There seems to be a reluctance among those who disagree with the park retirees’ coalition to attack it directly. That reluctance may stem partly from deference to age; there is almost certainly some belief that attacking the retiree group would be counterproductive, publicizing it further and helping it grow in numbers and power.
But clearly there are people who see the retirees as stuck in the past and blind to the budgetary and other challenges the parks face today. Many of those critics say they care deeply about the parks.
One of the retiree coalition’s favorite punching bags is Derrick Crandall, president of the American Recreation Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for, in his words, "all types of recreation and for connecting the American public to our shared legacy." And for ARC, all types means all types: The group’s Web site links to the International Jet Sports Boating Association, International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, National Hot Rod Association, Walt Disney Company, United Four Wheel Drive Association, Cross Country Ski Areas Association and even the American Association for Nude Recreation.
I contacted Crandall by e-mail, asking if he would give me his assessment of the NPS retirees’ coalition, as well as his opinions on park issues. "Be happy to speak with you about ‘larger issues facing national parks,’ " he replied. "I am not interested in addressing CNPSR as an organization, on or off the record."
Although Crandall kept to his word, he did criticize some of the retiree coalition’s ideas, including Wade’s "line in the sand" issue — keeping snowmobiles out of Yellowstone National Park.
"I am strongly in favor of allowing the American public to see Old Faithful in January and February," Crandall wrote. "Strongly in favor of seeing Yellowstone National Park during a period when I think it is extraordinarily beautiful."
Crandall’s view of Fran Mainella’s tenure as Park Service director couldn’t be more different than Wade’s or Arnberger’s. To Crandall, Mainella was "an extraordinary woman. She brought a lot of energy, a lot of vision, and I think helped the Park Service significantly understand more about its mission for the nation and more about the ability to work in partnership with others to do its job."
Money, it seems, is at the center of two vastly different views of running and maintaining the national parks. Most close observers agree that the park system is significantly under-funded, forced to beg almost every session of Congress, Amtrak-style, for the money needed to avoid major cuts in services. But there is wide disagreement on how to best increase funding for the national parks in a time of war, terrorism and a thousand other competing federal priorities.
The retiree coalition believes the Bush administration and a heretofore Republican Congress have intentionally under-funded the parks, so they will deteriorate to the point that partnerships with private corporations become more attractive. But such partnerships would value the financial bottom line over conservation, Wade says, creating what he calls a "motorized, mechanized economy" of national parks.
The retirees’ coalition has a zero-tolerance policy on commercialism in the parks, even opposing the idea of bricks or benches featuring the names of donors. Wade says the only way the parks can truly be a national system is if they are funded by taxpayers, "and, in my judgment, do away with fees, except for certain user fees."
Wade claims the current fee structure excludes entire demographics from experiencing the parks. But Crandall holds an opposing — and seemingly reasonable — view.
"There has never, ever been any proof to that assertion. Again, remember, you can get into every national park in this country for an entire year for $50," Crandall says. "We’re talking about a maximum charge for a carload of people for seven days of $25.
"No park that I know of has a significant problem with that."
The ranks of those proposing new methods of national park funding are hardly limited to motorized recreation advocates.
Holly Fretwell, a research fellow at the Bozeman-based Property & Environment Research Center, says the politically based funding decisions that have historically characterized the NPS appropriations process won’t lead to permanent improvements in park maintenance or services. Park funding crises come up every few years, and Congress comes at least partly to the rescue. But, she says, the problems are never really fixed, and the current system never leads to permanent improvements in maintenance or services.
"I think we’re led to believe that our national parks are public and therefore we all have this God-given right to these beautiful areas. But what we’re not getting across — what we’re not really understanding — is when we have federal dollars paying to provide for these areas, the incentives are very different," Fretwell says. "They (members of Congress) are not going to take care of them, steward them well, and provide quality visits. Instead, they’re trying to gain constituent votes, which is something quite different."
One of Fretwell’s solutions to the chronic funding problem is not to eliminate park fees, as some in the retiree coalition suggest, but to have higher park entry charges.
"If you look at travel cost studies and what people pay just to get to Yellowstone and other parks, what they actually pay to go through that entry gate is a pittance," she says. "We could actually charge fees and help pay at least for the operating costs to start with of many of our big parks."
Her research shows that to cover operating expenses of Yellowstone, for example, visitors should be charged a daily fee of $9.24 per person. Currently the park charges $25 per carload for unlimited access for seven days to both Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. Forty dollars gets you in both parks for a year. Yosemite, which charges $20 for a car full of people for a week, would need to charge $6.84 per person, per day, to cover its costs.
But what about people who can’t afford the fees? "Instead of food stamps, we could have park stamps," Fretwell says, "if we really felt like people were being excluded that should not be excluded."