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March 2007 Issue

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

National Parks: The Uncertain Road Ahead 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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