Old but Faithful

How a feisty group of government retirees faced down the Bush administration and changed the future of America’s national parks

  • Bill Wade and Rob Arnberger of the Coalition of National Park Service Employees

    Photo illustration, National Park Service, Chris Hinkle
  • Bill Wade, left, and Rob Arnberger walk the Sweetwater Trail in Tucson's Saguaro National Park. The two National Park Service retirees are vocal critics of the Bush administration's proposed changes to park rules

    Chris Hinkle
  • THREAT: Crowds amid declining attending. Overall, national parks are losing visitors but still saw 273 million last year. Overnight stays fell by 20 percent between 1995 and 2005. The most popular parks — including Grand Canyon (shown here) — are still infamous for their long traffic jams and large summertime crowds. But even those parks lost visitors in the 1995-2005 time frame.

    Tom Brownold
  • MOTORIZED VEHICLES: The debate on vehicle access has focused largely on air and noise pollution spawned by snowmobiles. In Yellowstone (shown here), the daily average of 250 snowmobiles release 114 tons of carbon dioxide a year, and monitoring over the last three years shows that the machines have exceeded noise standards. The Park Service has proposed keeping the maximum number of snowmobiles allowed at 720 a day for Yellowstone and 140 for Grand Teton.

    National Park Service
  • AIR POLLUTION: The National Park Service monitors air quality trends in regard to visibility, ozone and the amount of sulfates, nitrates and other pollutants in precipation; 34 of the 50 parks monitored in 2005 showed stable or improving air conditions. But in other parks, including Joshua Tree (shown here), Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon and Rocky Mountain, air-quality conditions have been deteriorating.

    Scott T. Smith
  • URBAN ENCROACHMENT: Arizona's Pima County, home to Tucson, has seen its population jump from 400,000 in the 1970s to 1 million residents today. This growth has pushed to the edges of Saguaro National Park, which borders Tucson to the east and west. Another half million people are projected to arrive in the next 20 years. Glacier, Grand Canyon (below), Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone have also seen rapid development in their gateway communities.

    Tom Brownold
  • AGING INFRASTRUCTURE: A General Accounting Office report in 1998 estimated the maintenance backlog in the national parkis to be $4.9 billion. The Bush administration committed to spending that much to reduce the backlog in 2001. But the Congressional Research Service estimated in March 2005 that it was still huge — between $4.52 billion and $9.69 billion.

    Chris Hinkle
  • Sarah Craighead, superintendent of Saguaro National Park, says Park Service employees just want to do good work.

    Chris Hinkle
 

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."

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