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Can New Director Bring Fresh Air to Nation's Parks? : Nature: Some see Roger Kennedy as the advocate to persuade the public and politicians to revive the system.

August 16, 1993|FRANK CLIFFORD | TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — His Smokey Bear hat cocked at a raffish angle, Roger Kennedy, the newly appointed National Park Service director, was telling a network television audience he thought people were willing to pay more to support the parks.

"I am sure that the American people are willing to be taxed, and taxed to support the national parks," Kennedy told CBS News last month.

Even if his tongue was in his cheek, and it wasn't, Kennedy's comment could not have been more precariously timed, as President Clinton was struggling to minimize the impact of higher taxes in his proposed budget bill.

So, just a month after taking office, the 67-year-old lawyer, author, documentary film director, and former bank executive and museum director was summoned to the woodshed. By his own account, he was given a proper scolding by Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, the man who had convinced the President that Kennedy was just the eloquent magpie to persuade the public and politicians to begin resuscitating America's ailing national parks.

The episode came as no surprise to some who know Kennedy and predicted that he might turn out to be a bit of a rogue--a frisky old bull in a bureaucratic china shop. But there are those who believe that the Park Service, after 12 years of quiet, compliant leadership, needs such an irrepressible advocate.

As the eighth Park Service director in two decades, Kennedy is taking over an agency in the midst of an identity struggle--one that could shape the service and its 367 parks, monuments, and natural and man-made sites for years to come.

"What happens in the next few years," said Paul Pritchard of the National Parks and Conservation Assn., "could decide whether the parks will become mass entertainment and recreation centers or whether they will function as quiet campuses of the nation's largest outdoor university."

Avid constituencies exist for both approaches. One side urges broader use for snowmobiling, helicopter sightseeing, bungee jumping, mountain biking and, in one Washington, D.C., park, even grand prix racing. A formidable lobby exists for punching roads into the deepest reaches of many wilderness parks to provide "windshield access" to a host of hidden splendors.

On the other side are those who want the parks reserved for the contemplative enjoyment and the scientific study of nature. Besides minimizing mechanized recreation, they want park officials to take a more active role in surrounding communities, especially when it comes to lobbying against adjacent development that could upset the balance of nature inside the parks.

Kennedy, who grew up in Minnesota and spent several summers guiding canoe trips in what is today Voyageurs National Park, talks like a conservationist. He said he supports legislation pending in Congress that would require federal, state and local governments--often at war with one another over land-use policy--to cooperate in protecting natural resources in and around national parks.

So far, he declines to take a stand on several controversies, including hotly disputed proposals to allow cars into remote areas of parks in Utah and Alaska. The fights center on an 1866 federal right-of-way law and whether it permits thousands of miles of dirt tracks, wagon roads and even dog sled trails to be widened and paved.

"I'm just not ready to say anything about that yet," he said.

With his background in American history--each of his eight books deal with the subject--Kennedy is a good bet to stress the educational role of the parks.

"As places to learn, the parks do need strengthening and encouraging," he said. Although he admits that he does not know where the money to hire them will come from, Kennedy said "we need to bring in better people as historians and biologists."

At the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, which he ran for 13 years, Kennedy was known as a charismatic leader, a showboater and an experimenter. He won praise for opening exhibits on the Japanese internment camps during World War II and on the migration of black agricultural workers from southern farms to northern factories. But he also drew criticism for dismantling the museum's most popular exhibit--the inaugural gowns of the nation's first ladies.

Sylvio Bedini, a retired curator at the museum, described Kennedy as having a knack for making himself the center of attention. When Bedini heard that Kennedy had decided to wear a park ranger's uniform to his new office at the Park Service every day, he said: "The next thing I expected was to see a little bear cub in uniform trotting beside him."

"A lot of people didn't like his flashy style," said curator Robert Post, who worked under Kennedy at the museum. "But he took the museum to some genuine issues of social significance. And he knew how to get what he wanted. He could go up to Capitol Hill and sit in front of the Appropriations Committee and charm the pants off them."

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