National Meeting of Park Officials Draws Fire

By Beacon Staff

WASHINGTON – Leaders of the National Park Service will gather next month at a private resort in the Utah mountains for a summit meeting that some career officials say feels more like a $1 million exercise in political promotion.

The national meeting, set for July 16-17 at Snowbird, Utah, will bring together more than 400 park superintendents and other top Park Service officials to hear from Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, Park Service Director Mary Bomar, Utah Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman and others.

Some of those attending the conference question the value of a meeting with political leaders who won’t be around in just a few short months, when the Bush administration ends. They also say the timing is bad, coming in the month when many parks are having their busiest period of the year.

And they say the cost — estimated at $1 million or more for travel, rooms and meals — is an unnecessary burden for their budgets, already taxed by a backlog of unfunded maintenance.

None of the current park officials who were critical of the meeting would allow their names to be used, saying they feared retribution.

But Bill Wade, the retired superintendent of the Shenandoah National Park, says he’s been hearing such comments for months from his former colleagues. “This is being done almost exclusively to try to bolster the legacy of the department and the political leaders and the Bush administration, in their last year,” said Wade, head of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.

The agenda, he said, is to point out “all of the great things that they’ve done for parks and conservation, when most of us believe they’ve done far more harm than good.”

The criticism isn’t unanimous. Several park superintendents contacted said they view the meeting as an opportunity to get together with peers, compare notes and renew relationships.

“I think it’s productive,” said Sheridan Steele, superintendent at Acadia National Park in Maine. “You get not only the opportunity to hear from key leadership, but the interaction between people, formally and informally, is very valuable.”

Park Service spokesman David Barna said, “It’s really almost ridiculous that we don’t do this more often.” He noted that it’s been 20 years since the last such gathering and said, “We’re planning two days of meaningful work. This is not politics.”

President Bush came into office pledging to eliminate a multibillion-dollar maintenance backlog in the park system, fixing decrepit buildings, roads, trails and sewer systems. He will leave office in January with a to-do list longer than the one he inherited.

At the same time, park operating budgets have been shaved, and some public services including educational programs and visitor centers remain curtailed. The administration has fought with conservationists over snowmobiles and other motorized vehicles, clean air standards and firearms in parks.

“Their actions have fallen significantly short of their commitments,” said Ron Tipton, vice president of the National Parks Conservation Association.

A May 29 posting on the Park Service’s internal Web site for employees says the July meeting will focus on goals such as how to reconnect Americans with their park system, develop new leaders for the system and highlight plans for the system’s 100th birthday in 2016.

Those plans include a controversial proposal to raise private money to undertake projects in parks, including building new facilities and launching new programs. The Bush administration says that will mean new resources for the parks, but opponents say it will invite increased commercialism.

Two department officials said Bomar’s original plans had called for three regional conferences this fall, each lasting three days and concentrating on training for park superintendents tailored to each region. In January, however, that format was abandoned in favor of the July national meeting.