Old but Faithful
How a feisty group of government retirees faced down the Bush administration and changed the future of America’s national parks
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."
Ninety years after its creation, the park system faces a host of continuing and intractable problems that include declining overall visitation, overuse of the system’s most popular parks, inadequate budgets (and the staff reductions and low morale they engender), air pollution, encroachment by residential developments and a creeping commercialism in the parks and in communities that serve as park gateways. A chronic funding shortage has grown particularly acute of late: $3 billion of bridge and road repairs in the parks await the money to complete them, and more than half of the system’s 26,500 buildings are in need of work.
Park budgets ebb and flow according to the whims of each congressional session and presidential administration. But the retirees see something new and malign in the Bush administration’s funding priorities and management aims. They see an intent to fundamentally change — rather than leave unimpaired — the way the parks are used.
Particularly, the retirees decry what they see as the administration’s lack of an environmental ethic and a resulting tendency to discount science — whether it’s evidence for global warming or the environmental impacts of snowmobiles in Yellowstone — that conflicts with political goals.
Rick Smith, a 30-year Park Service supervisor who retired in 1994, says Bush appointees "are changing EPA climate reports by putting in modifiers. I mean, these are guys who have a degree in journalism, and they’re 26 years old, and they’re changing reports by senior scientists at EPA about climate change. Give me a break!"
Perhaps key in the perceived move away from science in the last six years is a transfer of power from Department of Interior career employees to political appointees. In the past, says Don Barry, executive vice president of The Wilderness Society and a former assistant secretary of Interior under President Bill Clinton, NPS careerists could speak their minds.
"People didn’t feel that their jobs were on the line when we would have debates or arguments," he says. "My philosophy was I wanted my staff and I wanted the career people to hit me with their best shots.
"Now I think there was an entirely different atmosphere under Gale Norton and under Fran Mainella and under Paul Hoffman and others at the Interior Department. Once you got in Fran’s doghouse, you were in it for a long time."
One Bush administration priority that rankles Park Service traditionalists is a push to open the parks to varieties of recreation previously thought unacceptable to the very idea of the parks as places of protected silence and nature. Today’s park superintendents are being asked to pay more attention to private business interests in "gateway communities" like West Yellowstone and Moab that have always benefited from their national park neighbors.
Congressional Republicans want to help gateway communities garner even more tourist money. House of Representatives Bill 585, introduced last year by Rep. George Radanovich, R-Calif., requires federal land managers to coordinate with designated gateway communities, and to improve their ability to participate in federal land-management planning, among other things. The bill passed the House but has yet to be voted on by the Senate. The Bush administration has supported the bill (and previous similar legislation), in congressional testimony by upper-level officials from the Interior Department.
Supporters see the changes as a way to accommodate a globalized travel market and the changing desires and demographics of park visitors. As Bob Warren, chairman of the National Alliance of Gateway Communities and general manager of the Shasta Cascade Wonderland Association, put it to the House National Parks Subcommittee: "Gone are teardrop trailers, replaced with half-a-million-dollar luxury cruisers, driven by a more demanding baby boomer. These ‘boomers’ want larger pull-thru sites, wireless Internet, recreation centers and full hook-ups, as offered by many private sector campgrounds."
To say the NPS retirees do not support greater coordination with gateway communities — or increased suburban comforts in the supposedly natural national parks — is to understate dramatically.
"The parks were set aside not for Gardiner or for Tucson or for Gatlinburg," Arnberger insists. "They were set aside on the behalf of all Americans. And guess what?
"For all Americans still to come."
Wade and Arnberger have been friends throughout their three decades of federal government employment. Like many of their cohorts, they are second-generation Park Service employees. Wade, who ended his career in 1997 as superintendent at Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, grew up among the canyons and cliffs of Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park, where his dad was chief park ranger.
Also raised in the Southwest, Arnberger was born in a two-room clinic on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, where his father worked as a seasonal park ranger naturalist. Arnberger was superintendent of Grand Canyon for six years and retired in 2004 as director of the Alaska Region, where he oversaw the superintendents of 16 national park units.
You would think after 30 years of budgets and endless "Core Operations Analysis" papers, the two men would be done with the NPS lifestyle. Aren’t the Golden Years more conductive to writing memoirs or lowering high golf scores than to political activism?
"I knew I just didn’t want to retire and play golf five days a week," Wade says, and Arnberger cuts him off. Like a long-married couple, they often finish each other’s sentences. "All of us have had a foot in the grave since the day we were born, so the question is, ‘When are we going to fall in?’ " Arnberger says. "Within three weeks after retiring, I moved (here) from Alaska and Bill had me at a press conference talking about issues. There was just a natural evolution. You’re not second generation (NPS) and live your life with the parks and just retire.
"I couldn’t do that."
From the beginning, the coalition leadership wanted it to be different than the traditional, often slow-reacting environmental advocacy group. Arnberger likens the retirees to a quick-strike force. They communicate mostly by e-mail. They have no office, no staff and no bank account (although they have an application pending with the federal government for nonprofit status and hope to hire professional grant writers soon). They use the Washington, D.C.-area media relations firm the Hasting Group, and The Wilderness Society handles what money the coalition receives from grants and donations. The small 444s Foundation based in Bellevue, Wash., whose mission is to "protect wild lands and wildlife in western North America," has given the group $25,000 in the last two years.
"We view them as having so much more credibility in the eyes of the media and editorial board writers than paid professional conservation organizational employees," says The Wilderness Society’s Barry. "These are people who have spent their entire careers working to protect the national parks and to give the American public a really world-class experience in the parks.
"And these guys are reinventing the concept of federal retirement. It ain’t your mama’s retirement anymore."
The National Park Conservation Association’s Tipton also admires the coalition for its credibility and contacts. "We found them to be a very important and very credible partner on a number of issues, the best example being the whole debate — which is now over for the time being — around the National Park Service management policies."
Wade returns the compliments, wrapped in characteristically blunt analysis. "We love The Wilderness Society and NPCA, and we work very closely with them," he says. "But there are very few people in those organizations that have managed one square foot of dirt. And we have.
"And that’s what sets us apart."
Almost from its inception, the Coalition of Park Service Retirees served as a complaint conduit for working park employees who felt muzzled under former Director Fran Mainella. The coalition developed a system of moles in Washington, D.C., so far-reaching, one member told me, that the group eventually knew whenever Mainella left her office to use the restroom.
It was those moles deep within the Interior Department who leaked the infamous revision of park management policies prepared by Hoffman, at the time the Interior Department’s deputy assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks. The 194-page revision — which Hoffman prepared on his laptop computer — somehow ended up with Wade and the coalition, who were appalled at the vision Hoffman had for the national parks.
Under Hoffman’s plan, the national parks would be opened to motorized recreation. Jet-Skis, snowmobiles, dirt bikes and off-road vehicles would be permitted, and the value of "peace and tranquility" and the "natural soundscape" diminished in favor of visitor "enjoyment."
Hoffman’s own religious convictions surfaced as an issue when he inserted this passage in Chapter 10 of the management guidelines: "Merchandise that has an accompanying religious or spiritual content … shall not be prohibited solely based upon its religious or spiritual content." Hoffman had been instrumental in forcing Grand Canyon National Park bookstores to stock Grand Canyon: A Different View, written by Tom Vail, a creationist who heads Canyon Ministries in Phoenix. The book posits that, in accordance with a Biblical view of creation, the canyon is 6,000 years old.
Geologists have proven — through carbon-dating and other scientific techniques — that the canyon is actually between 5 and 6 million years old; some rocks in it are 2 billion years old.
Soon the Los Angeles Times and New York Times were on the story, and an embarrassed (and angry) Mainella abandoned Hoffman’s revisions. She signed a new version of the management policies — one that involved public input and hewed closely to NPS tradition — this year.
Not everyone was thrilled that Hoffman’s proposed revisions had been revealed in the press. David Barna, NPS chief of public affairs, said in an e-mail, "Of course the NPS was frustrated by the leak. We never considered Paul Hoffman’s mark-up as a ‘draft,’ the way it was played in the news media. But we recognize that these advocacy groups play a role of checks and balances in our government and celebrate their right to free speech."
Although it would be easy to say the Hoffman affair was the coalition’s greatest triumph, retiree Rick Smith demurs. "I don’t view it as a triumph," he says. "I view it as simply we helped in reaffirming the fact that the national park system is established to provide visitor enjoyment, while assuring that the resources of those parks are protected in perpetuity without impairment."
Triumph or not, the creationist book flap and management policy revisions landed Hoffman on The New Republic’s 2005 list of the Bush administration’s "15 worst hacks."
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."
How a Congress slimly controlled by Democrats will respond to the parks’ chronic funding problems is, at this point, almost anyone’s guess. Certainly, Democrats will be less reflexively supportive of Bush administration proposals than the last several Republican Congresses have been.
But there’s no guarantee — or even likelihood — that national park issues that were scarcely mentioned during midterm election campaigning will suddenly zoom to the top of the Democratic policy priority list in January.
So there’s no reason to believe the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees will soon fade into the sunset. Wade realizes that simply responding to crises will only take the coalition so far; now, as 2016 and the 100-year anniversary of the national park system approach, the group hopes to spark a national dialogue on the future of the national parks.
"We’re very serious about wanting to push this idea of national dialogue in an academic, nonpartisan, science-based approach," Wade adds, "to determine how best to manage the national park system as we move into its second century."
Perhaps no surprise for a group that simply can’t stay retired, the coalition also plans to establish its own "service corps," with the purpose, Wade says, of moving the retirees back toward the action by "mentoring new superintendents, training and serving on review and advisory committees." Wade says the group will continue to monitor the Yellowstone snowmobile issue, along with other pressing park policies and legislation.
And as the new, Democratically controlled Congress forms committees and redistributes power, Wade says, "We do plan to work closely with the staffs of the new committees and chairs, especially the key national park authorizing and appropriating committees in both houses of Congress.
"We will continue to make our concerns and ideas known to them."
After a short visit to the eastern unit of Saguaro National Park (which Tucson divides), I guide Wade and Arnberger back to my rental car and gratefully turn on the air conditioning full blast as we head for lunch at the Blue Willow. Several members of the coalition are there, including Arnberger’s wife, Elvira Tucker-Arnberger, and Dale and Judy Thompson.
The Thompsons worked for more than nine years in three parks on the United States-Mexico border: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Coronado National Park and Big Bend. Dale retired in 2004; Judy stayed on at Saguaro until a month ago, when she retired.
"Morale in the National Park Service has gone down tremendously," Dale says. At Organ Pipe, he says, he had to deal with federal Border Patrol agents who rode their rigs roughshod over sensitive ecological areas.
Judy echoes her husband. "The troops have lost respect for the administration," she says. "The public doesn’t know because NPS employees can’t speak out."
Sarah Craighead, superintendent at Saguaro National Park, says she’s never been cautioned against speaking out. But she does worry that the government is not paying enough attention to a "cadre of dedicated people."
"People care so deeply about the places and the jobs that they do that it’s really hard for them if you ask them to do it at not quite a high level of quality," Craighead explains.
Wade looks on, clearly pleased with his coalition brethren, and more war stories follow. One narrative line becomes familiar: Federal bureaucrat comes to national park, threatens it absurdly. Arnberger recalls "when the governor of Arizona peered over the edge of the (Grand) canyon and said, ‘What do we need that down there for? All we need is the rim with its facilities.’ "
"So why didn’t you just quit when things got too bad?" I finally ask.
Arnberger answers, "When you fall on your sword, all that happens is you die."
He looks me in the eye, searching for signs of skepticism.
"We’re not a bunch of bumbling, fuddy-duddy old farts running with bobby socks wound around our ankles. OK?" he says. "We’re skilled, skilled workers, and we know the issues and the policies. We helped write the policies."
Then he excuses himself and dashes out to return a call from Arizona Sen. John McCain.
The author of two books, Stephen J. Lyons’ writing has appeared in many anthologies, most recently in A Road Runs Through It: Reviving Wild Places. A longtime contributor to these pages, Lyons last reported on the possible closing of New Mexico’s Cannon Air Force Base.
The following sidebar article accompanies this story:
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