Who will run the new Park Service?

 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, Shrink to fit.

When and if the National Park Service is allowed by the Congress to reorganize itself, it will still have 366 Park Service units and close to 300 million visitors a year. But the management of those parks and visitors and how decisions are made will be very different.

Gone will be the heavily staffed Washington office, with 1,100 employees overseeing 10 regional offices. And gone will be the regional offices, each with 200 or so employees, overseeing in turn an average of 40 parks.

In their places will be a slimmed-down D.C. office, and seven even slimmer field offices, each with only 20 or so employees. Those field offices will each oversee 50 or so parks. Finally, to provide the legal, architectural and planning services the parks need, there will also be 16 system support offices, each attached to a cluster of parks grouped by ecosystem, and each staffed by 80 to 100 people.

In the West, for example, the Rocky Mountain Regional Office in Denver will be merged with the Southwest Regional Office in Santa Fe. The 400 or so employees now in those two offices will become about 20 employees in the new Intermountain Field Office. That office's few employees will set policy for parks stretching from Glacier in Montana, on the Canadian border, to Great Bend in Texas, on the Mexican border.

The 79 parks, monuments, historic sites and six historic trails in the Intermountain Field Office will, in turn, be organized into three ecosystem clusters: the Rocky Mountain cluster (Yellowstone, Glacier, et al), the Colorado Plateau cluster (Arches, Canyonlands, Zion, et al), and the Southwest cluster (Grand Canyon, Organ Pipe, et al). Each cluster will have a system support office, headed by a superintendent whose civil service grade will outrank that of the park superintendents.

In theory, power will devolve to the park superintendents in each cluster, who will decide jointly how to distribute resources. (That decision is now made by the regional offices.) In addition, the superintendents will be freer to govern their individual parks, working with local communities and governments on a consensus basis.

But many of the questions about the reorganization center on who will actually exercise the power. Some wonder if the superintendents who head the system support offices will become de facto heads of the parks in his or her ecosystem cluster. Others believe the park superintendents will be able to jointly govern the cluster. And some think internal governance will be irrelevant, because the new system will become like the now changing Bureau of Land Management, run for and by special economic interests.

Whether or not the reorganization is approved by the Congress, it is already having an effect, as Park Service employees anticipate the new order. In Denver, the Regional Office has dropped from 170 employees to 140 since March. The same trend is visible in Washington, D.C., where 120 employees have left the central office for the "field." Overall, there are 500 vacancies still to be filled at national park and recreation areas, and under Operation Opportunity, employees in the central and regional offices have first shot at those jobs.

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