Our Parks in Peril

Is Congressman Richard Pombo (R-CA), the chairman of the House Resources Committee, joking? Did he really circulate a razed-earth anti-parks bill as a rather mean-spirited joke, or was he for real? It’s a little hard to tell with him, but the national parks sections are certainly laughable. In any case, the idea of making wildlife "pay its passage" is not new: In the 1997 film Fierce Creatures, a sequel to the fabulous A Fish Called Wanda, an evil magnate modeled on Rupert Murdoch takes over a small British zoo and demands that it produce a 20 percent return. Among his bright ideas: hanging bank-promoting advertising sandwich boards on the big cats.

If Pombo’s bill was a joke, it was an elaborate one, paid for with federal dollars:

"Section 6302 requires the National Park Service (NPS) to raise $10 million by selling advertising in official maps and guidebooks, as well as placing billboards on buses, trams and vans. The Interior Department would also be required to sell commercial sponsorship of visitor and education centers, museums trails, theaters and other facilities. Thus the "Exxon/Mobil Visitors Center" or other such designations. (If the place was already named after an individual, it would get a reprieve);

"Section 6306 requires NPS to sell for private use any park that receives less than 10,000 visitors per day. Most of the 15 parks that meet that designation are in Alaska, and all are national treasures.

The parks that would go on the block for poor performance include 23 percent of total park system acreage. They include the Eugene O"Neill National Historic Site in California (where the esteemed playwright wrote "The Iceman Cometh" and "Long Day’s Journey into Night"), the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve in Alaska and the Frederick Law Olmstead National Historic Site (dedicated to the creator of New York’s Central Park, among other treasures) in Massachusetts. Poor Mary McLeod Bethune’s council house in Washington, D.C. would have to go, too, but who remembers her? She was only a pioneering African-American leader.

To say that the environmental community reacted strongly to the idea of prostituting and/or selling the parks would be a considerable understatement. "I have no idea what they could be thinking putting together a proposal this extreme," said Craig Obey of the National Park Conservation Association (NPCA). "These proposals are unconscionable." NPCA’s president, Tom Kiernan, added, "Congressman Pombo seems prepared to put our American heritage on the auction block, insulting the American people and tarnishing the birthright of current and future generations."

Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA) noted that Frederick Law Olmstead had a hand in designing the gardens of the U.S. Capitol, the White House and other national treasures. "In keeping with his design to gut our country of national treasures, the chairman has put the home of America’s foremost park-maker
on the list of national parks to be cut," Markey said. "He is trying to sell the park-maker’s park."

Jim DiPeso of the national grassroots group Republicans for Environmental Protection agreed. "Pombo’s extremism, if turned into law, would turn our treasured national park system into a tawdry carnival of advertising and fast-buck commercialism, squandering a priceless inheritance," he said, adding that Pombo and his friends were using Hurricane Katrina-related energy shortages as a smokescreen to push through "extreme" legislation.

The parks were already under fire from the Bush administration, which has relentlessly championed both privatization and commercialization. Bill Berkowitz reported at WorkingforChange.com last year, "Over the past few months, NPS has quietly imposed a hiring freeze, abandoned maintenance projects, cut visitor services and reduced park hours at a number of America’s national parks. In response, according to Ski magazine, "Forest Service officials appear to be leaning toward a policy change that would allow more visible displays of sponsors, whose logos, names or ads could appear on items they underwrite.""

Back in August, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times reported that Paul Hoffman, deputy assistant secretary of the Department of the Interior for fish and wildlife and parks, had quietly rewritten many of the rules of park governance. According to a coalition of environmental groups that includes Friends of the Earth, NPCA, Natural Resources Defense Council and The Wilderness Society, Hoffman’s proposals "would harm national parks from Gettysburg to Yellowstone to the Grand Canyon, and compromise visitors" experiences." The groups added, "As watchdog organizations, we share the concerns expressed by park professionals that these policy revisions depart radically from the fundamental stewardship ethic that has preserved our national parks from their beginning. We urge the Department of the Interior to immediately abandon this rewrite, heeding the advice of NPS professionals who have effectively managed our heritage for decades."

Bush has also been studying the idea of outsourcing many parks jobs—and even planned on sticking NPS with the $2.5 million to $3 million bill for studying just how that outsourcing to private contractors would work. "This is a quota-based ideological drive to replace civil servants with private contractors, regardless of the cost to the public, the park service or the national assets it protects," said attorney Jeffrey Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

NPCA has been leading the campaign trying to stop the ongoing privatization plan, which "could devastate an already understaffed agency and detract from the experiences of the millions of people who visit the national parks annually," the group says, adding that privatization plans "are damaging morale and creating fear in the agency’s ranks."

In the report A New Tragedy for the Commons: The Threat of Privatization to National Parks (and other Public Lands), Bill Wade of the Coalition of National Park Retirees reports that current NPS Director Fran Mainella came into office promoting the idea of "partnerships" to "contract out certain NPS functions, to increase opportunities for private, commercial interests to become involved in park activities and to expand recreational (especially motorized) uses in NPS areas—promoting what [the Bush administration calls] the "proper balance between public access and resource protection.""

These efforts, Wade says, include attempts to outsource biological science and archaeological surveys and assessments, replacing NPS workers with low-bid private contractors. Meanwhile, despite scientific data recommending against it, the Bush administration is opening the parks to wider recreational vehicle use, including snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park and off-highway vehicles in bird-nesting areas of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The new intrusions are supported by the American Recreation Coalition, representing the $400 billion outdoor recreation industry.

Park bookstores and gift shops are being turned into forums for creationists. Visit the Grand Canyon and among the literature on sale is the handsomely illustrated Gran

d Canyon: A Different View, which maintains that the national treasure was formed not six million years ago, as most geologists would have it, but about 4,500 years ago, a direct consequence of Noah’s Flood. The book is the work of Tom Vail, a former canyon guide who "met the lord" some years ago. "Now I have a different view of the Canyon, which according to a biblical time scale, can’t possibly be more than a few thousand years old," he says.

The superintendent of the Grand Canyon attempted to remove the book, but was overruled by NPS headquarters, which claimed it would conduct a review. But that review apparently never happened, and hundreds of copies of the book were ordered. PEER’s Ruch proclaimed, "If the Bush administration is using public resources for pandering to Christian fundamentalists, it should at least have the decency to tell the truth about it."

Pombo’s staff can’t seem to get their story straight about the proposed legislation. Brian Kennedy, a Pombo spokesperson, said initially that the language in the bill is just one option, a draft offering "the biggest, broadest spectrum of options," and that "no final decisions have been made." He noted cheerfully that the bill as stated would raise $5 billion.

But Kennedy, who failed to return calls asking for comment, also told the San Francisco Chronicle that Pombo really has no intention of selling off parks or historic sites, and that the staffers who prepared the document saw much of the plan as "absurd and laughable." Its purpose, Kennedy said, was to show other legislators why it was important to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling. A House budget bill directed Pombo’s committee to come up with $2.4 billion in savings, Kennedy said, and the choice was either to drill in ANWR (obtaining the money through oil lease sales over five years) or decimate the parks. "Ultimately, it’s not serious in any way as proposed legislation," Kennedy said, calling the bill a "conversation starter."

Creating legislation for laughs would seem to be a new and novel use of federal money. Carl Pope of the Sierra Club, for one, was taking the proposed bill very seriously, noting that it had been made the same week that another Republican legislator, Tom Tancredo of Colorado, introduced a bill that would sell 15 percent of all Interior Department holdings to fund Katrina relief. "These public lands are icons of our natural and cultural history," said Pope. "They belong to us all and it’s not up to Congressmen Pombo or Tancredo to offer them to the highest bidder."

JIM MOTAVALLI is editor of E.

Research assistance by Jayasudha Joseph and Dan Scollan


Congressman Richard Pombo(202)225-1947 or (202)226-9019

National Parks Conservation Association


Republicans for Environmental Protection