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