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New direction for NPS.

Director Roger Kennedy shares his views on public service and the national parks.

SOON AFTER ROGER KENNEDY became Park Service director this summer, National Parks sought his thoughts on the park system and the service. What follows is an excerpt from that interview.

Q: What do you see as your priority for the Park Service?

A: The restoration of the morale of the public servants. We need to restore or enhance their sense that they are appreciated as the hard-working, underpaid, frequently badly housed public servants that they are. And that goes for full-time, seasonal, contract...rangers and bureaucrats and maintenance people alike.

Q: You were quoted in a San Francisco newspaper as saying that salaries for Park Service employees are a national disgrace.

A: They are. Job for job, Park Service people are underpaid. Not in all instances, but in those instances it is a disgrace. It's an old complaint that needs to be dealt with...What happens in any that over time the pay scales and working conditions of people reflect a fairly accurate value system of the people in charge. And since we think parks are important and people who work in parks are important--and they are important--it will take us some time to reflect that more adequately.

Q: You were also quoted as saying you had 500 ideas for the Park Service...

A: I never said that. The Park Service doesn't need to be visited by genius, it has been visited by committee....I think the Park Service has been studied to death. It needs the articulation of what everybody has already tried to get done.... In the process of reorganizaing and re-energizing the personnel system, there are few mysteries to be solved. The Vail Agenda is our agenda. [National Parks for the 21st Century: The Vail Agenda is a self-examination detailing the Park Service's persistent problems and addressing them with a series of recommendations. The findings came out of the 75th anniversary symposium held in Vail, Colorado.] ...There are a lot of good ideas [in the Vail Agenda]. In each of these instances, what I've tried to do is to say, let's find people who care about these things and ask them to do it.

Q: In your visit to Yosemite, you suggested that $5 a carload for a week was too low as an entry fee to the park. What would be a fair price?

A: I don't know, but it isn't $5 a carload for a week. Every park is different, every audience is different, the mix of people is different. I've gotten some good, intelligent, caring letters about whether or not the American people care enough about the parks to pop for them. I don't think we need to test that principle because the American public is doing pretty well. What we are not doing well is to have specific users respond to that use by paying differentially for those uses. I happen to think it's absurd for people my age to get in free. Some people who are my age are, if asked, perfectly willing to pop--and are probably in a reasonable position to do so....We ought to provide sensible incentives for people to collect fees. If all the dough flows back into the general [treasury and not the parks], that seems to me to set a very low incentive for [the parks] to collect.

[Kennedy also agreed with charging fees for commercial air and bus tours. A final budget measure was signed by Congress August 10 that included fees for tour buses throughout the National Park System as well as air tours in Grand Canyon,; Arizona, and Haleakala, Hawaii.]

Q: Would you support a reservation system on peak days?

A: I think everybody would. It seems to me that it certainly is better for the visitor to know well in advance on certain days that you have to have reservations than to drive for two and a half hours and get turned around at the gate. But the key is to give people enough notice in advance that reservations are needed.

Q: What is the role of parks: is it for recreation or to preserve habitat?

A: All of the above, but not all in the same parks. All of the above, but each in its own place. It is a different thing to be in Gateway [National Recreation Area outside of New York City]...than it is to be in the backcountry of Yosemite. So there is no generic answer. ...I think we have to make it easier for people to find solitude. We can encourage people in finding the park experience as it was traditionally defined, and encourage people to seek it, and that often means nothing more complicated than a mimeographed sheet telling them how to get away from the crowd. We need to let them know that it is okay to park the car, close the door, and go for a walk--if you know where to walk.

Q: What about parks as places to provide habitat?

A: They are laboratories, and they are preserves, and they always have been. We are not the only species.

Q: You don't see the increase in visitation as a conflict?

A: The increase in visitation is in almost every instance to already impacted human habitat....I'll [bet]... there are fewer people in Glacier backcountry today than there were in 1950. I'll bet that's true in the Smokies. My experience in the Smokies is that once you get out of your car and stop looking at the leaves, there is an awful lot of Smokies and there's nobody there. Which is not to say there isn't a problem, but let's get the problem where it is, which is on the road.

Q: If you want to charge folks more than $5 per carload to get into the parks, would you consider charging for rescues?

A: Sure--there's willing acceptance of risk. Some people do accept and court higher risk than others....Chasing around with helicopters, spread all over, it's very expensive. [Last year, the Park Service spent $3 million on search and rescues.]...Certainly when someone has accepted and courted risk, and it has cost everyone else a lot to rescue them, it they are insured, it would seem a little unjust for that insurance not to help with the costs. I don't know the law, but I have a strong sense of justice. I myself have been rescued by a helicopter from great unpleasantness and I am grateful for that, but I guess I feel that I should have had to do something to express my thanks in a fiscal way.

Q: Where were you plucked by a helicopter?

A: Nearly 50 years ago from the top of a mountain in Hawaii where I should not have been. So, yes, I have had that experience. I do not know what the formula is here, but there has to be a formula that has to do with your fair share of the cost in rescuing you from something that you decided to do.

Q: In 1988, the National Park Service issued a report on air quality in the parks which stated that scenic vistas were affected by man-made air pollution more than 90 percent of the time in the lower 48 states. What initiatives do you plan to undertake to enhance air quality?

A: Everything I can think of!

Q: Would you consider seeking regional haze regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency?

A: I don't know whether I would or not, but it sounds like a good idea. What would make a difference? I don't know that yet.

Q: What is your perception of public service, and how does your wearing a ranger's uniform fit that perception?

A: It says I'm one of you and we're proud.

Q: Does the park system currently offer a balanced representation of American history? Or is it lacking in sites to represent episodes in history?

A: It's not lacking in sites; every site has a cultural connection. Let's try Yellowstone. Yellowstone National Park--one of the most revered sites of the Hopewell Indians in Central Ohio. ...[Just as cultural sites have a natural connection.] And there is at least a half an acre, probably three acres, of old growth behind Arlington House [formerly the mansion of Gen. Robert E. Lee and his wife, Martha Custis, and now part of Arlington National Cemetery]. Never been cut, never been farmed.

Q: Are there elements of the American story that are not represented?

A: Of course there are. There are people in the American story that are underrepresented too, and in the Park Service, too. There's so much more talk than there is action--ask me again in three years.

Q: You brought new thinking to the Smithsonian, presenting not just the pretty aspects of American history. What kind of new thinking will you bring to the parks?

A: I didn't do the internment exhibition [exploring the period when more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans were imprisoned for the duration of World War II] because I wanted to rejoice in grief. It was because we have learned, and we don't want it to happen again. The point is, we don't have to invent unpleasantness, all we have to do is to reflect on the experience in such a way that we can learn from it.
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Title Annotation:interview with Roger Kennedy, new director of the National Park Service
Publication:National Parks
Article Type:Interview
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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