TUCSON, Arizona — It’s late September, and inside the Holiday Inn’s generically comfortable Falling Waters Grille, the Muzak is Kenny G and George Benson and the like. Graybeards and bluehairs grab their copies of USA Today and beeline for the "hot" buffet while I pound back watery Folgers with retirees Bill Wade and Rob Arnberger, ages 65 and 59.
When I first phoned Wade, he was on the golf course, even though his knees are shot. ("I can go uphill, but downhill is hard.") Arnberger carves wood and enjoys the events held every Wednesday at his local senior center. Both of their faces wear the deep crevasses of lives spent in weather, and their retirement-casual shorts and polo shirts seem to suggest they’re not all that much different from the other achy-boned snowbirds at the café.
As the restaurant fills up, though, Wade and Arnberger begin to pontificate. Loudly. They soon begin to attract a few stares. Eventually, their comments turn blunt, even acid, reflecting their growing reputation as diehard critics of what they see as the Bush administration’s disastrous stewardship of the country’s national parks. The men begin with venomous critiques of Fran Mainella, who retired this summer after five years as National Park Service director. "I didn’t have any professional respect for her. There was no depth," Arnberger says. "She had a choice to stick with the idea of the parks or to stick with political obedience and loyalty. She took the latter."
"Without a doubt, Fran Mainella will go down as the worst director of the NPS in history," Wade amplifies. "It’s not even close."
Wade and Arnberger lead a group that formed almost by accident, but has since been a highly effective check on the Bush administration’s attempts to reorder use of the national parks. In May 2003, Wade was one of three retired senior leaders of the National Park Service asked to speak at a Washington, D.C., press conference by a now-defunct conservation organization. As they prepared a letter to then-Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton voicing their concerns, the three began looking for others who might want to sign on.
"I don’t remember sitting around saying we ought to form a group of retirees," Wade recalls. "It wasn’t until we started getting these phone calls saying, ‘I want my name on the letter, and by the way, I want to be informed when these things are happening.’ It was like someone hit us over the head with a two-by-four, and we said, ‘Hmm, there’s a message here.’ "
From those relatively random beginnings rose the Tucson-based Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, now a 3-year-old group with a membership of 540. Wade is chairman of the group’s executive council; Arnberger is on the nine-member board. Its AARP-studded roster includes five former directors or deputy directors of the National Park Service and more than 200 other former supervisors from the Park Service’s upper levels.
Wade says there is more than 12,000 years’ experience in the coalition, and its "voices of experience" make the best watchdog for an 84 million-acre park system that’s under siege from the Bush administration and its appointees. The siege, Wade and Arnberger say, includes continuing budget starvation, creeping commercialism, regular devaluation of science, obvious shilling for motorized recreation groups and an intense atmosphere of fear at the Park Service, which has a $2 billion budget and employs 20,000.
The retirees do more than gripe. They and their still-employed colleagues in the agency were instrumental in the 2005 leak of a set of proposed revisions to national park management policies. The revisions were authored by Paul Hoffman, a former executive director of the Cody Chamber of Commerce who now serves as the Interior Department’s deputy assistant secretary for performance, accountability and human resources. The resulting publicity exposed Hoffman to national ridicule and stopped the revisions — which, among other things, emphasized motorized recreation in national parks — in their tracks. It also earned the retiree coalition a recognized place in the national conservation advocacy pantheon.
Or, as Ron Tipton, senior vice president for programs at the National Parks Conservation Association, puts it, "They’re certainly pretty good about acquiring documents. And sometimes you need the written word to make the case."
The first national park, Yellowstone, was established in 1872. For historical perspective, consider this: Five years later, startled tourists witnessed a ragged band of Nez Perce Indians as they fled north through the park toward the Canadian border, the U.S. Army in hot pursuit.
The National Park Service was established in 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service Organic Act. Wade, Arnberger and most other long-term Park Service employees can quote the act chapter and verse, particularly the section that calls for the parks to be managed in a manner "that will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."