Posted by R. Neal

The Department of the Interior is proposing changes to National Parks "Management Policies" that some say will be detrimental to the health of our National Parks. The National Park service is holding a public workshop in on the proposed changes:

Critics of a proposed revision of National Park Service management guidelines say the new policies could lead to more cellular telephone towers, increased tourist overflights and decreased authority to manage sources of air pollution affecting public preserves throughout the United States, including Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The National Park Service will host a workshop next week in Sevierville [ed. note: Sevierville borders the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in East Tennessee] to share information about changes in the ``Management Policies'' document that governs management decisions in the country's 388 National Park Service units.

"There is some controversy," acknowledged Great Smoky Mountains National Park spokeswoman Nancy Gray. "The current draft includes changes that address some of the newer challenges," faced by American national parks, she said. Those include issues of commercial operations within parks, corporate sponsorships and greater cooperation with local and state governments in operating national parks.

She added that Tuesday's meeting, set for 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Sevierville Civic Center, is not an opportunity for the public to air concerns or submit comments.

"The workshop is to explain what the management policies are, and where that falls in with guidelines and other regulations as to how the parks are managed, and to instruct people how to provide their comments to the public record for this public process."

A coalition of retired Park Service employees opposes some of the changes due to concerns about de-emphasizing the Park Service's duty to protect the parks:

The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, which includes former Great Smokies superintendent Karen Wade and former Shenandoah National Park superintendent and assistant Smokies chief ranger Bill Wade, is among the groups opposed to the policy changes.

``We have not received any kind of adequate answer to our question as to why this radical revision is being undertaken at this time,'' said Bill Wade, who serves as chairman of the executive council of the coalition. ``The proposed revisions as they stand now are not satisfying to us because they do make some significant changes.

``Most importantly, it attempts to diminish the predominant responsibility the National Park Service has,'' which is the protection of National Park Service resources, Bill Wade said. ``It is inconsistent with the purposes of most parks in the system,'' he said.

The coalition is also concerned with the apparent trend toward commercialization of park service units through opportunities for corporate sponsorship. ``It opens up the idea that parks are for sale. If you have enough money, you can get your name in front of the public in national parks.''

Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), known for his frequent support of environmental issues and a staunch defender of the Great Smoky Mountains, is also concerned:

Sen. Lamar Alexander was among six senators who requested an extension of the public-comment phase of the policy changes. In an Oct. 27, 2005, letter to Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, the senators wrote: ``... the primary mandate of the National Park Service to err on the side of preservation appears to be de-emphasized in the draft.

``We are also concerned ... with the potential for weakening the Park Service's role in protecting park air quality and increasing the potential for inappropriate motorized use in the national parks appear to be retained,'' according to the letter.

The National Parks Conservation Association is actively involved in a campaign to stop the policy rewrite:

NPCA's central question, which remains unanswered, is why the Department of Interior has chosen to pursue revising the policies at this time. No credible justification for the rewrite has been offered. "The 2005 draft does not meet the level of protection of its predecessors," Galvin told the [Committee on Energy and Natural Resources]. "The 2001 document is better and should be retained."

Preliminary assessment of the Department of Interior's proposed revisions to the existing (2001) Management Policies raises concerns that the overall impact of the language changes in the draft weaken protections for our national parklands, in particular, park air quality and wilderness, and could lead to increased use of Jet Skis, off-road vehicles, commercialization, and grazing at the cost of preservation. The draft also significantly reduces clarity provided to park managers in the current Management Policies about their overarching duty to conserve park resources.

For a more detailed look at the new policy, the NPCA has prepared this analysis outlining the concerns regarding each proposed change.

Sadly, this is not news. Back in 2003 when the Bush Administration cut funding for the National Park Service, a former park superintendent had this to say:

"I worked for four Republican Presidents and two Democrats and during the course of that career, never have I witnessed such an ideological war on the natural resource laws, policies or practices or institutions," Mike Finley, former superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, said in a speech today. "Even our national parks are not safe from this assault."

The Bush Administration has had a burr under its saddle from the get-go regarding our National Parks and environmental protections in general. It isn't clear what their motivation is, whether it's to allow big corporations to exploit protected natural resources and make more profits at the expense of the environment, or pursuit of smaller government through outsourcing and downsizing, or if it is perhaps related to Bush's bizarre pathological obsession with clearing brush. Whatever it is, it isn't healthy for our National Parks or for the environment.