How Have National Parks And Public Lands Fared Under The Obama Administration?

With the Obama administration nearing the end of its first, and possibly only, term, it has a track record for its stance on public lands in general and national parks specifically, though it's not as rosy as many conservationists had hoped for when the president came into office.

Potential wilderness has been waylaid in places such as Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida, energy projects have been expedited to the detriment of some park units, and the administration hasn't been as aggressive in designating national monuments as had been hoped by some groups.

At the same time, President Obama can count one new monument in the National Park System to his credit, and his administration's America's Great Outdoors initiative has been crafted to engage more Americans of all ages with the outdoors. Through the initiative trails have been blazed, water trails have been designated, connectors have been identified to link urban areas with natural areas.

Too, his Interior secretary removed roughly 1 million acres surrounding Grand Canyon National Park from hardrock mining.

While the president's proposed FY 2013 budget for the National Park Service is relatively flat (following a proposed $138 million increase for FY12), there have been concerns voiced over steep declines in the agency's construction budget -- funds often used for road repairs and facility maintenance as well as new visitor facilities -- and some would have liked to see the president be more aggressive in urging Congress to provide more funds for the Park Service.

Lack Of Monuments?

There have been hopes the Obama administration might work to "complete" Canyonlands National Park, or perhaps designate as a national monument the San Rafael Swell or Cedar Mesa, both in Utah, or a section of Montana's northern prairie.

None of those have come about, perhaps due to the administration's reluctance to tangle with House Republicans who dogged him to turn over every shred of paper that might have contained some Executive Branch thoughts on potential monuments.

Although, President Obama did turn to the Antiquities Act to designate Fort Monroe National Monument (still contentious in the eyes of some supporters who thought it should have not only been larger in size, but also not potentially compromised by infill private development options). And more new monuments could be in the offing: Cesar Chavez in California, Harriet Tubman in Maryland, the Charles Young home in Ohio, and Woodlawn Property, an 1,100-acre tract along the Brandywine River in Delaware that, if designated, would become the first NPS unit in the state.

Still, the president has been lobbied by academics and economists to be aggressive in protecting public lands and creating new National Park System units. Western public lands are not only an iconic slice of America's national identity, but also a valuable driver of economic activity if properly protected and managed, said a group of more than 100 economists and academics in November 2011. They thus urged President Obama and Congress to set aside more public lands as national parks, monuments, and wilderness areas.

Howling Mad Over Wolves

The administration's official decision in August to remove Endangered Species Act protections from wolves in most of Wyoming was strongly condemned by environmental and conservation groups, which promised to challenge the decision in court.

Wyoming officials, who would be handed management of wolves at the end of September, have announced plans to open a hunting season for the predators on Oct. 1, with as many as 52 wolves permitted to be killed in the northwestern part of Wyoming. Outside of the state's northwestern corner wolves could be killed on sight as predators, with no bag limit.

“Removal of Endangered Species Act protections for Wyoming’s wolves is a disaster for the state’s wolf population and for recovery of wolves to Colorado and other parts of the West,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Like past versions of Wyoming’s wolf plan that were rejected by the Fish and Wildlife Service, the current plan fails to ensure the long-term survival and recovery of the state’s gray wolves. Today’s decision to remove protections for Wyoming’s wolves fails to rely on best science and represents the worst kind of political intrusion by Secretary Salazar into management of an endangered species.”

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Servie officials, though, counter that the grey wolf recovery program launched in the mid-1990s with the initial release of 14 wolves into Yellowstone has been highly successful. They say the Northern Rocky Mountain wolf population stands at 1,774 adult wolves and more than 109 breeding pairs, and that the recovery goal population has been exceeded for 10 consecutive years.

Hiking And Biking

Though its origins date to the administration of George W. Bush, a single-track trail that would be open to mountain bikes in Big Bend National Park wasn't cut until this year. While the trail officially is considered to be open to hikers and bikers, opponents see it as a way to open more national parks to single-track bike trails specifically for biking.

The proposed loop trail would start near the visitor center at Panther Junction, cross the Chihuahuan desert and wrap Lone Mountain while providing sweeping views of the Chisos Mountains, the southern-most mountain range in the country.

While Big Bend officials have maintained the trail is simply another recreational outlet for park visitors, they do note that it's part of a deal IMBA struck with the National Park Service years ago to explore more mountain biking in the park system.

Most of the backcountry trail would be single-track – approximately the width of a bike, with one-way traffic moving counter clockwise. Horses would be barred from the trail.

In July the mountain biking issue grew more prominent, as the Park Service passed a rule change that gives park superintendents the authority to allow bicycles on roads that are closed to the motoring public – like fire roads and roads used by park maintenance vehicles. The rule continues to prohibit bikes in wilderness and other areas where they would have significant impact on the environment or visitor safety.

However, there are growing concerns that without sufficient and clear direction from Washington, individual superintendents might not evaluate the potential impacts stringently enough before approving bike trails.

Electrifying Decisions

The Obama administration drew harsh criticism for its decision, announced in draft in March and in final form in August, to allow a utility to enlarge its transmission corridor through a slice of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, through the Middle Delaware National Scenic River, and across the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.

The project calls for a double circuit transmission line carrying a new 500kV line atop 200-foot-high towers. Delaware Water Gap NRA officials endorsed a proposal that would enlarge the transmission corridor across roughly 4 miles of park land to possibly as much as 350 feet despite another alternative that would impact only about 1.5 miles of park lands, according to the final Environmental Impact Statement.

Furthermore, the Park Service's preferred alternative, the EIS states, "would cause significant adverse impacts to geologic resources; wetlands; vegetation; landscape connectivity, wildlife habitat, and wildlife; special-status species; rare and unique communities; archeological resources; historic structures; cultural landscapes; socioeconomics; infrastructure, access and circulation; visual resources; visitor use and experience; wild and scenic rivers; and park operations .

“America’s national parks are treasured places and we need to keep them that way. If the NPS allows 200-foot power lines to degrade these three park sites, what parks will be next?," Ron Tipton, the National Parks Conservation Association's senior vice president for policy, asked in March when the Park Service announced its intentions. "We encourage the administration to avoid America’s national parks when siting transmission lines – this will ensure future generations can enjoy national parks as visitors do today. Meeting energy needs is an important priority, but not at the expense of our national parks.”

Wilderness Vs. ORVs

Just as disconcerting to conservation organizations was the Park Service's decision not to designate official wilderness within the "Addition Lands" of Big Cypress but rather open the landscape to upwards of 130 miles of off-road vehicle routes and hunting.

"The American people expect our national parks to be highly protected," John Adornato, NPCA's Sun Coast regional director, said in October 2011 after the advocacy group filed a lawsuit over the plan. "That our national parks are a place of refuge, and pristine. Unfortunately, the Park Service did not deliver on that expectation with this plan."

NPCA officials and their attorney said the Park Service had, in essence, done a shabby job in putting together the GMP for the 147,000 acres that came to the Park Service in 1996 as part of a land exchange with the state of Florida.

"We think we have a very strong case of showing that the Park Service has violated numerous laws in a misguided effort to open up the Addition lands to off-road vehicle use," Robert Rosenbaum, an attorney with the Washington, D.C., firm of Arnold & Porter, said when the lawsuit was filed. "Normally, the Park Service follows its legal mandates and the scientific and other studies that it has in front of it to guide it to a decision. What we believe happened in this case is that instead the Park Service wanted to open up the Addition to off-road vehicle use, and therefore bent or ignored the legal mandates or the science in order to permit it to reach that decision.”

While that lawsuit is still working its way through the system, this past July a federal judge ruled that the Park Service acted without sound reasoning in 2007 when it reopened more than 22 miles of off-road vehicle trails in Big Cypress.

Mr. Adornato told the Traveler in July that that ruling should send a message to the Park Service about its decision for ORV use in the Addition Lands.

"I think the clear message is that the Park Service’s decisons were irresponsible," he said. "The stewardship of the preserve is ultimately for the primary purpose, which is to protect this unique wetlands, this incredible cypress swamp.

"Now, NPCA has defended the 400 miles of off-road vehicles (in the preserve), so we believe there is responsible stewardship that can happen with the use of off-road vehicles in the preserve," the NPCA official added. "But the decision to reopen the Bear Island trails, to maximize ORV trails in the Addition Lands, at the expense of wilderness, and minimizing wilderness designation in the Addition Lands, that’s irresponsibile stewardship.”

Obviously, public lands and how they're managed has been, is, and will continue to be a contentious issue, particularly with the desire to see more energy production in the country.

Recent history (prior to the current administration and reaching back to 1978) has shown that Democrats in the White House have created many more national monuments than their GOP brethren. But in light of the rancorous political climate in Washington these days, the past decidedly is no roadmap for the future when it comes to managing these landscapes.

Comments

The Obama administration seems to be more focused on (green) energy issues than wilderness. That relationship to the environment seems to govern its thinking about the parks.

Well said, anonymous. I'd add that the administration seems more interested in urban environmental issues than public lands. Thanks for the review, Kurt.

The einviroment is obviously not one of Obama's prioritys.

Some disappointments, indeed, but projecting out the malignancies of the prior administration, had President Obama not taken office, would have made an even bleaker outlook.

Imagine ROMNEY/RYAN'S GOP and its wealthy supporters deciding to sell off the Public lands

including NATIONAL PARKS to pay down the $16,000,000,000,000 plus of culmulative DEBT.

Wonder how the Chinese would manage YELLOWSTONE once they OWNED IT ? At least

Xanterra would finally have its "slave labor" seasonal staff ! while Phil Anschutz made

another $Billion plus SAFE from any Federal TAX iNCREASES.

The inactivity related to new monuments is due to Republican(t) obstructionists, IMO. Irrespective of the election results new monuments will (I hope) be designated after November. As to the "historical" examples cited above, only federal property may be designated a monument under the Antiquities Act; so other than Harriet Tubman (from the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge) I don't see how those could be proclaimed by the POTUS. (Maryland officials have requested designation of the Tubman site.) And there's no guarantee NPS would be the administrator of say the San Rafael Swell--most monuments since 2000 have been placed under agencies other than NPS. I'd add Tule Springs, Nevada, as another possible monument.

The Obama administration created another National Monument this year, Ford Ord. Also Great Falls National Historical Park in 2009. However, I'd agree that none of those areas preserve large areas of wilderness/scenic resources, and there are plenty of other candidates for that.

The administration did designate Fort Ord, though it's on BLM lands. As for Great Falls, Congress pushed that one through in an omnibus bill.

The NPS has owned Great Falls Park since 1966. What changed recently?

After researching the Delaware proposal I see that a monument could indeed be proclaimed there. Here's hoping it happens. Makes more sense than the multi-site proposal in Congress methinks.

The "other" Great Falls park, the one in New Jersey aka Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park;-)

Yes Obama could have done better. But would McCain/Palin have done any better?

If one could make the connection between our parks and the millions of the unemployed and the economy (I like to believe we're all in it together), I have to believe NPS has done quite well compared to the public's present challenges. I don't see much simpathy expressed but then being in many of these parks one can escape the world outside.

Putting gigantic solar factories with their accompanying transmission lines in the desert which spoil desert landscapes, threaten the desert tortoise and wreck Native American burial sites isn't the mark of an environmentalist.

One of the biggest and worst things Obama has done regarding public lands has been to put Cowboy Ken Salazar in charge of renewable energy policy and release millions of acres of public land on fragile desert habitats for massive solar-plant industrialization and permanent destruction. Had he turned instead to developing solar power on already developed and degraded lands, on rooftops, and everywhere in the built environment, his record would look very, very different.


Had he turned instead to developing solar power on already developed and degraded lands, on rooftops, and everywhere in the built environment, his record would look very, very different.


Better yet, had he not tried to interfere with the markets, we wouldn't have had tax dollars thrown down the drain for inefficient technologies.

The massive solar and wind power plants on public lands have one purpose only and that is to keep powert generation in the hands of giant utilities. For what the transmission lines cost we could have had distributed energy on rooftops where we already have the transmission lines.

Because that invisible hand of Adam Smith has proven so beneficial in the recent financial crisis? America is not a pure capitalism, it is and always has been a mixed capitalism. Pure unregulated capitalism is no friend to the environment.

Janine Blaeloch: You might have bumped into something. He sacraficed all that public land to the bundlers for his campaign which just happened to be Solar businessmen. The land and tax dollars for campaign contributions=taxpayer funds to re-election campaign. All about him. One might think he's your friend only if he can use you. Has anyone noticed how he miffs his big contributors? All about him. Has anyone seen him go camping or take a river trip. He pissed off a lot of people by just driving his bus through a large Western National Park closing down major sections with no public contact. One phot op and then off to rake in more campaign cash. If I'm wrong on this (I don't think I am) please correct me.


Because that invisible hand of Adam Smith has proven so beneficial in the recent financial crisis?


Unfortunately, the invisible hand has been hand cuffed by massive government intrusion.

Roger, am inclined to agree with you. Here in California, it is estimated that had we installed solar on residential and commercial buildings already in existence, we would have solved much of our energy problem regarding dependence on fossil fuels. paricuarly imported oil. The construction of massive new power line corridors is also an issue, there was a serious effort made to focus on local distribution of the solar power. The energy debate is extremely contentious, the well established and political powerful oil and gas companies (the most powerful corporations in the global business community), make the changes needed very difficult.

I note the article's mention, regarding the NPS-IMBA joint venture for a mountain biking and hiking trail at Big Bend National Park, of this:


[T]here are growing concerns that without sufficient and clear direction from Washington, individual superintendents might not evaluate the potential impacts stringently enough before approving bike trails.


Do these same individuals have "concerns" (I love that euphemism) that blanket bans on mountain biking throughout most parts of the national parks, emanating from Washington and issued by employees who may never seen those parks, also fail to "evaluate the potential impacts stringently enough before [dis]approving bike trails"?

I didn't think so.

Well said, Rick B.

Today I found this link to how well the Republican controlled House of Representatives has treated the environment. Somehow I don't feel that their party being in the White House would improve this record.

Rick,

Can't seem to see the problem. Rather than linking to an article that makes empty accusations why don't you pick an issue and debate it? Btw did you figure out Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the CRA yet?

Thanks for the link, Rick. It's a well-documented and useful summation.

Just can't get my arms around the concept of just the appearance of being nice nice to parks while the whole country is going down the s--t hole. Would encourage a little broadening of concerns and not just the PR battles, I believe. It's tough to turn down the candy for the greater good but the hard choices will only get harder with more dire results, I believe.

You know, buddy, I bet that made perfect sense to you.

Well Mr. B, there is evidence that some in the arms of NPS have constructed an udder world and have a difficult time understand some things.

BTW: Europeans are vastly outnumbering US citizens in the Parks I've been visiting. Maybe you can tell me why. Inquiring minds, you know:).

Rick, don't know who you are responding to but if it is anon 3:04 (who is different than me), he should think it makes sense - because it does -unlike your defense of excessive government intrustion into the markets.

"Pure unregulated capitalism" may be no friend to the environment - but of course noone is asking for that. On the other hand many (like you) are asking for "pure unrestained environmentalism" which is no friend to the economy. And like it or not, if the economy suffers - so will funding for your national parks and environmnetally enhancing projects.

Now, rather than make speculation about what might happen, or extroplate past administration policies, if you have a criticism of actual Romney actions or proposals, lets discuss them. The fact that you stick to your dismissive and emtpy quips suggests you have no real basis for debate.

http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2009/03/08/203784/ponzi-scheme-madoff-friedman-natural-capital-renewable-resources/
Is the global economy a Ponzi scheme? Anonymous 8:03am ?

By Joe Romm on Mar 8, 2009 at 12:15 pm

Yes, homo “sapiens” have constructed the grandest of Ponzi schemes, whereby current generations have figured out how to live off the wealth of future generations. Yes, we are all in essence Madoffs (many wittingly, most not) or at least his most credulous clients. What comes next will be the subject of a multipart series.

I had been planning to write something on this for a while when NYT columnist Tom Friedman interviewed me for “The Inflection Is Near?” which appears in today’s New York Times:[/size]


“We created a way of raising standards of living that we can’t possibly pass on to our children,” said Joe Romm, a physicist and climate expert who writes the indispensable blog climateprogress.org.[/b] We have been getting rich by depleting all our natural stocks — water, hydrocarbons, forests, rivers, fish and arable land — and not by generating renewable flows.[/size]

“You can get this burst of wealth that we have created from this rapacious behavior,” added Romm. “But it has to collapse, unless adults stand up and say, ‘This is a Ponzi scheme. We have not generated real wealth, and we are destroying a livable climate …’ Real wealth is something you can pass on in a way that others can enjoy.”

Could possibly putting all the solar panels on existing rooves (lots of them) be a better way to implement the policy rather than covering thousands of acres of public land and intruding (often fatally) on wildlife and often Pre-historic Native American sites? Not really a conspiracy type person but I do suspect that decisions are made about campaign contributors business connections are very much on the minds of this administration and it's avenue for a sort of slush fund at the expense of citizen tax dollars, their ability to use these public lands, wildlife and wilderness. All while sustaining the belief in many that they are the keepers of all that if good. Seems that way to me from what I've seen.


Anonymous 8:03am ?


The typical chicken little cries. Aren't we supposed to have run out of food by now? Frozen in an ice age? Been hit by a meteor? Experienced Armageddon? All we have proven is man's insignificance in the scope of things.

That's what some would have you believe:). Create a disaster then "Never let a disaster go to waste." Takes me back to 9/11/01 and Clinton saying he wishes he could have been president.