For the Park Service, an uncomfortable birthday


For most of us, birthdays are happy occasions, when friends and family pay fond attention, lavishing us with gifts to prove that we are loved and valued.  For one day, at least, our foibles are accepted with a smile, or at least diplomatically ignored.

The National Park Service’s 100th birthday has been less joyful, however. In fact, anyone paying attention to the news might think that the proud agency, which oversees 412 units across more than 80 million acres, has had its centennial celebration ruined by a series of uncomfortable revelations.

In January, the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General released a report detailing two decades of sexual harassment by boatmen in the Grand Canyon’s River District and the failure of senior officials to adequately respond. In March, the agency abolished the River District and announced that it would increase sexual harassment training and conduct an agency-wide survey to ascertain how widespread the problem is.

Then, in February, Chief Jonathan Jarvis was reprimanded by his bosses at Interior for publishing a book on the parks through a private company without federal approval.

Cover Art: At sunrise last October, a rainbow bridges the North and South rims of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in western Colorado.
Howard Hill/

Meanwhile, as you can read in this issue, the Park Service remains hobbled by Byzantine bureaucratic policies that have contributed to its struggle to hire a workforce that reflects the nation’s racial diversity, despite decades of “we’re-on-it” rhetoric. The agency also lacks an adequate funding base, not only to maintain current operations, but to address the crumbling, neglected infrastructure at parks around the country. The funding crisis is so bad that it is considering corporate sponsorships, a move that has some worried that “America’s Best Idea” will end up auctioned off to the highest bidder.

It’s enough bad news that some park officials probably wish that they’d planned a low-key event at some remote park in, say, South Dakota, rather than the yearlong, media-saturated, Subaru-sponsored celebration that is keeping the agency in the public eye.

But I’m glad the Park Service went big on its centennial, and I’m even glad that its dirty laundry is getting an airing. After all, birthdays are more than just celebrations; they’re also a time for reflection and redirection. The fact that we are having such deep, passionate discussions about our national parks and their problems is proof that they are loved and that they matter.

Besides, there are some bright spots: The agency continues to lead the way in helping us understand how climate change affects ecological systems; and it has expanded its vision beyond protecting gorgeous landscapes to embracing parks and monuments, some of them brand-new, that spotlight America’s unique cultural heritage in all its remarkable, complex and occasionally ugly glory. We can all raise a glass to that.  

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