Park Service needs a new conservationist leader
Today, four years into its second century, the National Park Service is stumbling forward into a new era, without a plan, a leader or, most importantly, a vision for how to both protect and enhance what is often called America’s best idea.
The agency has just received one of the greatest infusions of funds in its history, following passage of the Great American Outdoor Act, but the Park Service is unable to present Congress with a plan for these funds. Nor has the agency been able to articulate the goals for what it hopes to achieve with this new stream of revenue.
This planning vacuum extends far beyond current circumstances and goes back decades, under Park Service directors both Senate-confirmed and temporarily “acting.” An example of this ingrained aversion to planning is that many of our major parks do not have statutorily-required General Management Plans and many others have plans that are approaching 20 years old.
Consequently, most parks merely “Xerox forward” old plans, adjusting as they go with limited ad hoc planning, on topics ranging from transportation to telecommunications, disconnected from integrated, regularly updated overall plans. Moreover, today’s ad hoc park planning largely takes place behind closed doors with little public involvement.
The Park Service’s tradition of muddling forward increasingly falls short of meeting a mounting cascade of systemwide challenges, including most prominently:
Overcrowding. Many of our most popular parks, such as Zion, Rocky Mountain and Yosemite, today experience paralyzing levels of visitation. At some parks, crushing crowds now extend beyond high season, with traffic jams, swamped hiking trails and long lines becoming year-round conditions. None of these parks, no matter how badly afflicted, have adopted statutorily required “carrying capacities” that are supposed to protect both park resources and the visitor experience from being damaged by overcrowding.
Those few parks that try to explore reservation systems or other means of control quickly abandon them under the twin pressures of local opposition and headquarters hostility in a Park Service convinced that being “loved to death” is only a rhetorical threat and not one being played out daily.
Habitat Loss. Recreational intrusion means visitors now routinely penetrate deeper and deeper into park backcountry. Recent approvals for new mountain-bike trails, followed by allowance for electric-bikes, is one example of noisy, mechanized recreation extending further into diminishing wildlife refuges. At the same time, proliferation of hunting and trapping around park boundaries are devastating in-park wildlife, such as the iconic wolf populations in remote parks such as Denali and Yukon Charley which can no longer commonly be viewed in the wild.
Science Deficit. Even as visitation and other demands on the park system continue to grow, staff levels have been steadily shrinking. That shrinkage has taken a toll not only on park rangers but park scientists, as well. Despite the spreading impact of climate change and mounting adverse impacts on wildlife populations, the science capacity within the Park Service today is at a generational low ebb. Significantly, there are no scientists among the top ranks of National Park managers or even superintendents.
With the advent of a new administration, some are calling for a return of a “career Park Service” employee as director, even though this agency has had a career National Park Service employee either as a confirmed director or acting leader uninterrupted for nearly the past 15 years.
Many of these career candidates cannot point to a single conservation accomplishment in their decades of service while many have presided over conservation travesties, such as approving off-road vehicle trails at the expense of wilderness or authorizing power transmission corridors across some of the nation’s most scenic vistas.
Rather than installing another careerist retread, the Park Service desperately needs new leadership with a strong conservation vision. We need someone who will look at the Park Service’s orphaned wilderness agenda (which explains why big nature parks such as Yellowstone lack even an acre of designated wilderness), the growing destructive recreational footprint in wildlands and the long-term needs of park wildlife populations — on a system-wide basis. New leadership will also require a commitment to planning, public involvement and truly restoring, rather than playing lip service to, the role of science in park decision-making.
In past years, not just under Donald Trump, the Park Service has purged many managers who valued the conservation mandate of the 1916 Parks Organic Act over short-term political expediency. Rather than recycling yet another careerist, the next administration should look for someone who knows the Park Service’s hidebound bureaucracy but is not a creature of it.
Jeff Ruch is the pacific director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Follow the organization on Twitter @PEERorg.