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Past is Prelude: Whose Interests Should National Parks Serve?

Editor’s Note: The re-writing of boilerplate protective language for the National Park Service by political appointee and Assistant U.S. Interior Department Secretary Paul Hoffman should cause broader public analysis of the climate of fear that exists inside America’s most beloved government agency. This is the second of two dispatches from Todd Wilkinson who was written about the National Park Service for the last 20 years. Click here to read the first installment.

Ten years ago this past October, my fax machine rattled and hummed. It coughed out a couple of sheets of “minutes”? transcribed from what had been an unpublicized closed meeting in West Yellowstone, Montana.

Few people knew the meeting had occurred. Certainly, the people who should have been there weren’t invited. It was a gathering that foreshadowed the future.

Details were passed on to me, including unofficial formal minutes based upon notes that were taken, by an anonymous source with the hope they would be divulged in a story I was writing.

Readers soon learned about the infamous “brainstorming session”? that involved members of various Greater Yellowstone area chambers of commerce arrayed under the nebulous banner of the “Yellowstone Gateway Alliance.”?

The Gateway Alliance was lead by Paul Hoffman who has come under fire for orchestrating another “brainstorming session,”? this time at the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Mr. Hoffman was once a congressional aide to Dick Cheney and parlayed his friendship with the vice president into a key job in Washington, D.C. Beyond public scrutiny (until recently), he had been quietly rewriting the government manual that guides management principles in our national parks.

What Mr. Hoffman failed to achieve in Yellowstone in 1995 he is now attempting, more ambitiously, to bring to every wildland national park in the country. What is his agenda? Answer: To weaken the verbal legal framework that protects national parks so that natural resource exploiters are given equal, if not greater, say over park management than park managers themselves.

If you believe that tweaking a few words doesn’t matter, imagine striking language from the Declaration of Independence or U.S. Constitution or specific foundational phrases from the Bill of Rights.

A decade ago, Mr. Hoffman was the outspoken executive director of the Cody Chamber of Commerce and his animosity for Mike Finley, then the superintendent of Yellowstone, was well known.

Finley was a civil servant who believed in the mission of the National Park Service, and, who, after a long tour of duty in several crown jewel parks from Yosemite to the Everglades, took his stewardship obligations seriously in a park that serves as a flagship around the world.

Much to Mr. Hoffman’s chagrin, Finley was stubbornly entrenched in his conviction that conservation — yes, protection of natural resources — was elemental to Yellowstone’s well being. Mr. Hoffman believed the Yellowstone superintendent should instead genuflect to his belief that the national park serve primarily as an economic engine to towns like Cody, not unlike the role that DisneyWorld plays for greater Orlando.

Finley said he own resolve was reflected in the Park Service Organic Act, drafted by Congress in 1916, which required him to caretake Yellowstone in such a way as to leave its assets — clean air, clean water, healthy wildlife, breathtaking vistas, natural sounds, etc. — UNIMPAIRED by development so that future generations might enjoy them.

To not adhere to its words is to break the law.

The Organic Act is nothing less than a constitution for U.S. national parks and it established the mission which sets them apart from national forests, Bureau of Land Management tracts, clearcuts, open pit mines, full-field oil and gas development, livestock feedlots, and theme parks like DisneyWorld.

The Park Service’s operating manual is the management document which ensures that all activities in parks conform to the letter of the Organic Act. That’s how important it is, and it is the operating manual that Mr. Hoffman stands accused of undermining.

It is now known that he took it upon himself — and the various constituencies he is advocating for — to eliminate and change words that require park managers to be vigilant with phrases that make such stewardship optional or discretionary or open to interpretation if it is not to the liking of development interests. It also opens the door for park gateway communities to argue against strict resource protection if such protection is perceived, in any way, to hinder their profit potential.

Suggesting a decade ago that Finley was “ignorant of the politics of managing Yellowstone National Park,”? Hoffman, using the Gateway Alliance as his front, brainstormed a list of possibilities to expand tourist development in Yellowstone and threatened to complain to the congressional delegations [read HARM THE CAREER] if Finley put up resistance.

“It was definitely agreed by all that if a Yellowstone Gateway Coalition (Alliance) is to have an impact, we need to put together a package of proposals that are impossible for Mike Finley to refuse,”? the minutes said.

Some of the ideas included turning Yellowstone’s rustic roads into four-lane highways to accommodate more people and cars; making bigger entrance stations, carving another road into picturesque Hayden Valley; and curtailing strict regulation on the number of snowmobiles.

Had it not been for public disclosure of the Yellowstone Gateway Alliance’s plans, and the swift and vocal rejection of the agenda by citizens, who knows what might have been advanced.

Ten years ago, the Gateway Alliance had to retreat after details of its meeting were revealed. A few chambers of commerce even distanced themselves. The Gateway Alliance disappeared.

But we now know that Mr. Hoffman was hardly deterred. He was merely waiting for a better opportunity and one arrived.

Hoffman pooh-poohed media scrutiny of the Gateway Alliance and he’s doing the same today. Never before has there been a greater upwelling of worry among Park Service careerists. Normally, rangers fade into retirement but one non-partisan group called The Coalition of Concerned National Park Service Retirees is sounding an alarm. The coalition, to the uninformed, is no run-of-the-mill organization. Among its ranks are the pre-eminent managers of national parks over the last 40 years. Its membership includes five former park service directors or deputy directors, 21 former regional directors or deputy regional directors, 28 former associate or assistant directors at the national or regional level, 65 former division chiefs, and 110 former park superintendents or assistant superintendents. All served under Republicans and Democrats.

On Nov. 30, 2005, Dan Berman, a reporter for Greenwire, wrote an excellent story that raises doubts about Park Service claims that Hoffman’s overhaul of the operating manual underwent substantial professional review. While Park Service Director Fran Mainella, a political appointee like Hoffman, insists that over 100 agency professionals had a hand in the rewrite, the agency has been unable to produce a list of the people who supposedly signed off on Hoffman’s changes.

“They were successful at their attempt to keep the thing under wraps even from their own people, from the National Park Service staff, including many senior people in the Park Service who never saw the thing until it was released,”? retired Park Service senior manager Bill Wade, a member of the coalition and former superintendent at Shenandoah National Park, told Berman in an interview. “I think it was all by design — they didn’t want any more to see it than they had to.”?

In response to my first story in this series titled: “National Park Service is Being Skinned From The Inside-Out,”? I and New West both received a form letter response from the Park Service’s Public Affairs office in Washington, D.C.

The response claims to come from Fran Mainella: “The revised draft management policies, which were written with the participation of nearly 100 professional NPS employees, do not increase the likelihood of more motorized equipment, off-road vehicles, commercial activities, reduced air quality, noise, cell towers, or other activities currently governed by law or regulation in the national parks.”

It continues, “There is strong language throughout the draft policies, stating that when there are concerns as to whether an activity or action will cause an impairment, the Service will protect the resources. We couldn’t be more clear.”?

Point of fact is that many things could be made more clear. If the changes Hoffman made were so inane yet required so much of his time and the time of federal attorneys to vet — expensive man hour time that was billed to American taxpayers — then why make them?

In recent months, when his 194-page rewrite of the Park Service operating manual was leaked, Hoffman tried to shrug off criticism but his cover had been blown. On Wednesday, Dec. 1, I spoke with Wade over over the phone. He lives in Flagstaff, Ariz.

“There are a couple of other things that are aggravating the heck out of me and other Park Service retirees,”? Wade said. “Fran Mainella has been largely a non entity. She hasn’t done anything. She hasn’t been out campaigning for the changes, she hasn’t met with any of the conservation groups involved with the so-called listening meetings. As far as I am concerned, to have a director of the National Park Service not involved publicly with something as important as establishing the future of agency management policies and to not take an active role is — I don’t know what to call it — at the very least, it’s cowardly.”?

Wade also says the Park Service’s claims of the rewrite being an open process and a brainstorming of ideas is a farce. Many, many park superintendents are apprehensive about the implications of the memo Mainella circulated earlier this fall that says the performance of agency managers will be evaluated on how well they carry out the agenda of Bush Administration political appointees.

“Now you have a very strange situation,”? Wade said. “Not only were park superintendents NOT involved in the rewriting of the operating manual but now this administration is soliciting their comments after just telling them their performance will be graded on their ability of implementing the same changes which many, many of them don’t agree with. A number of superintendents are simply not going to submit comments because they are concerned that, by being honest, their comments will be negative. To tell the truth then allows the Administration to come back and say that they are not supporting the President’s Park Service management agenda.”?

The implication would mean a poor performance review which has implications for pay, advancement in the organization, and possibly even retaliation.

Wade says that what’s needed is for the Park Service to simply scrap the rewrite and start over. “We would like to see them go back and do the darn thing right by starting with a scoping process,”? he said. “That would force them to identify why there is a need to change the policies and what sections need to be changed and what justification, if any, there is for changing them. That should have been done in the first place and that’s what has been done in the past. If they do that, then all of the information about who’s actually behind these changes will come out.”?

But Wade, his organization and a growing segment of the public also want something else: Congressional hearings into how and why Mr. Hoffman commandeered the rewrite. Wade acknowledges it is a sticky issue because it’s the party in power that has the authority to call for oversight hearings and the best person to do that is U.S. Sen. Craig Thomas, the Wyoming Republican who is chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on National Parks.

“Being from Wyoming, as Hoffman is, Sen. Thomas is probably not going to go down that road very far,”? Wade says, adding that he doesn’t expect much disclosure to emerge from a hearing being held on Dec. 14 by Congressman Steve Pearce, a Republican from New Mexico who is chairman of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Recreation and Public Lands. Ostensibly, Pearce is going to look at how the Organic Act is implemented in national parks on a daily basis but it could easily degenerate into a park-bashing session from those faithful to Hoffman.

Before Newt Gingrich led the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, agency oversight hearings in which elected officials rallied to the defense of career civil servants in agencies like the Park Service were routine. Among the champions were the late Congressman Bruce Vento of Minnesota and George Miller of California, both Democrats. In the absence of such hearings, many park superintendents have been called to testify on Capitol Hill but rather than being celebrated for their stewardship, many have been berated.

Based on his previous public comments, Mr. Hoffman seems to have an open disdain for career civil servants who advocate for carrying out the mission of their agency on behalf of the public trust. He has attempted to make advocacy a bad word at Interior but he has never publicly revealed on behalf of whom HE is advocating? As a political appointee, he wouldn’t have taken on the task of rewriting the Park Service operating manual unless he had a reason.

“He does everything possible to strip away a scientific basis for park management,”? stated a recent editorial in the New York Times. “His rules would essentially require park superintendents to subordinate the management of their parks to local and state agenda. He also envisions a much wider range of commercial activity within the parks.”?

The point is not that gateway communities shouldn’t have a say in how parks are managed. Certainly, they ought to, but their desires should not supersede the compelling national interest in park protection. The healthy, wild condition of national parks, and their role in our common heritage, are as central to the national identity of America as the vision of Democracy crafted in words by the Founding Fathers.

One could argue that if left to the desires of the interests being championed by Hoffman, some national parks in the West might never have existed and sacred places like Yellowstone could become dramatically altered in the future.

Who wants that? As a public servant, Paul Hoffman ought to tell us who.

About Todd Wilkinson

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4 comments

  1. fantastic articles. haven’t finished them, but will print out and read over the weekend.

  2. The question now is, do we go after Paul Hoffman’s job, or do we leave him in it, to stew in his own corruption, incompetence, and the contempt of those who supposedly work for him?

  3. Differing interpretations and readings of the Organic Act that created the National Park Service in 1916 seem to be at the root of ongoing disputes about how to manage the parks, historical sites, monuments and wildlife reserves.
    Congress said in that 1916 Act that the Service:
    “…shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments and reservations hereinafter specified…by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose of the said parks, monuments, and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”?
    Conservatives and motorized recreation advocates like the Blue Ribbon Coalition emphasize the enjoyment words, saying the National Park Service has a dual mission of preservation and public enjoyment of the resource. Conservation groups like the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees or the National Parks Conservation Association emphasize that the preservation words make clear that there is no equally balanced dual mission, but that preservation must come first.

  4. If the gateway communities think these changes are to their benefit, they are wrong in the long term. People come because of the natural environment found in the parks. They have enough of highspeed roads in their normal everyday life. They need the open spaces, animals and yes, even quiet!

    If the above are eroded, who will want to come to the national parks and thus the gateway communities will decline.