Preserving Nature in the National Parks
A History
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Chapter 7
A House Divided: The National Park Service and Environmental Leadership

The Vail Agenda

The National Park Service's success in ecosystem management will be determined in part by the level of commitment to ecological preservation within the parks themselves. By any measure, going into the 1991 Vail conference the National Park Service had not achieved a distinguished record in scientific resource management, despite six decades of prodding from concerned professionals within the bureau and three decades of pres- sure from external groups. Sponsored by a number of corporations, charitable trusts, and national park support organizations, the conference was intended as a means for the Service to undertake "constructive criticism, self-examination, and commitment to greater responsibility." In addition to "environmental leadership," the other "broad areas of concern" addressed by the conference were organizational renewal (analyzing personnel and career concerns and related aspects of the Service), park use and enjoyment, and resource stewardship. The last was especially pertinent to the question of environmental leadership.

However, the published report of the conference, the Vail Agenda (drafted mainly by Service staff ), revealed the substantial shortcomings of self-examination and criticism, even when external authorities on national parks were involved, as they were at Vail. The most important review of the Service's management and operations since State of the Parks, the report nevertheless presented a confused analysis of what the bureau's true focus had been, and of what had and had not been accomplished in threequarters of a century. For instance, perhaps in an effort to assure the environmental community that the Service was right-thinking, the report declared flatly that to "preserve and protect park resources has from the beginning been the primary goal of the National Park Service"—a statement that overlooked seventy-five years of mainly tourism-oriented management and sixty years of refusal to adopt a truly ecological perspective. The report also claimed the highest of resource management credentials for the Park Service, stating that it had "long been acknowledged as the country's leader in resource preservation" and was "being looked to as a model of conservation and preservation management" worldwide. [20] Such remarks demonstrate a clear presumption of environmental leadership by the Service, specifically in resource management.

In contradiction to such self-commendation, the Vail report sharply criticized the Service for "sporadic and inconsistent" support of science— overall, it was "extraordinarily deficient" in scientific matters and even "in danger of becoming merely a provider of 'drive through' tourism." In such comments, however, the report implied a positive record of past accomplishments, stating that the Park Service was "no longer" a leader in natural resource and environmental issues, and that it must "regain" its "former stature." This could be achieved by "reestablishing . . . respect and credibility" within the professional resource community. [21] These statements about regaining former status glossed over several decades of often harsh criticism leveled by scientists and other natural resource professionals of the Service's very failure to have achieved such status.

As in many previous instances, official rhetoric blurred the Park Service's response to criticism. It also obscured differences between the bureau's true historic strengths and its demonstrated weaknesses. The Vail Agenda combined claims of excellence with admissions of serious negligence —and in so doing it failed to distinguish tourism-oriented park management from scientific, ecologically based resource management. The Agenda's statement that the Service should strengthen its world leadership in "park affairs" reflected a more accurate understanding of the bureau's accomplishments and status in the field of general park management— that which is focused mainly on tourism, including attracting, accommodating, educating, and managing visitors. [22] Certainly, the Service was "being looked to," even internationally, as a "model" of general park development and management; yet it was admittedly "deficient" in scientific and ecological matters. The desire to regain its "former stature" more properly harkened back to the pre-environmental era of the New Deal years and even early Mission 66, halcyon days of park development for recreational tourism. At that time, before national concerns about ecological preservation escalated, the Service had enjoyed high status—not just with the general public but also with conservation groups. Then, such groups were less confrontational, rarely questioned natural resource management policies in the parks, and focused on the appearance of park development rather than its ecological impacts.

The chief strengths of the Vail conference may have been its recommendations concerning park use and enjoyment and organization; but regarding natural resources, the Vail Agenda broke little if any new ground. Most of its recommendations reflected those of previous studies, such as the perennial call for inventorying and monitoring park resources. Others included addressing external threats, improving cooperation with universities and with managers of neighboring public or private lands, educating the public on environmental issues, increasing and professionalizing Park Service staff (in part through better training for both park managers and specialists), increasing funding for science and natural resource management, and securing a legislative mandate for scientific research in the parks. The Agenda was, it acknowledged, confronting "challenges" that were "long-standing"—in truth, problems that a reluctant Park Service had never confronted wholeheartedly. [23]

Yet the Vail Agenda revealed that such reluctance might continue, particularly in light of the Service's refusal to give full-faith compliance to the National Environmental Policy Act, considered by many to be the keystone of environmental legislation. Addressing the important topic of how the Park Service might make "wise decisions regarding park use and enjoyment," the Agenda called into question the increased "legislative requirements" for the Service—especially the public involvement requirements stemming from the National Environmental Policy Act and related laws. Although it recommended that the Service "improve the public involvement process," its discussion of the issue actually showed little genuine enthusiasm. Perhaps reflecting on prior experience, it stated that the Service would accept increases in public involvement "either willingly or by legal and political coercion." Further vacillating on the matter of compliance with such legislation, it declared uncritically that "many park managers view the resource base as their client rather than society, and would prefer to make decisions about resources with little interference from the public that owns them." Indeed, the Agenda noted that the conferees were "unsure and divided" on this issue. But, implying support of the park managers' views, the report added that many believed that "there is already too much public involvement in NPS decision making." [24]

In the section on environmental leadership, the Vail Agenda recommended that the Park Service become "the most environmentally aware agency in the U.S. government," noting that it could demonstrate this through "leading by example." Yet the Agenda itself refrained from leading by example by not insisting on full-faith compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, one of the country's most important environmental laws. As recently as 1990, the year before the Vail conference, an internal Park Service magazine published a special issue on this act, which included commentary by outside experts on the Service's record of compliance with the act. All of the commentators found fault. Most commonly criticized were the "attitudes of park managers and decision-makers," in the words of University of Utah law professor and environmental law authority William J. Lockhart. His impression was that far too many times the Park Service approached compliance "grudgingly—with the intent merely of going 'through the hoops,' " and he recommended "managerial humility" as a means of achieving "meaningful compliance." Similarly, Jacob J. Hoogland, Washington-based head of the Service's environmental compliance programs, noted deep-seated indifference, observing that the act had not produced a change in "the attitudes of . . . the National Park Service." [25]

Truly, the Park Service's irresolute compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act reflected a pattern—a long history of ambivalence toward the environmental movement, marked by failure to lead at crucial times. Cooperating with the Bureau of Reclamation in planning Colorado River Basin reservoirs (including the Echo Park dam proposal in Dinosaur National Monument), the Service had helped bring about the Echo Park conflict, then was reduced to a negligible role in the final decision not to build the dam. It had withheld genuine support for passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act, then implemented it less than enthusiastically. And despite questions raised long before by its own biologists, the Service did not provide "leadership by example" through decisively curtailing pesticide application in the parks after pesticide use had become a major national issue in the 1960s. With such weak responses, Park Service management had remained largely out of step with the environmental movement. [26]

It is significant also that well before the Vail conference posed the question of leadership by the Park Service, the role of the national parks in environmental affairs had diminished nationwide. Such issues as elk and grizzly bear management in Yellowstone, the discovery and management of Lechuguilla Cave, the decline of the wolf population on Isle Royale, and the 1988 fires in Yellowstone at times brought national park management front and center among public environmental concerns. Yet in recent decades other issues, such as population growth, pesticides, toxic landfills, depletion of natural resources, accelerated loss of species, global warming, and clean air and water, have intensified—a reflection of the ever-expanding interests of environmentalists, far beyond specifically park-related matters. [27] The parks are not forgotten, but other concerns dominate; and although many of these concerns affect the parks, they are much broader in scope. Moreover, given the political circumstances within which the Park Service has had to function and survive, and given its fundamental interest in accommodating the public, it has always been unlikely that it would become a leading national voice on environmental issues not closely related to the parks. As a bureau of the executive branch, it has been very cautious in speaking out publicly on the specific actions of other federal (or state) land management bureaus. This has been true even when lands adjacent to parks are involved. [28] By contrast, the Service has been much more assertive in promoting environmental awareness in a broad, generic way, principally through its interpretive programs.


Preserving Nature in the National Parks
©1997, Yale University Press
sellars/chap7b.htm — 1-Jan-2003