Park management plan won’t destroy delicate balance

Freedom Newspapers

Bush administration critics have been demanding to know what prompted it to draft a controversial new management plan for national parks, which detractors claim will sacrifice conservation values on the altar of commercialism.

“First, I question the necessity of the proposed revisions,” Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., wrote in a Feb. 17 letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton. “Policy changes should address significant, legitimate and defined problems confronting the parks. To rewrite the management policies when there are no such problems is both irresponsible and a waste of the public’s time and resources.”

We’re not sure how Norton responded, but it doesn’t matter. The critics don’t want to be talked out of their self-righteous indignation. Salazar seems to have adopted the Democratic Party line on public lands issues — that any idea coming from the Bush administration must be a lousy one.

Yet few critics have taken either the time to actually read the document or research the origins of the re-write, judging from their taken-from-talking-points complaints. So these questions were asked of a man who might have the answers — former Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks Craig Manson, who recently returned to teaching law after four years at the Department of Interior.

Manson has a reasonable response to those who present this as an attempt to heist the crown jewels. The impetus for the update came in part from Congress, in part from the public and in part from Park Service professionals who wanted a “better roadmap” for dealing with emerging issues, explained Manson. The current plan dates to 2001 and needed an update.

Contrary to what critics contend, the re-write does not alter the basic mission of the national parks, which is written into law as part of the Organic Act of 1916. This is just a draft proposal, moreover, that will undergo refinements based on 50,000 public comments. Management plans of the past were heavily prescriptive, explains Manson — laying down a lot of rules about the things park managers couldn’t do and giving them too little latitude to act on their own initiative. The new plan, though it doesn’t alter the fundamental mission, sets broad guidelines for how park officials can balance protecting the resources with providing access to the public.

Nothing in the document strikes us as particularly radical. Much is being made about the plan possibly clearing the way for more cell phone towers in national parks, for instance. But is the occasional cell phone tower really such an abomination? Are critics proposing that national parks become cell phone free zones? If so, they should say this and explain why.

Actually, there are good arguments in favor of cell phone service in parks — starting with the help phones can provide in rescuing lost, stranded or injured visitors. Some may recall that last summer’s search for a missing ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park was at one point buoyed by the belief he was signaling with his cell phone. Sadly, it was a false lead. The ranger was dead. But the fact he carried a cell phone gave searchers additional hope. And we’re sure that these devices, though admittedly annoying, have saved lives in parks.

The tension between conservation and commercialism, between protection and public access, has existed since the beginning of the park system. Of what public benefit are parks, after all, if people can’t access and enjoy them? Were some “conservation values” sacrificed when Trail Ridge Road was constructed at Rocky Mountain National Park, or Going to the Sun Road built at Glacier National Park? Probably so. But the trade-off greatly enhances the experience of visitors. If conservation in all cases trumps commercialism, how did the faces of four presidents get carved into Mount Rushmore?

Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt wanted to “de-urbanize” the parks by removing man-made structures. But when done responsibly and tastefully, these amenities serve the public well. Some might argue that the balance between conservation and commercialism has tipped too far in one direction or the other over the years. But generally, we think park professionals have gotten it about right. And nothing in this draft management plan leads us to believe the Bush White House is out to destroy that sensible balance.