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 reports for the Salt Lake Tribune.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a friendly, detail-oriented, and self-motivated Development Coordinator to provide administrative support to the Development department. This position will report to...
  • FIELD ORGANIZER, MONTANA
    Help Northern Plains Resource Council protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the...
  • FOR SALE
    Successful llama trekking business with Yellowstone National Park concession for sale! A fun and enriching business opportunity of a lifetime! Call 406-580-5954
  • ALBUQUERQUE VACATION HOME
    Centrally located. One bed, one bath, lovely outdoor patio, well-stocked kitchen.
  • NEW AGRARIAN PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Quivira (www.quiviracoaltion.org), a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that aims to shift current practices of agriculture and land stewardship to those that produce good food, support meaningful...
  • SPECTACULAR SCENIC MOUNTAIN VIEW HOME BUILDING SITE
    Located on top of Sugarloaf Mtn. 5 mi W of downtown Colorado Springs, CO. $80,000.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    opportunity in Eugene, Oregon! To learn more and to apply, visit our website at www.bufordpark.org.
  • FUNDRAISING & OUTREACH COORDINATOR
    Does the prospect of working to protect one of the Southwest's last remaining flowing rivers get you excited? Join the team at Friends of the...
  • DIGITAL ENGAGEMENT SPECIALIST
    Position Summary Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a dynamic, organized, and creative Digital Engagement Specialist to be an essential part of our growing Communications Team....
  • NORTH IDAHO FIELD REPRESENTATIVE
    Founded by sportsmen and women 1936, the Idaho Wildlife Federation (IWF) is a statewide nonprofit dedicated to conserving and enhancing Idaho's natural resources, wildlife, habitat,...
  • SMALL HISTORICAL FARM FOR SALE - NEW MEXICO
    23-acres, adobe home, shop, barn, gardens, pasture, orchard. https://www.zillow.com/homes/222-Calle-Del-Norte,-Monticello,-Nm_rb/ or call 575-743-0135.
  • NEW MEXICO GILA NATIONAL FOREST HORSE RANCH
    43 acres in the Gila National Forest. Horse facility, custom home. Year round outdoor living. REDUCED to: $1.17 MM 575-536-3109
  • GRANTS MANAGER AND EDITOR
    Are you a strong communicator who excels at building relationships, writing winning grant proposals, and staying organized? You sound like a good fit for our...
  • REPORTER
    The Wallowa County Chieftain, has an opening for a reporter. Experience with and understanding of editorial photography also required. Journalism degree or equivalent, an understanding...
  • 2017 JOHN DEERE LAWN MOWER Z930R
    15 hours on it, 3 years warranty, 22,5 HP, $1600 Sale price. Contact: [email protected]
  • OWN YOUR OWN CANYON - 1400 SF STRAW-BALE ECO-HOME ON 80 ACRES - 3 HOURS FROM L.A.
    1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • HEAD BREAD/PASTRY BAKER AND ASSISTANT POSITIONS
    Hiring Part/Full time for Summer Season - entry level & experienced positions. Year round employment for optimal candidates. Pay DOE.
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • COUNTRY ESTATE NEAR KINGS CANYON AND SEQUOIA PARKS
    Spectacular views of snowcapped Sierras. 15 miles from Kings Canyon/Sequoia Parks. 47 acres with 2 homes/75' pool/gym/patios/gardens. 1670 sq.ft. main home has 3 bdrm/1 bath....
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST NEW MEXICO
    Beautiful off-the-grid passive solar near the CDT. 9.4 acres, north of Silver City. Sam, 575.388.1921