Revealed — secret changes to park rules

Critics say the Bush administration is again subverting the public process

  • Paul Hoffman, under fire for secretly rewriting the Park Service management policy manual

    Jim Peaco, NPS

As executive director of the Cody, Wyo., Chamber of Commerce from 1990 to 2002, Paul Hoffman regularly butted heads with officials in neighboring Yellowstone National Park over the park’s efforts to ban snowmobiles, reintroduce wolves, and block a nearby gold mine.

"Paul is not a rookie when it comes to controversial issues," says Hoffman’s successor at the chamber, Gene Bryan.

It was good practice for Hoffman: Now deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of the Interior, he has landed in the middle of a massive controversy over the future of the national parks.

In recent months, Hoffman quietly rewrote the National Park Service’s management policy manual, but in late August, an anonymous Park Service employee leaked the rewrite to an advocacy group. The 194-page revision, which was shelved by the Interior Department shortly after it went public, would downplay preservation, and elevate recreation and commercial development over other uses.

"This will completely alter the character of the National Park Service since it was created in 1916," says Robert Utley, a former chief historian for the Park Service who helped revise the policy during the Nixon administration.

Hoffman’s rewrite would have far-reaching effects on the kinds of activities allowed in the national parks. The existing policy bans those that "may constitute an impairment" to a park. Under Hoffman’s rewrite, managers would have to prove that a proposed activity would "permanently and irreversibly adversely" affect a resource or value.

The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees — the group that received the leaked policy rewrite and revealed it to the press — says Hoffman’s changes would be devastating. The coalition warns that the changes would, among other things:

  • Give off-highway vehicles, JetSkis and dirt bikes virtually unrestricted access to dozens of national parks and seashores.
  • Allow a huge increase in air tours of parks by airplane and helicopter.
  • Allow activities such as rock concerts — and even mining — in national parks.
  • Allow existing commercial activities — such as livestock grazing and elk hunting in Grand Teton National Park — to continue.
  • Give governors and officials in gateway communities more power to push for local interests over national ones.

Brian Hawthorne, the public-lands director for the BlueRibbon Coalition, a motorized recreation advocacy group, says Hoffman’s changes are overdue. The current policy manual, released in the final days of the Clinton administration, put too much emphasis on protecting resources, he says. "It allowed public-land managers to prohibit anything at all if it might harm some resource," he says.

The Clinton-era policy changes came in response to changing times, says Laura Loomis, senior director of the National Parks Conservation Association. The broad policy revision came as the Park Service was wrestling with problems on the ground, in places like Yellowstone. "We had huge growth in snowmobile numbers, and consequently huge growth in impacts," she says.

But Bill Wade, executive director of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, says preservation was the top priority long before the Clinton era. The 1916 Organic Act, which created the National Park Service, states that the agency’s purpose is to "conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

Interior spokesman David Barna says the Hoffman rewrite was only crafted to spark a dialogue within the Park Service. But he adds that an "official" rewrite is under way, by order of both Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Congress.

Past revisions included extensive input from Park Service specialists and the public, and all were initiated within the Park Service, not by political appointees, according to Wade. Input to the current official revision has so far been limited to 16 Park Service executives.

Barna says the official revision will be vetted by Hoffman, and opened for public comment in October.

Park advocates are not optimistic: Another leaked memo indicates that the official revision seems to be headed in the same direction as the Hoffman rewrite, albeit with more diplomatic language.

"The National Park Service has about 250 million visitors each year, and they’re surveyed to measure visitor satisfaction," says Wade. "Every year, 90 percent-plus of visitors say they were satisfied or very satisfied with their visit.

"So why are we changing policy?"

The author writes from Lander, Wyoming.

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