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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Wade and Arnberger have been friends throughout their three decades of federal government employment. Like many of their cohorts, they are second-generation Park Service employees. Wade, who ended his career in 1997 as superintendent at Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, grew up among the canyons and cliffs of Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park, where his dad was chief park ranger.

Also raised in the Southwest, Arnberger was born in a two-room clinic on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, where his father worked as a seasonal park ranger naturalist. Arnberger was superintendent of Grand Canyon for six years and retired in 2004 as director of the Alaska Region, where he oversaw the superintendents of 16 national park units.

You would think after 30 years of budgets and endless "Core Operations Analysis" papers, the two men would be done with the NPS lifestyle. Aren’t the Golden Years more conductive to writing memoirs or lowering high golf scores than to political activism?

"I knew I just didn’t want to retire and play golf five days a week," Wade says, and Arnberger cuts him off. Like a long-married couple, they often finish each other’s sentences. "All of us have had a foot in the grave since the day we were born, so the question is, ‘When are we going to fall in?’ " Arnberger says. "Within three weeks after retiring, I moved (here) from Alaska and Bill had me at a press conference talking about issues. There was just a natural evolution. You’re not second generation (NPS) and live your life with the parks and just retire.

"I couldn’t do that."

From the beginning, the coalition leadership wanted it to be different than the traditional, often slow-reacting environmental advocacy group. Arnberger likens the retirees to a quick-strike force. They communicate mostly by e-mail. They have no office, no staff and no bank account (although they have an application pending with the federal government for nonprofit status and hope to hire professional grant writers soon). They use the Washington, D.C.-area media relations firm the Hasting Group, and The Wilderness Society handles what money the coalition receives from grants and donations. The small 444s Foundation based in Bellevue, Wash., whose mission is to "protect wild lands and wildlife in western North America," has given the group $25,000 in the last two years.

"We view them as having so much more credibility in the eyes of the media and editorial board writers than paid professional conservation organizational employees," says The Wilderness Society’s Barry. "These are people who have spent their entire careers working to protect the national parks and to give the American public a really world-class experience in the parks.

"And these guys are reinventing the concept of federal retirement. It ain’t your mama’s retirement anymore."

The National Park Conservation Association’s Tipton also admires the coalition for its credibility and contacts. "We found them to be a very important and very credible partner on a number of issues, the best example being the whole debate — which is now over for the time being — around the National Park Service management policies."

Wade returns the compliments, wrapped in characteristically blunt analysis. "We love The Wilderness Society and NPCA, and we work very closely with them," he says. "But there are very few people in those organizations that have managed one square foot of dirt. And we have.

"And that’s what sets us apart."

 

Almost from its inception, the Coalition of Park Service Retirees served as a complaint conduit for working park employees who felt muzzled under former Director Fran Mainella. The coalition developed a system of moles in Washington, D.C., so far-reaching, one member told me, that the group eventually knew whenever Mainella left her office to use the restroom.

It was those moles deep within the Interior Department who leaked the infamous revision of park management policies prepared by Hoffman, at the time the Interior Department’s deputy assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks. The 194-page revision — which Hoffman prepared on his laptop computer — somehow ended up with Wade and the coalition, who were appalled at the vision Hoffman had for the national parks.

Under Hoffman’s plan, the national parks would be opened to motorized recreation. Jet-Skis, snowmobiles, dirt bikes and off-road vehicles would be permitted, and the value of "peace and tranquility" and the "natural soundscape" diminished in favor of visitor "enjoyment."

Hoffman’s own religious convictions surfaced as an issue when he inserted this passage in Chapter 10 of the management guidelines: "Merchandise that has an accompanying religious or spiritual content … shall not be prohibited solely based upon its religious or spiritual content." Hoffman had been instrumental in forcing Grand Canyon National Park bookstores to stock Grand Canyon: A Different View, written by Tom Vail, a creationist who heads Canyon Ministries in Phoenix. The book posits that, in accordance with a Biblical view of creation, the canyon is 6,000 years old.

Geologists have proven — through carbon-dating and other scientific techniques — that the canyon is actually between 5 and 6 million years old; some rocks in it are 2 billion years old.

Soon the Los Angeles Times and New York Times were on the story, and an embarrassed (and angry) Mainella abandoned Hoffman’s revisions. She signed a new version of the management policies — one that involved public input and hewed closely to NPS tradition — this year.

Not everyone was thrilled that Hoffman’s proposed revisions had been revealed in the press. David Barna, NPS chief of public affairs, said in an e-mail, "Of course the NPS was frustrated by the leak. We never considered Paul Hoffman’s mark-up as a ‘draft,’ the way it was played in the news media. But we recognize that these advocacy groups play a role of checks and balances in our government and celebrate their right to free speech."

Although it would be easy to say the Hoffman affair was the coalition’s greatest triumph, retiree Rick Smith demurs. "I don’t view it as a triumph," he says. "I view it as simply we helped in reaffirming the fact that the national park system is established to provide visitor enjoyment, while assuring that the resources of those parks are protected in perpetuity without impairment."

Triumph or not, the creationist book flap and management policy revisions landed Hoffman on The New Republic’s 2005 list of the Bush administration’s "15 worst hacks."

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