National Park Service Assesses Accomplishments, Or Lack Thereof, Of The 112th Congress As It Applies To Parks

Editor's note: The following is the National Park Service's assessment of the 112th Congress in regards to the national parks.

For the National Park Service, the 112th Congress, which was in session over 2011 and 2012, was notable more for what was not accomplished than what was. In a departure from all other sessions in recent memory, the two-year Congress that ended on January 3rd did not authorize any new national park units, national heritage areas, wild and scenic rivers, national trails, wilderness areas, or studies of potential new designations.

Yet despite slim results, Congressional interest in the work of the NPS was as strong and active as ever. During 2011 and 2012, House and Senate members introduced more than 200 bills that specifically addressed NPS parks, programs, authorities, or potential new designations, along with many more that affected all federal land management agencies. Congressional committees held hearings on more than 100 of those bills.

Committees also held oversight hearings on the NPS budget, the “Call to Action,” issues affecting parks on the U.S. border, small-concessioner issues, off-road vehicle use at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, cultural resource management at Mesa Verde National Park, the proposed general management plan for Biscayne National Park, NPS policy toward “Occupy DC” demonstrators using park land, Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act policies, the proposed memorial for President Eisenhower, and the future of the National Mall.

During these contentious two years, there were periodic threats of a government shutdown, including one in April 2011 that went down to the wire, but in the end Congress passed the funding bills necessary to keep government agencies operating. The NPS was at the center of press stories each time there was a potential shutdown because of the popularity and symbolism of our national parks. There were also threats of major spending cuts, but the three appropriations bills covering the NPS that Congress passed during this time maintained operational funding for parks and programs at close to previous levels.

Congress passed a surface transportation bill, called Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, or “MAP-21”, the first transportation authorization of significant duration in many years. This act assured funding for park road construction for two and a half years, but it requires the NPS to compete with other land management agencies for funding that in past laws was designated specifically for parks. It also defined the requirements for the “significant restoration of natural quiet” at Grand Canyon National Park, requiring the NPS to reevaluate the air tour management plan that the park has been working on for many years.

Several attempts were made to pass legislation to expand hunting and fishing on federal lands, or to justify why hunting and fishing were not allowed, even in park units that have never allowed hunting. By the end of the Congress, no changes in hunting laws had been made.

Efforts were also made to curtail the President’s authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act to designate or expand national monuments. Those efforts, too, were unsuccessful. This authority was used by President Obama during this period to designate two new park units: Fort Monroe National Monument, in Hampton, Virginia, and Cesar E. Chavez National Monument in Keene, California.

The 112th Congress enacted several minimal-cost authorities affecting specific park units. As a result, new laws provide the following:

* Pinnacles National Monument has been renamed “Pinnacles National Park,” making it the 59th national park in the National Park System;

* Gateway National Recreation Area has authority to enter into an agreement with a natural gas company to rehabilitate a historic hanger at Floyd Bennett Field as part of improving natural gas supply and distribution in New York City;

* Lowell National Historical Park has authority to acquire lands through exchange, in addition to donation, to allow consolidation of properties in and around the park;

* Fort Pulaski National Monument has authority to lease a facility on park property long used by the Savannah Bar Pilots Association, resolving a longstanding legal problem for the park;

* 785 acres have been transferred from Olympic National Park to the Quileute Tribe to facilitate the tribe’s move to higher ground away from the risk of coastal flooding;

* Isle Royale National Park’s oil-transporting vessel, Ranger III, is exempted from double-hull requirements so long as it is owned and operated by the NPS;

* Glacier National Park has been granted right-of-way authority for existing natural gas pipelines;

* World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument has permanent authority to partner with other historic sites in Pearl Harbor to provide ticketing and other visitor services; and

* Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks have authority to continue to issue commercial use authorizations for stock operations in designated wilderness.

Of importance to National Capital Region, two new memorials were authorized to be established in Washington, DC – one to honor Gold Star Mothers and the other to honor African-Americans who served in the American Revolutionary War. The memorials are allowed to be located in an area close to the National Mall (“Area I”), but not on the Mall itself (the “Reserve”).

Two authorities that will affect the NPS hiring were enacted. One affects Alaska only, under which employees hired under a special provision of the Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act may be converted to federal career-status employees after two years of permanent service. The other one applies Servicewide; it will allow non-competitive hiring of candidates who have completed a rigorous undergraduate or graduate internship with a land management agency.

NPS testimony provided to Congress and other legislative information can be found at the website of the Office of Legislative and Congressional Affairs.

Comments

Government shut-down to me always means National Park Service closures. Why are parks not considered essential services? I think it's just to show the public that "the government is really closed."

Danny Bernstein

I'll recycle this comment from an earlier post on the subject. Hiring is one of the biggest problems the NPS faces, and allowing college students to be handed a permanent job after a "rigorous internship" really isn't helping much. A bill that was very important for the proper management of the existing NPS units was left on the table by the last Congress. HR 6306, introduced by Rep. Gerry Connolly, would have given competitive status to long term “temporary” employees. This would fix one of the worst hiring abuses perpetrated by the land management agencies. The agencies have hidden for decades behind a legitimate need for temporary seasonal workers to avoid paying benefits for many critical long term employees. They are kept temporary to save money, which is unavoidable, but a side effect is that they have no standing to apply if a permanent job does come open. After years or decades of exemplary service, often in a temporary version of the very job they are applying for, their application will not even be looked at if a veteran wants the job. Veteran's preference was supposed to be for entry level positions, and once a person had a job with the federal government, had “status”, veteran's preference would no longer come into play. Temporary employees, who do the vast majority of the fieldwork for the NPS and other federal land management agencies, are not considered real employees, no matter how long they work, and are not given status. Therefore they have almost no hope of ever getting a permanent job, no matter how well qualified they are.

Long term temporary employees (and “term” employees, but that is another story) are the most critical component of the NPS workforce. The party line is that temps live a stress free, happy existence, living the dream in amazing surroundings while the permanents do the unpleasant stuff to make it all happen. This is true of the college kids who come for a year or two, then move to another park or leave the NPS, but not necessarily for the long term temps, who often live in the area, lead crews in the field, come back year after year, have most of the institutional knowledge, and do the heavy lifting of planning, logistics, and day to day operations. They have far more responsibility than the other temps they supervise, and often work huge amounts of unpaid overtime because they are limited to 1039 hours (1 hour under 6 months) of work in a year, and just have more than they can do in that amount of time. Most permanent employees outside of maintenance move every few years, and never really get to know the parks and programs they are in charge of well enough to manage them effectively. The good ones rely heavily on the long term local temps.

Most programs within a park are managed by a permanent employee, with one or more long term temps running the field operation, and a bunch of short term temps. When the permanent employee leaves, it is critical that the long term temporary employee who has been the program's backbone for years has a fair chance at the job, both for the sake of maintaining a well run program, and for morale among all employees. Seeing a respected coworker screwed is bad enough, but when all the other dedicated temporaries a park depends on think about what it means for their own chances of promotion, motivation can, and does, collapse across the board. Why work yourself into the ground for people who won't stand up for you when the time comes? It is made harder by the fact that there are ways to get a person without status a job, but they are not entirely on the up and up, and are usually used for politically connected patronage hires, rather than to help deserving field employees. The NPS has lost huge numbers of excellent employees to this situation, both directly when less qualified candidates get their jobs, and indirectly when they look around and see that they have no future in the agency. The damage that has been done, both to NPS operations and to the lives of some of its best employees, is immense. It is unacceptable and must be changed.

This bill obviously won't fix all the problems of abuse of temporary employees, and all the problems of favoritism and patronage in the NPS, but it does fix one of the worst injustices. This bill has winners but no losers. Veterans can still use their preference to get true entry level jobs, as was the intention of the law. It does not address the issue of which positions are legitimate temporary jobs, so there will not be the massive cost of adding thousands of new permanent employees to the rolls. It just means that when permanent jobs come open, existing employees will have a fair chance at getting them. I strongly believe that the NPS needs to get its house in order before it expands in any way, and this is a small, but effective, step in that direction. I hope the current Congress will take it up again and see it through this time.

Yeah, but maybe Congress did us all a favor by keeping their paws off the parks. Can you imagine the damage they could do if they really wanted to follow Rob Bishop's lead?

Keep your freeking politics out of the Parks. Seems completely inappropriate. Should be a place to find some peace and see things as they are! Bug out all of you, please! Even the Interps are centered on self serving agendas in many instances.