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Smokey would never believe this.

Smokey Would Never Believe This

If you happened to be driving past Fishing Bridge in Yellowstone Park in July 1986, you might have seen a small band of scruffy protesters, some dressed as grizzly bears, marching across the bridge carrying a sign that read, "Bureaucrats out, grizzlies in.' Belonging to a new radical environmental group named Earth First, these people, along with their main-line cousins in such organizations as the Audubon Society and National Wildlife Federation, are convinced that Fishing Bridge, near the outlet of Yellowstone Lake, occupies habitat critical to the survival of the grizzly bear, a threatened species now declining in the park. So they are demanding that all the buildings--visitors' center, general store, service station, recreational vehicle park, everything--be removed so that the land can be given back to the bears.

It does not matter to these people that archeological evidence suggests this place has been a human settlement for 9,000 years, nor that other parts of the park are better bear habitat, nor that eviction of humans from this place would not in itself reverse the grizzly's slow but steady decline. To these people, the issue is more than one of removing a few buildings. Giving Fishing Bridge back to the bears is their way of drawing a line in the sand, stopping the relentless advance of mankind. For many, the Battle of Fishing Bridge would be to our juggernaut civilization what Stalingrad was to Hitler, Tours to the Saracens, Vienna to the Huns: the beginning of the big rollback.

That July, however, the National Park Service was ready for them. They had sent an agent to infiltrate Earth First's planning meeting, and when the group entered the park, they were followed by rangers in an unmarked van who kept in radio contact with park headquarters in Mammoth. At Fishing Bridge they had the water cannon ready. Just the week before, rangers had been put through a crash course on "verbal karate' (to teach them how to respond to jeers from a crowd) and the use of mace--preparations that had cost taxpayers at least $30,000. By the end of the day, 19 protesters had been arrested.

Fishing Bridge remains the symbolic battlefield for the future of the national parks. It raises what many think is the critical issue: are parks for people or for preservation? This dilemma has faced the Park Service since it was created in 1916. The enabling legislation stipulated that the new agency should manage the parks in such a way as to "conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects' but also "leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.' But how, many wonder, could parks be preserved while being visited by hordes of people?

Today those who care for the parks seem more divided than ever. Environmentalists argue that parks must be saved from people, while business interests (representing the recreation industry) insist that when push comes to shove, people must come first. Meanwhile Congress is divided and the Park Service vacillates, pushing both development and preservation, often simultaneously. All sides believe they are playing a zero-sum game. For example, environmentalists contend that limiting tourists helps the parks. Conversely, business interests fear that the environmentalist proscription will limit tourists. Thus no Park Service policy seems to satisfy both sides.

The rangers' hot-tub

Environmentalists of all persuasions see overuse as the principal threat to our national parks. The 338 parks and monuments of the National Park system today, they note, receive more than 300 million visitors annually; such burgeoning tourism is destroying what people are coming to see. Saving the parks means saving them from people and this means limiting--and in some cases reducing--human use in these areas. Environmentalists argue that the greatest natural area parks such as Grand Canyon and Yellowstone should remain pristine wilderness, protected as much as possible from human influence.

To concessioners (who provide accommodations and other services to park visitors with the grant from the National Park Service) and others in the recreation industry, parks are for people. Evicting people to save the grizzly bear seems to them to be a perversion of the national park idea. Parks, they believe, are intended to be places where the public can stay in a hotel room with clean towels if they wish and not be forced to sleep on an air mattress or eat freeze-dried chili macaroni.

Don Hummel, makes a case for the concessioners.* Parks are not receiving too much use, he argues. Rather, environmentalists and the Park Service play games with numbers to make it seem so. In fact, he insists, the future of public access to the national parks is in doubt. These two groups are conspiring to close people out.

* Stealing the National Parks: The Destruction of Concessions and Public Access. Don Hummel, Free Enterprise Press, $19.95.

As a life-long concessioner in Lassan and Glacier national parks, Hummel has axes to grind, but many of his points are on target. While excessive public use does threaten parts of some parks (such as Yosemite Valley and Grand Canyon), visitor numbers are exaggerated. To justify bigger budgets--for everything from traffic control radar to back country patrol--the Park Service juggles statistics on the number of visitors and wildly exaggerates their threat to the parks. Its visitation figures fail to explain why many wildlife species are declining within the national parks even as they are on the rebound elsewhere. The woodstork continues to dwindle in Everglades National Park, for example, even as it is recovering in other parts of Florida; and while beaver and mountain lion are nearly gone from Yellowstone, they are thriving in many other parts of the Rocky Mountain west.

Relations between the National Park Service and the main line environmental community are, as Hummel suggests, increasingly incestuous. The National Park Service, as Ronald A. Foresta, a public lands policy specialist, noted a couple of years ago, continues to move its "base of support away from the park-using public at large and toward the environmental public interest groups.' Even under the Reagan administration, a revolving door does exist between these groups, as Interior Department officials routinely leave government to work for environmental groups, and vice versa. This is not to say that all Interior officials go on to join environmental activist groups, but this close relationship, which began in the 1960s when the Park Service enlisted such prominent environmentalists as Ansel Adams, Sigurd Olsen, and Starker Leopold, is today an entrenched institution.

Nevertheless, Stealing the National Parks is not a very good book. It is written as through it were dictated to a secretary and went to print without revisions, and too much is a stilted autobiographical account of Hummel's own successful career as concessioner. More importantly, Hummel's preoccupation with private concessions leads him to avoid--entirely--the preservation side of the equation. For example, he treats Stephen Mather, the Park Service's first director, as the acme of wisdom and virtue for his advocacy of private concessions. Yet no mention is made that this same director orchestrated a program of predator extermination to permit animals he considered more popular with visitors, such as elk and antelope, to mutiply.

Hummel is wrong, moreover, in suggesting that the Park Service opposes all development in the parks; rather the agency is increasingly hostile to private development. If the Park Service were to remove the facilities at Fishing Bridge, it plans to replicate them elsewhere in the park. Last year Yellowstone installed hot-tubs and exercise equipment for its wilderness rangers. And thanks to its ownership of concessions facilities and its new income-sharing arrangement with the Yellowstone concessioner TW Services, Inc., the Park Service now has an economic incentive to promote tourism in that park. Indeed, de facto National Park Service policy is to maximize the numbers of people in the parks (thus justifying maximum appropriations) but keep them on the roads and on the boardwalks and out of the woods and rivers (thus pleasing environmentalists). Unfortunately this policy requires a ranger corps trained in crowd control (what the National Park Service calls "visitor safety and protection') so that our parks are run by policemen rather than ecologists. Such has been the case since 1916 when the Park Service took over management of the parks from the U.S. Cavalry.

Environmentalists, Hummel suggests, are simply mischievous people-haters who have somehow mesmerized the bureaucrats. And while he is partly right--many environmentalists do subscribe to a form of "pure' preservationism that seems a kind of religious misanthropy--both groups also have institutional, bureaucratic reasons to behave as they do.

Cops & the cavalry

Since 1968 national parks classified as natural zones have been run according to a policy sometimes known as "ecosystems management.' The idea is that if parks are complete ecosystems, they are "self-regulating' and best managed by letting nature take its course. This has proved a disaster for the simple reason that its premise is wrong: parks are not ecosystems and thus are not self-regulating. Left alone they do not stabilize; rather they die. During the 19 years this policy has been in effect in Yellowstone National Park, for example, the elk and bison herds, lacking natural enemies (the Interior Department earlier removed natural predators such as the indian wolf and mountain lion) have grown in spectacular numbers, destroying the habitat for other species in the process. As a consequence the park has seen a steady decline in big horn sheep, mule deer, beavers, and grizzly and black bears, and a disappearance of critical vegetation.

Nevertheless, ecosystems management fits well with the predilections of the Park Service. Its law enforcement training is just what is required to sustain ecosystems management. Because ecosystems management is in effect no management, little scientific research is necessary. Policing people--keeping them away from the ecosystem--becomes the ranger's primary duty. Parks can accommodate almost any number of visitors as long as they are insulated from "the ecosystem.' This kind of management, moreover, is inexpensive, and it permits the bureaucrat to escape accountability: ecological decline, when it occurs, can be blamed on God rather than on the Park Service.

Finally, ecosystems management offers Park Service officials a wonderful rationale for expanding the park system. As no national park today is a complete ecosystem for all the species it contains, this policy can work only when each national park is expanded to its natural "ecosystem boundary.'

Environmentalists also are enamoured with ecosystems management, not only because most do have a metaphysical aversion to meddling in nature but also because it fits well with their political agenda. Main-line environmental groups today are small lobbies staffed by professionals --many of whom are lawyers. They focus on what can be accomplished by legislation, and ecological management is not among those things. So they call for restrictions on private land (such as prohibiting industrial or recreational developments) and for the expansion of publicly controlled lands. And ecosystems management is a wonderful rationale for doing this.

The relationship between the Park Service and the environmental community, therefore, is a symbiotic one that is unfortunately destructive to wildlife. Ecosystems management permits the Park Service to spend money on law enforcement rather than on scientific research and encourages a political alliance with environmentalists to expand the park.

Hummel, in short, is half right and half wrong. Visitors per se do not cause the disappearance of Yellowstone's grizzly and back bears. Rather, Park Service mismanagement brought this about because it is preoccupied with visitors, pleasing the public, and with the physical protection of park resources. It has evolved as an agency far better equipped to be a good host than to cope with complex ecological problems.

While the future of our parks depends on finding the right balance between preservation and public use, no one is ready to compromise. Yet the need for cooperation in developing a more rational foundation for conservation is greater today than ever. We are coming to the end of the first century of American conservation efforts, a period when the greatest threats were poaching and land exploitation. During this period, emphasis was rightly placed on protection, a task best accomplished through law enforcement and land use legislation. But the nature of the problem today is not only the physical protection of land and animals, but also wise management of them.

Conservation efforts in the second century, therefore, will place a premium on our ability to apply the science of ecology to the task of preserving our remaining wildlands. Unfortunately, our preservation machinery remains geared to solving problems of the past. This machinery--the law enforcement bent of the park service and the lobbying tactics of environmental groups--cannot cope with the diverse biological threats to the national parks.

The political tools available to environmentalists are often inappropriate for solving ecological problems. Politics requires simple issues and quick solutions; but ecological problems are complex and take a long time to identify and remedy. By lobbying, the environmental community can persuade Congress to create new parks and wilderness areas; but management of these areas (each of which has a unique ecology) is delegated to state and federal agencies. Washington-based public interest groups do not have the investigatory resources or scientific expertise to monitor the performance of these agencies. Hence there is a growing gap between the ecologic problems of preservation and the political and management tools with which our society addresses these problems.

Our parks and other wildlife areas are falling between the cracks of an outdated idea, bureaucratic self-interest, environmental extremism, and business shortsightedness. Reasonable environmentalism has all but disappeared; and, before we know it, our parks will too.
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Title Annotation:management of National Parks
Author:Chase, Alston
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Nov 1, 1987
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