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

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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."

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