National Parks: The Uncertain Road Ahead
Caught between politics and underfunding, landscape
architecture in the National Park Service evolves while struggling to preserve
parks unimpaired for future generations.
By Ethan Carr, FASLA
Ron Shade, c/o National Park Service
“Again and again over
the past six years, demoralized career park service employees have been forced
to watch sensible decisions overturned or bad decisions made on a political
basis. They have witnessed a brazen attempt to break the parks wide open in favor
of commercial interests. They’ve seen the integrity of park service science
compromised and its results disregarded.”
—New York Times
Editorial Page, October 6, 2006
This harsh assessment greeted new National Park Service
Director Mary A. Bomar just days after her recent Senate confirmation. The
editorial reflects lingering anger over a controversy that began in 2005, when
Department of the Interior officials enraged conservation groups by attempting
to redraft a key policy document describing the National Park Service’s
official duties. Critics felt the changes would have compromised the agency’s
90-year-old mandate to preserve the parks “unimpaired” for the “enjoyment of
future generations.” They charged that Paul Hoffman, a high-ranking political
appointee, was abandoning the long-established standard of assuring
preservation first and facilitating enjoyment only in a manner that would not
degrade park resources. Hoffman wanted to expand commercial opportunities for
snowmobiles, Jet Skis, and noisy sightseeing “overflights” in many areas of the
system. Hoffman’s professional experience—he was formerly a congressional aide
to Dick Cheney and head of the chamber of commerce for Cody, Wyoming—reinforced
the conviction that he was merely doing the bidding of lobbyists for the
snowmobile industry and other interest groups. At the highest levels, the
Department of the Interior seemed to be acting without any knowledge, study, or
even concern regarding potential impacts on the parks.
The controversy has only begun to subside with the departure
of Secretary of the Interior Gale A. Norton and Park Service Director Fran P.
Mainella. The new secretary of the interior, Dirk Kempthorne, changed his
department’s course last summer and supported a draft document reinforcing the
traditional duty of preservation first. But if the debacle ended well, it also
indicated a troubling change in attitude among federal officials.
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