The National Park Service (NPS) manages 388 park units covering 85 million acres across the country. These are places considered to be the nation’s crown jewels, either for their dramatic beauty and unique resource characteristics or for their historical significance. Established in 1916 by the Organic Act, the NPS was created “…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 a manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” For 90 years, agency policy, Congress and the courts have interpreted this language as a mandate for preservation of park resources while allowing appropriate public access so people can enjoy them.
Last October, the NPS released a draft revision of their management policies that called this mandate into question and set off a firestorm of debate. Opponents of the draft, including the National Parks Conservation Association, the agency’s watchdog, say that the revised policies represent a dramatic departure from the NPS mission of preserving national parks for future generations and “additional changes steer the national parks toward greater commercialization and exploitation.”
Policy supporters say that for decades the management policies have failed to interpret the Organic Act correctly, narrowly reading its mandate to favor preservation in a way that is inconsistent with the purpose and spirit of the Act. They believe that the draft policies bring the agency in line with what the law intended because they define “impairment” in a way that recognizes that some visitor impacts are acceptable as long as they don’t significantly affect the natural resources in a park.
One might expect that, as a permitted operator in national parks, NOLS would support a policy that purports to improve access. In fact, under this assumption, we were asked to testify at a Congressional hearing in favor of the draft policies. But a little background research and a closer look at the detail in the draft uncovered some big stumbling blocks.
First, we questioned the need for revising the policies at this time. Historically, management policy revisions stem from needs or issues in the field that grow into a system-wide initiative to develop solutions or from a need to respond to legislative change. However, neither of these factors is driving the current policy debate. In fact, recent NPS surveys show that 96 percent of visitors to parks enjoy their experiences. According to an Outdoor Industry Association survey, two out of three park visitors want NPS to favor maintaining the natural beauty of the parks and protecting their air quality over manmade additions.
While overall the new policy may create a park service that is more open to access and use – potentially a good thing for permittees such as NOLS – the actual rules and regulations that constitute how the NPS manages permitted operators are not part of the proposed changes. What may change over the long haul as a result of the draft, however, are the natural qualities of the places our courses visit. This quickly rose to the top of our list of concerns. Specifically, the draft redefines the term “natural condition” to account for the effects of human use, essentially loosening a standard that is designed to ensure resource protection. For example, this change may allow Yellowstone or Teton National Park to redefine “natural air quality” to include and accept impacts from oil and gas development in the Upper Green River Basin, rendering the presence of air pollution a natural condition for the parks.
While our primary concern with the draft policies stems from our belief that resource protection should remain the NPS’s highest priority, we also have an inherent philosophical issue with the mission shift. Our business is to educate students, many of whom have a strong interest in wild land ethics and management, and our courses include classes that introduce students to the four primary federal land management agencies. The NPS stands apart for students, not simply because it is the most familiar agency to many people, but because its mission so clearly differs from that of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, which are driven by a multiple-use mandate. From the standpoint of federal agency history and mission, the NPS serves as a “bookend” to our core public lands curriculum. The history of emphasizing protection over all other purposes is important to the country’s natural heritage and very important to the future of public lands.
Both sides of this debate, when making their case, quote heavily the same sentence of the Organic Act that established the agency’s purpose (the one I cite above). But they interpret the sentence quite differently. Like many sticky public policy issues, the quandary will likely be settled by the court system, generally the final arbiter when we can’t agree on how to interpret law.