TCS Daily

Preserving and Promoting our National Parks

By Duane D. Freese - July 16, 2004 12:00 AM

Editor's note: The National Park Service and the Bush administration have received criticism in recent months from some liberal organizations and the campaign of Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry for not doing enough to improve and protect America's Crown Jewels, our National Parks. TCS Deputy Editor Duane D. Freese sat down with Interior Secretary Gale Norton to discuss those criticisms and find out what steps the administration has taken to restore luster to America's historical sites and natural wonders.

Tech Central Station: Some people are saying the situation in the parks is really dire. How would you characterize the situation of the parks?

Secretary Gale Norton: Certainly not everything in every park is perfect; there are challenges in the system as complex as the 388 units and 84 million acres of the National Park system. But, overall, the parks have more funding per acre, per employee and per visitor than ever in the past. We have placed money in high priority projects. There are some projects that we have not provided new funding for. But, overall, we have much higher levels of funding and much better care in our National Parks then ever before. I think that America's families will find their parks to be enjoyable and inviting when they go to visit.

TCS: The administration has received some harsh criticism, though, for not doing as President Bush promised in 2000 to "eliminate" a backlog of $4.9 billion in maintenance problems in the National Parks. First off, where did that estimate come from?

Norton: It was in a report prepared by the General Accounting Office. We began looking at the information contained in that report when we came into office and said, "OK, so where's the list that the report is based on?" We found out there was no specific list of projects that totaled $4.9 billion. On closer look, that $4.9 billion included some things that you would consider true backlog projects, but it also included routine maintenance, new construction projects and lots of different things. That's important to remember when some people suggest that we should have committed $4.9 billion in "new money" to tackle the projects. The GAO actually said, "These figures from the park service cannot be trusted."

TCS: So you faced a problem of unknown dimensions when you came in. How did you get a handle on that?

Norton: The first thing we had to do was get a system for figuring out exactly what the needs were and what needed to be done. Now, obviously, we didn't put a halt to any projects getting that system in place but we very quickly started working on a computer system and inventory of all of the needs within the parks. The inventory for the assessment where we sent people out to the parks to determine what needed to be done was originally scheduled at very slow pace. It would have taken another decade before we would finish the entire assessment project; I think it was originally like 2012. Instead we said this needs to be done quickly, and so we accelerated that. And we now have results from those assessments instead of waiting years in order to get them. We also have a complete computerized system that keeps track now of all the maintenance needs to make sure we are doing routine maintenance so we don't let little problems become big expensive problems.

TCS: Is that one reason that I saw in a news conference (July 8) that this year the amount that's going into maintenance has essentially tripled since 1992 -- from something around $24 million a year to close to $70 million in the upcoming budget?

Norton: That is correct. We had a system in the past where each of the parks competed for funding for major projects with all of the other parks, or tried to get a member of Congress to insert that in the appropriations bill. To get funding you had to have a real crisis, so there was no incentive to do things on a routine basis. Some of the parks waited until things became a big crisis so that they could get funding then. What we want to do is to move toward a system that catches the problems before they become major. We have been undertaking many, many projects to fix problems within the parks, which started right away, and we now have 4,000 projects that are either underway or completed in our nature parks.

TCS: So people, because these are underway, would still see things that might be dilapidated or some things might still be closed, but they shouldn't mistake that for a lack of overall improvement?

Norton: Things certainly have improved. We are at about the halfway point in our five-year project, so we are still facing some projects that have not yet been done.

TCS: Some say $600 million more a year is need for the parks. Is that necessary?

Norton: We believe that we are on track to address the problem. First of all, we are learning to do things more efficiently, and so we have been working to see that our money is being spent effectively. A good example of that is working with the Federal Highway Administration to see how our road construction and repair process can work most effectively. I think that has been very helpful partnership with the highway experts to make sure that our system works well. The process we now have leads us to a more professional facilities management program.

TCS: Is it a job that will ever be done?

Norton: The same things are true for a private house as are true for a major real-estate operation. You never get to the point of saying everything is fixed, where you have no other project that you will ever want to do. What you have is an on-going process. The backlog was the process getting so out of kilter that our on-going activities were not keeping up with the needs as they arose. We expect that by the time our five-year project is finished, we will have projects under control and all of our priority facilities will be in acceptable condition. That puts us into a position of not having a backlog. It doesn't mean we don't have any projects to work on any more; it just means we don't have a backlog. We believe strongly that our park employees have worked in a dedicated way to solve the problems in our parks. We have worked to provide them with funding they need to make a difference. The president very strongly supports the funding he has provided for the National Parks.

TCS: Another criticism leveled at the administration has nothing to do with the Park Service but with an initiative by President Bush's called Clear Skies, which the administration is now implementing administratively. They claim it is weakening pollution controls, is it?

Norton: The president proposed Clear Skies legislation that has not yet been adopted, and so the administration decided to do what we could do administratively under existing law without passage of new legislation. Even administratively, the proposal will dramatically reduce air pollutants from power plants. There are several parks that have air pollution because of pollutants coming from distant sources. In those parks, the president's initiative may have a very significant impact in reducing pollution.

TCS: And then there are the claims that people "love their parks to death." For example, some have attacked the administration for supposedly pushing snowmobiles on Yellowstone Park, to the detriment of its wildlife. What exactly is the situation with snowmobiles?

Norton: The use of snowmobiles in Yellowstone dates back about 40 years. People enjoy visiting the winter scenery in Yellowstone. For them to come by cross country skiing would require skiing 30 or 40 miles in to see the geysers and another 30 or 40 miles back out, all in one day. Clearly, that's not what most families can do. Snowmobiles provide a way for people to come and visit the parks and a way that many people enjoy.

TCS: In the movie Defending Your Life, the main character talked about how loud and smelly snowmobiles were. To many, they certainly do seem obnoxious.

Norton: We looked at the situation and decided there were problems in the way they had previously been handled. There were no speed limits, there was very little supervision. They had everybody line up at one entrance station or waiting in line, revving their engines as they waited to get permits to go in. There were all kinds of problems that did not need to exist. We now have a plan that would require the snowmobiles to stay on what are the same paved highways that people drive on in the summer. It limits the number of snowmobiles that can go in; it requires the use of new generation, cleaner and quieter snowmobile technology. It requires that there be a trained guide with each snowmobile group. Overall, we have a system that we think balances the public enjoyment of Yellowstone in winter and protects the resources of Yellowstone at the same time.

TCS: That's one of the things the Organic Act that set up the Park Service back in 1916 required isn't it, balancing protection of the resources and their enjoyment by the public?

Norton: Yes, the Organic act of the Park Service talks about both use and enjoyment of the parks and preserving them for future generations, and so we tried to make sure we can provide both today's families with the opportunities to enjoy the parks and make sure that those parks will be passed down to future generations.

TCS: Could some of the criticism coming your way be that these parks need to be preserved as wilderness as opposed to allowing recreational uses as well?

Norton: There are some people that are uncomfortable with seeing lots of people in the parks. We think people need to visit the parks and understand them in order to love them and make sure they're cared for in future generations. We welcome people to the parks and we think that with careful planning the parks can accommodate visitors who want to come see them. When I was a kid we used to have a ski area in Rocky Mountain National Park. You used to be able to horseback ride in many of the parks. There has been a gradual movement over several decades away from active recreation in the parks. I'm not advocating building new ski areas in the parks. I think, though, that there has been some change in view of the role of National Parks, and that is, I think, one reason we are seeing a lot more use now of Bureau of Land Management land, rather than park land, where more active recreation is around.

TCS: So, there is an evolution going on in the use of the parks.

Norton: It's an evolution.

TCS: People demonstrate their love of these parks in many ways, besides congressional appropriations to preserve and maintain them. How important are the public's contributions?

Norton: I think it is wonderful that people are willing to contribute to the parks they love and that may be a monetary contribution or it may be volunteer hours. Across the country there are thousands and thousands of people who make a tremendously positive difference for our parks. One thing that deeply disturbs me about the current controversy about the National Parks is that it may discourage people from volunteering or contributing. I've heard some reports from the field that that may be happening. I think that would be a tremendous shame if people felt that their contributions were no longer valued. We believe that having people be involved in our parks is tremendously valuable in seeing that the love of parks continues for generations to come.

TCS: So, how would you summarize for these people and the public generally what is going on with their parks?

Norton: I think it's important to focus on the big picture. Our parks overall have enjoyed improvement, because of a strong commitment from this administration and an increase in funding. We have better management tools in place with our facilities management program. We are encouraging the innovation and creativity that we see in our park superintendents. We are hearing some great ideas about how to solve some of the problems that we face, and we look forward to finding even better ways to be custodians of the funding provided by taxpayers and the resources entrusted to us. The same people who visit our parks are the people who pay taxes to support our parks and we need to do the right thing for those people both as park visitors and as taxpayers. That means we need to spend our money wisely, and we are working to do that.

TCS: Thank you for speaking with us.

Norton: Thank you.


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