Bush Administration Changes Course on National Parks

Richard A. Lovett
for National Geographic News
June 21, 2006
In an about-face that has environmentalists cheering, the Bush
Administration proposed new management policies this week that make
conservation the U.S. National Park Service's top priority.

The policies reverse an earlier Bush Administration proposal to allow more commercialization and motorized recreation in the parks.

The decision could have significant ramifications for everything from snowmobile, all-terrain vehicle (ATV), and Jet Ski use to the construction of cell phone towers. (See "Cell Phone Towers in U.S. Parks Dial Up Debate" [May 31].)

"Where there is a conflict between conserving resources unimpaired for future generations and the use of those resources, conservation will be predominant," Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who took office in March, said in a statement on Monday.

"That is the heart of these policies and the lifeblood of our nation's commitment to care for these special places and provide for their enjoyment."

The new management plan, which evolved from an extensive comment process that predated Kempthorne's tenure, was widely viewed as a test for the newly appointed secretary.

"Essentially, this is a 180-degree turn for this administration," said Kristen Brengel of the Wilderness Society, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental group.

"The policies they first proposed were terrible, if you were conservation minded," she said.

"They would have lowered standards for protecting parks, would have allowed more off-road vehicle use, allowed more development, lowered standards on clean air, and made significant changes in language that makes the Park Service a leader among land-management agencies."

Brengel gives the revised policies high marks.

"This is pretty much a restoration of 2001 policies, which we fully supported and [that] say that conservation is the predominant mandate of the National Park Service."

Twin Mandates

Since its inception in 1916, the Park Service has had two sometimes conflicting mandates for its management of the parks.

One is to conserve the scenery, wildlife, nature, and historical artifacts.

The other is 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."

The new policy shifts this balance away from recreation, charges Greg Mumm, executive director of the BlueRibbon Coalition. The group has advocated for snowmobile access to Yellowstone National Park, which straddles the borders of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming (Yellowstone online travel guide).

"It looks like it's reverting to the 2001, Clinton-era policy, which was not good for recreation," Mumm said.

"It's a sad day for recreation. There is a big difference between conservation and preservation. Conservation is for the public. Preservation is from the public."

It's not yet clear which parks will be most affected by the new policy, but certain changes are considered likely.

Possible New Conservation Measures

• Greater restrictions on personal watercraft use (Jet Skis, WaveRunners, Sea-Doos, et cetera)

• Stronger limits on beach driving

• Closing of some remote four-wheel drive routes

In deciding how to regulate these and other activities, the new guidelines pointedly require park supervisors to preserve "the atmosphere of peace and tranquility and natural soundscapes."

In other words, said the Wilderness Society's Brengel, "If you're going to allow a certain activity in a national park, you're going to have to prove that the activity isn't just going to [not] damage resources, but not disrupt the visitor atmosphere."

The proposed policy guidelines aren't final, so environmentalists aren't yet certain of victory.

"There could be some tinkering," Brengel notes.

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