The Park Service takes a hard look at itself

  • INSIDER: Richard West Sellars

    photo courtesy Sellars
  • Cover of book

  The portrait of the National Park Service that Richard West Sellars paints in his new book is not especially flattering: Entrusted by Americans to preserve natural wonders, the agency instead prefers to develop recreation and promote tourism.


Such criticism is nothing new - writer Edward Abbey loved to rail against "industrial tourism" and the "National Parking Service."


What makes Sellars' new book, Preserving Nature in the National Parks, unusual is that he was told and paid to write an unflinching analysis of the National Park Service by his employer - the National Park Service. A park historian based in Santa Fe, N.M., Sellars works for the agency he takes to task for focusing too much on recreation while "neglecting to push science to the forefront and make it a non-negotiable element of park management."


Just as surprising, even to Sellars, is the reception the book has received from top-level National Park Service officials. Recently, NPS Director Robert Stanton told the National Leadership Council - a cabinet of top Park Service executives - that Sellars' book is required reading.


"The new director and the Park Service directorate in general has been responding positively to this book," Sellars says, adding quizzically: "I can't tell you why that is."


The project had been fraught with agency politics, internal second-guessing and numerous delays. NPS officials had wanted their own detailed history of natural-resource management in the wake of maverick scientist Alston Chase's 1986 tome, Playing God in Yellowstone: The Destruction of America's First National Park, a caustic view of federal land-management practices in and around Yellowstone.


"I never looked upon this book as a rebuttal to Chase, but there was nothing else on the shelf that was unchallengeable in its accuracy and outright truth," says NPS Intermountain Area Director John Cook in Denver, who shielded Sellars' book project from periodic internal torpedoes. "My role was to ensure we got a totally professional, defensible document that was not bombarded by revisionist history - at which I can be pretty good myself.


"I'm sure some egos got bruised by this book, but our employees have been telling us for years to take a more scientific approach to our management techniques," says Cook.


As a government employee, Sellars does not receive royalties from the book; they go to the nonprofit Albright-Wirth Employee Development Fund to advance the professional skills of NPS employees.


On its surface, Preserving Nature in the National Parks is an extensively detailed history of the Park Service, reflecting Sellars' unprecedented access to agency archives.


That access lets him document the development of the agency's entrenched philosophy of scenery or "facade" management to tourists. His examples range from predator control to fire management, from bark beetles to grizzly bears. His conclusion: Nature historically has lost out to recreation, even though that goes against the agency's congressional mandate to protect natural wonders "unimpaired for future generations."


For instance, he notes how the Park Service leadership fought the Wilderness Act of 1964 - an act that would seem to be in harmony with the agency's mission. And, Sellars marvels how the Park Service came to manage "national recreation areas' like Glen Canyon and Lake Mead.


"This is an agency that likes to see itself as primarily a preservation agency, yet here they are getting in bed with the Bureau of Reclamation and the Corps of Engineers, the dam builders of the West," Sellars says. "They leave these areas so totally impaired from their natural condition, that philosophically the Service just splits."


Like the agency's dual mission of protecting natural resources while making them accessible to the public, Sellars notes there's an "uneasy relationship" between recreation development and natural preservation.


A deeper message in Sellars' 380-page text is the emergence of the Park Service's "leadership culture," the agency's tendency to make engineers, architects and construction specialists managers rather than employees with professional backgrounds in natural science. Sellars blames this bias for the emphasis on recreation.


Sellars acknowledges personal frustration as an environmental historian with a Ph.D. going up against the Park Service's culture during more than two decades as an agency employee.


"I came into the Service as a historian in the early "70s thinking the agency manages dozens of historical sites, so historians must have very influential positions in the Park Service," he says. "Wrong."


But Sellars also notes that the agency gave the public what it apparently wanted.


Since the dawn of the national park system with the creation of Yellowstone and Yosemite, the emphasis from Congress was to make the parks public pleasure grounds. Profit, not altruism, drove the creation of the first national parks.


Sellars' book recounts how Northern Pacific Railroad baron Jay Cooke lobbied Congress to create Yellowstone National Park so it wouldn't fall into private hands and limit his ability to monopolize tourist traffic into the region.


"With tourism and the economics of tourism being fundamental to the parks' very existence, the utilitarian, businesslike proclivities of park management thrived as the system grew," Sellars writes. "Striving for ever more parks and better accommodations, the Service measured its success by indicators such as annual visitor counts; the increasing scope of its programs and size of the park system; and the number of new campgrounds, visitor centers and related developments."


Yet changes are on the wind. Sellars' sometimes scathing account of park managers ignoring or defying sound, scientific advice from biologists and naturalists has coincided with a shift in the agency's leadership culture toward environmental preservation.


"We've come to understand the mandate to "leave unimpaired" in a modern way, that instead of preserving the scenic facade of nature, there's a concern for the ecology that all this scenery is tied into," says Sellars.


Others agree.


"I hope it's a turning point," says Jere Krakow, superintendent of the NPS Long Distance Trails Office in Salt Lake City and a 30-year acquaintance of Sellars. "Dick's now in the catbird seat as a historian who has an influence in management decisions."


The book also has energized the NPS to seek more scientific data before making management decisions.


"We have not done a good job of getting good, quantitative information on the resources of parks," says John Jarvis, superintendent of Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, the largest park in the NPS system - at 13.2 million acres, bigger than Switzerland.


"That's the charge we have now, to embrace the scientific collection of information available when we make management decisions."


Part of the shift toward environmental protection is a result of the agency's success in attracting visitors. Today, many national parks are crammed with people, cars, campers, hotels and other amenities, and now a vanguard of managers is pushing programs to reduce crowding, eliminate vehicles, silence aircraft noise and preserve natural environments.


"What goes around comes around," says Sellars, who now is at work on another Park Service history, this one about how well the agency has protected cultural resources like ancient Indian dwellings and old buildings. "To prepare for the future, it's important first to analyze the past with as much clarity and impartiality as can be mustered. We're doing better."


*Christopher Smith





Christopher Smith reports for the Salt Lake Tribune.