National Park Service told to get back to nature

/ Source: The Associated Press

Republican senators joined Democrats in telling the National Park Service to back off proposed new guidelines that could allow Segway scooters and more cell phones, noise and air pollution in the national parks.

Instead, members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources’ national parks subcommittee urged Park Service officials to undertake more modest changes to their overall plan for managing a 388-park system.

“It’s very controversial and it (the Park Service) put the wrong emphasis on it,” Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., the panel’s chairman, said after a two-hour hearing Tuesday. “I don’t think we’re satisfied yet.”

Other Republicans and Democrats were more pointed in their assessment of the Park Service’s draft guidance to supervisors. Nearly 300 million people visited the U.S. parks last year, which cover 132,000 square miles.

“There’s no reason to do this when you’re going to diminish what’s in the parks,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. He said the document raises the odds of more cell phone towers, air pollution and noise in the national parks, and he urged the Park Service to lengthen its 90-day public comment period on it to 180 days.

“Frankly, we don’t understand what the true motivation was,” said Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo.

Agency defends strategy
The Park Service’s “Management Policies,” its official manual guiding the agency’s day-to-day work, was last revised in 2001 and, before that, in 1988.

Steve Martin, the Park Service’s deputy director, said the agency began updating policies three years ago to provide “further clarity” and professionalism after inquiries from park supervisors and the House Resources Committee.

“It’s to continue to improve how we manage the service for the 21st Century. It’s very complex and there are many different reasons,” Martin told the panel. “We’re also saying that this is a draft, and if we have inadvertently dropped a sentence that is that important, we can have a discussion and put it back in.”

Martin said the draft would “allow us to consider new technologies like Segways,” two-wheeled battery-powered transporters than can zip along at up to 12 mph with almost no effort. After the hearing, he said that also could extend to other “battery-powered machinery” and “clean-fuel vehicles.”

William Horn, a former assistant interior secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, said it was the right of every administration to update its policies.

Earlier version criticized
The latest proposal, more than 200 pages, is an improvement in the eyes of environmentalists and some Park Service’s employees from a draft floated earlier this year by Assistant Deputy Interior Secretary Paul Hoffman.

That version would have allowed expanded use of snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles on federal land. It was scrapped after it was leaked to the press.

“This seemed as though it was a secret thing that took place in a smoke-filled room somewhere,” said Don Castleberry, a former Midwest director for the Park Service and a member of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, an advocacy group.

One provision, for example, would have made it harder to block activities in the parks by banning what “irreversibly” harms them, instead of only harming them. The current version removes the word “irreversibly” and it uses the terms “conservation” and “preservation” as if they have the same meaning, Martin said.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, said he also worried the current draft could weaken protection of cultural resources.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said a provision in the proposed guidelines that would allow parks to recognize businesses and private donors with logos and plaques sets a dangerous precedent. “I’ve always thought of the parks as a commercial-free zone,” he said. “Strikes me this is a slippery slope and a very major change.”

Martin countered that the new guidelines merely acknowledge this practice is already going on, with parks receiving $17 million from such outside sources. “I think we’re searching for (financial) partnerships because we need it,” he said.

The Park Service proposal is online at