a result, we have been able to cut by half the number of injuries to Intermountain Region park staff members over the last three years.

"Border Park" Impacts

The flood in recent years of illegal activity along America’s southern border – including immigration and trafficking in both drugs and people – has come at more than just the social cost and a torrent of political debate. Some of the National Park Service’s most delicate and scenic wonders lie along that border, in places remote enough to make them more attractive to undocumented immigrants and smugglers of drugs and humans.

The slow stampede across these fragile lands of the Intermountain Region – from Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona to the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River in Texas – has damaged the resources and at times even endangered park staffers and visitors. The Department of Homeland Security’s necessary crackdown on illegal activity also has come at significant environmental cost. Without careful and continued cooperation, we are in danger of losing the resources for which these lands were set aside.

Although budgets have been tight, we have committed this year to hiring more than 30 new law enforcement park rangers for the border parks so that our interpretive staffs, scientists and others can do their work safety in a sometimes hostile environment. And funds are on the way to repair and restore areas damaged by illegal traffic and border security operations.

Exotics, Invasives, and Climate Change

A different kind of foreign invasion is under way in many of our parks. Noxious weeds and other non-native plants and animals – from buffelgrass in the deserts of Organ Pipe and Coronado National Memorial in Arizona to lake trout in the waters of Yellowstone and Glacier national parks – threaten native species and ecosystems. In some cases, invasive creatures are aided by the changes that global warming has begun to work on the landscape, particularly where wildfire and drought are concerned.

So we have proposed a 10-year “Vanishing Landscapes Initiative” to fight back in the Intermountain Region. The success of recent and ongoing efforts to remove and eradicate non-native, water-stealing tamarisk and Russian olive from Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona is a model we hope to repeat. Our newest battlefront is the effort to keep zebra and quagga mussels from fouling Lake Powell in Glen Canyon National Recreation area in Utah and Arizona and Blue Mesa Reservoir in Curecanti National Recreation Area in Colorado. In every case, it will be a constant, upstream struggle.

We try to make these and other park efforts a little easier to accomplish by going through a not-so-easy planning process we call Core Operations – “Core-Ops” for short. We created it here in the Intermountain Region as a way to help parks establish priorities, live within their budgets, and make credible requests for more money when they need it. It helps us react to change before it happens by posing a difficult question and delivering a harder answer: How do we best focus our limited resources on the most critical issues?

As a practical matter, we already know that in our region alone, the parks need an additional $144 million a year just to maintain campgrounds, roads, visitor centers, trails and other facilities. We have an official backlog of deferred maintenance approaching $1.9 billion in the Intermountain, $1 billion just for paved roads. We believe funds will be available for much of that need. But we still expect a $371 million shortfall – again, just here.

With so much political focus lately on the “economic stimulus” legislation in Washington, we know that even the considerable amount meant for National Park Service needs nationwide is not nearly enough. That is why we view “Core-Ops” partly as an exercise in triage and life support. It requires each Intermountain Region park to identify and rank the programs, facilities and positions that are most “core” to its mission – not unlike the “core business” that so many companies and private enterprises invoke as they grapple with the daunting challenge of today’s economy.

Well, the “core business” for each park is the list of priorities it must address to avoid damaging its unique natural, cultural and historic resources. The choices are hard and sometimes unpopular, as you have noted in past postings on National Parks Traveler. But without making these choices through Core-Ops, we believe those important and irreplaceable assets would be at risk. The optimistic view is that spending priorities eventually will improve so that we can restore park programs and positions again.

Core-Ops helped guide our difficult but necessary decision last year to consolidate Park Service operations in Santa Fe, which was the former Southwest Region headquarters until a service-wide reorganization back in the 1990s created the Intermountain Region. In 2008, we had to streamline the Santa Fe operations, transfer some employees here to Intermountain headquarters in Denver, and reassemble the remaining team in the handsome, historic but underused Old Santa Fe Trail Building. This move will save us nearly $1 million a year in rent from another office building we no longer need. And it is making the most out of one of the most significant adobe structures in America, the work of Civilian Conservation Corps builders during the Great Depression.

We can accomplish nothing – and none of this, certainly – without the cooperation of friends and partners, from large foundations to individual visitors with a personal passion for their favorite parks. No doubt many of them are National Parks Traveler readers, too. So I’d like to thank them, here and now, for what they have done and for what they will do to help us care for the parklands – your parklands.

These are challenging but exciting times. We are encouraged by numerous voices of support for the national parks in the economic stimulus effort to provide jobs, income and a boost for America’s – and the world’s – battered economy. But with that boost or not, we are committed to the two-fold mission written in the act of Congress that created the National Park Service nearly a century ago:

Preserving and protecting the outstanding natural, cultural and historical features of these parklands, and making them as available as possible to the American public as special places of recreation, reflection and renewal.

Comments

It was interesting reading Mike Snyder’s comments; and it was even more interesting having one of our regional directors participating in the National Parks Traveler! (I was impressed!)

As an “outsider looking in”, I would like to suggest another priority to Mike.......

Like so many government agencies and programs, the National Park Service needs money; it needs to repair old buildings and trails, it needs to renovate tired visitor centers and museums, and it needs funding for more rangers, more naturalists, and more staff. But it needs not only money; it needs to address a number of very basic and very important personnel problems.

After working for 27 years as the president of a very successful manufacturing company, my wife and I began working three years ago as seasonal Park Rangers (Interpretation). Our experiences have been rewarding and exciting. We love being Rangers and we love helping people as they explore and experience our national parks. On the other hand, seeing how our national parks work from the inside and seeing how they manage their human resources often has been frustrating and exasperating.

For instance, the National Park Service seems to be ignoring and mismanaging the need to train and maintain future leaders. For young people graduating from college and seeking a career in the Park Service, there are only seasonal jobs. At many parks, seasonal rangers are treated more or less like warm bodies, hired to be present at certain positions for a limited period of time, and expected to leave and disappear at the end of a season. There are no benefits, no effort to hold on to the better “kids”, and no help given to the better rangers in acquiring year-round employment at other parks. And worse still, young people quickly discover there are virtually no full time, year round jobs available. Instead, they face years and years of seasonal jobs, years of moving from park to park as temporary employees, and must attempt to function in a system which is difficult for individuals and almost impossible for couples. Eventually, the younger, better, and more serious Rangers just give-up, leave the Park Service, and get “real” jobs.

What a shame, and what a loss to the NPS!

It’s projected that many of the baby boomers will retire soon. For instance, in a recent speech, OPM director Linda Springer said, “Sixty percent of the government’s 1.6 million white-collar employees and 90 percent of about 6,000 federal executives will be eligible for retirement over the next 10 years.”

So what is the National Park Service doing to attract tomorrow’s leaders? What is it doing to identify and develop its future leaders? What is it doing to make sure some of the wonderful, dedicated, and talented young people who work for the Park Service every summer don’t end up leaving in frustration, or feeling they were never recognized, or that no one cared about them professionally? What are we doing to encourage them, and support them, and guide them? Simply stated, what are we doing to convince the better and the more talented and dedicated young people who work as seasonal Rangers to continue working for the National Park Service?

Mr. Schundler you've hit the nail on the head. A bigger question is how the National Park Service is going to keep the leaders they have for tomorrow. This is a very serious situation and one that needs immediate attention. Sadly, in the past two weeks the declining economy is the only answer I've heard for strategic advancement in this area. You see when times are rough; the government is a good bet. We'll see more people applying for jobs and less of our folks leaving for greener pastures. We'll also be "bailed out” while we stimulate the economy. But what happens after that? Did we really fix the problem, or simply put a Band-Aid on it? I'm hoping we stretch ourselves beyond this. Much of the infrastructure in need of repair is a living testament to this exercise already. We need to seriously consider an overhaul with regards to recruitment and retention and quit self imposing barriers that leave our supervisors and mangers very little option to reach out and pull in talent or keep it for that matter. Much of it exists in OPM; we’re discouraged to use it. There are many young leaders in place who I believe are moving us in the right direction. Regional Director Snyder has considerable talent in the field who I assure you have a plan. That's a start. Your feedback is critical and greatly appreciated. I hope you and your wife continue to be seasonal employees, in many ways they are the back bone of the agency.

As a Senior Citizen who worked for a few months for the National Park Service, any plan that will create real managers and leaders must be a high priority. More than that, if the Management of the Parks continue as they are, they will remain stagnant, you won't be able to buy a good employee and, the group as a whole will continue to be a laughing stock for the outside ocmmunity.

After 50 years in Industry, I witnessed the worst display of immature, totally off base leadership and some of the most artful double talking to avoid straight answers to questions in my life. The bad part is, this display was eveident from the Superintendent, the Administrative Officer, the Lead Ranger and further into the ranks where most of the people there were related or close friends of people who were related to current Management.

Right now, the Governement, the taxpayers and those who truly want to see the memories and heritage represented in the Parks to survive for future Generations are getting grossly shortchanged.