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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There seems to be a reluctance among those who disagree with the park retirees’ coalition to attack it directly. That reluctance may stem partly from deference to age; there is almost certainly some belief that attacking the retiree group would be counterproductive, publicizing it further and helping it grow in numbers and power.

But clearly there are people who see the retirees as stuck in the past and blind to the budgetary and other challenges the parks face today. Many of those critics say they care deeply about the parks.

One of the retiree coalition’s favorite punching bags is Derrick Crandall, president of the American Recreation Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for, in his words, "all types of recreation and for connecting the American public to our shared legacy." And for ARC, all types means all types: The group’s Web site links to the International Jet Sports Boating Association, International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, National Hot Rod Association, Walt Disney Company, United Four Wheel Drive Association, Cross Country Ski Areas Association and even the American Association for Nude Recreation.

I contacted Crandall by e-mail, asking if he would give me his assessment of the NPS retirees’ coalition, as well as his opinions on park issues. "Be happy to speak with you about ‘larger issues facing national parks,’ " he replied. "I am not interested in addressing CNPSR as an organization, on or off the record."

Although Crandall kept to his word, he did criticize some of the retiree coalition’s ideas, including Wade’s "line in the sand" issue — keeping snowmobiles out of Yellowstone National Park.

"I am strongly in favor of allowing the American public to see Old Faithful in January and February," Crandall wrote. "Strongly in favor of seeing Yellowstone National Park during a period when I think it is extraordinarily beautiful."

Crandall’s view of Fran Mainella’s tenure as Park Service director couldn’t be more different than Wade’s or Arnberger’s. To Crandall, Mainella was "an extraordinary woman. She brought a lot of energy, a lot of vision, and I think helped the Park Service significantly understand more about its mission for the nation and more about the ability to work in partnership with others to do its job."

Money, it seems, is at the center of two vastly different views of running and maintaining the national parks. Most close observers agree that the park system is significantly under-funded, forced to beg almost every session of Congress, Amtrak-style, for the money needed to avoid major cuts in services. But there is wide disagreement on how to best increase funding for the national parks in a time of war, terrorism and a thousand other competing federal priorities.

The retiree coalition believes the Bush administration and a heretofore Republican Congress have intentionally under-funded the parks, so they will deteriorate to the point that partnerships with private corporations become more attractive. But such partnerships would value the financial bottom line over conservation, Wade says, creating what he calls a "motorized, mechanized economy" of national parks.

The retirees’ coalition has a zero-tolerance policy on commercialism in the parks, even opposing the idea of bricks or benches featuring the names of donors. Wade says the only way the parks can truly be a national system is if they are funded by taxpayers, "and, in my judgment, do away with fees, except for certain user fees."

Wade claims the current fee structure excludes entire demographics from experiencing the parks. But Crandall holds an opposing — and seemingly reasonable — view.

"There has never, ever been any proof to that assertion. Again, remember, you can get into every national park in this country for an entire year for $50," Crandall says. "We’re talking about a maximum charge for a carload of people for seven days of $25.

"No park that I know of has a significant problem with that."

The ranks of those proposing new methods of national park funding are hardly limited to motorized recreation advocates.

Holly Fretwell, a research fellow at the Bozeman-based Property & Environment Research Center, says the politically based funding decisions that have historically characterized the NPS appropriations process won’t lead to permanent improvements in park maintenance or services. Park funding crises come up every few years, and Congress comes at least partly to the rescue. But, she says, the problems are never really fixed, and the current system never leads to permanent improvements in maintenance or services.

"I think we’re led to believe that our national parks are public and therefore we all have this God-given right to these beautiful areas. But what we’re not getting across — what we’re not really understanding — is when we have federal dollars paying to provide for these areas, the incentives are very different," Fretwell says. "They (members of Congress) are not going to take care of them, steward them well, and provide quality visits. Instead, they’re trying to gain constituent votes, which is something quite different."

One of Fretwell’s solutions to the chronic funding problem is not to eliminate park fees, as some in the retiree coalition suggest, but to have higher park entry charges.

"If you look at travel cost studies and what people pay just to get to Yellowstone and other parks, what they actually pay to go through that entry gate is a pittance," she says. "We could actually charge fees and help pay at least for the operating costs to start with of many of our big parks."

Her research shows that to cover operating expenses of Yellowstone, for example, visitors should be charged a daily fee of $9.24 per person. Currently the park charges $25 per carload for unlimited access for seven days to both Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. Forty dollars gets you in both parks for a year. Yosemite, which charges $20 for a car full of people for a week, would need to charge $6.84 per person, per day, to cover its costs.

But what about people who can’t afford the fees? "Instead of food stamps, we could have park stamps," Fretwell says, "if we really felt like people were being excluded that should not be excluded."

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