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
 

Page 5

How a Congress slimly controlled by Democrats will respond to the parks’ chronic funding problems is, at this point, almost anyone’s guess. Certainly, Democrats will be less reflexively supportive of Bush administration proposals than the last several Republican Congresses have been.

But there’s no guarantee — or even likelihood — that national park issues that were scarcely mentioned during midterm election campaigning will suddenly zoom to the top of the Democratic policy priority list in January.

So there’s no reason to believe the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees will soon fade into the sunset. Wade realizes that simply responding to crises will only take the coalition so far; now, as 2016 and the 100-year anniversary of the national park system approach, the group hopes to spark a national dialogue on the future of the national parks.

"We’re very serious about wanting to push this idea of national dialogue in an academic, nonpartisan, science-based approach," Wade adds, "to determine how best to manage the national park system as we move into its second century."

Perhaps no surprise for a group that simply can’t stay retired, the coalition also plans to establish its own "service corps," with the purpose, Wade says, of moving the retirees back toward the action by "mentoring new superintendents, training and serving on review and advisory committees." Wade says the group will continue to monitor the Yellowstone snowmobile issue, along with other pressing park policies and legislation.

And as the new, Democratically controlled Congress forms committees and redistributes power, Wade says, "We do plan to work closely with the staffs of the new committees and chairs, especially the key national park authorizing and appropriating committees in both houses of Congress.

"We will continue to make our concerns and ideas known to them."

 

After a short visit to the eastern unit of Saguaro National Park (which Tucson divides), I guide Wade and Arnberger back to my rental car and gratefully turn on the air conditioning full blast as we head for lunch at the Blue Willow. Several members of the coalition are there, including Arnberger’s wife, Elvira Tucker-Arnberger, and Dale and Judy Thompson.

The Thompsons worked for more than nine years in three parks on the United States-Mexico border: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Coronado National Park and Big Bend. Dale retired in 2004; Judy stayed on at Saguaro until a month ago, when she retired.

"Morale in the National Park Service has gone down tremendously," Dale says. At Organ Pipe, he says, he had to deal with federal Border Patrol agents who rode their rigs roughshod over sensitive ecological areas.

Judy echoes her husband. "The troops have lost respect for the administration," she says. "The public doesn’t know because NPS employees can’t speak out."

Sarah Craighead, superintendent at Saguaro National Park, says she’s never been cautioned against speaking out. But she does worry that the government is not paying enough attention to a "cadre of dedicated people."

"People care so deeply about the places and the jobs that they do that it’s really hard for them if you ask them to do it at not quite a high level of quality," Craighead explains.

Wade looks on, clearly pleased with his coalition brethren, and more war stories follow. One narrative line becomes familiar: Federal bureaucrat comes to national park, threatens it absurdly. Arnberger recalls "when the governor of Arizona peered over the edge of the (Grand) canyon and said, ‘What do we need that down there for? All we need is the rim with its facilities.’ "

"So why didn’t you just quit when things got too bad?" I finally ask.

Arnberger answers, "When you fall on your sword, all that happens is you die."

He looks me in the eye, searching for signs of skepticism.

"We’re not a bunch of bumbling, fuddy-duddy old farts running with bobby socks wound around our ankles. OK?" he says. "We’re skilled, skilled workers, and we know the issues and the policies. We helped write the policies."

Then he excuses himself and dashes out to return a call from Arizona Sen. John McCain.


The author of two books, Stephen J. Lyons’ writing has appeared in many anthologies, most recently in A Road Runs Through It: Reviving Wild Places. A longtime contributor to these pages, Lyons last reported on the possible closing of New Mexico’s Cannon Air Force Base.

The following sidebar article accompanies this story:

A director from central casting - Mary Bomar, the brand-new director of the National Park Service, worked her up through the agency’s bureaucracy

 

High Country News Classifieds