A series of proposed revisions of National Park policy has created a furor among present and former park officials who believe the changes would weaken protections of natural resources and wildlife while allowing an increase in commercial activity, snowmobiles and off-road vehicles.
National Park Service employees warn that the changes, which were proposed by the Department of the Interior and are undergoing a Park Service review, would fundamentally alter the agency's primary mission.
"They are changing the whole nature of who we are and what we have been," said J.T. Reynolds, superintendent of Death Valley National Park. "I hope the public understands that this is a threat to their heritage. It threatens the past, the present and the future. It's painful to see this."
The potential changes would allow cellphone towers and low-flying tour planes and would liberalize rules that prohibited mining, according to Bill Wade, former superintendent at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.
Larry Whalon, chief of resource management at Mojave National Preserve, said the changes would take away managers' ability to use laws such as the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act to oppose new developments in parks.
Although Interior and the Park Service are free to change the service's management polices at any time, they have been amended only twice. The last time was in 2001.
Officials at the Park Service's Washington headquarters downplayed the significance of the proposed revisions, saying they were less a reflection of policy than an attempt to start a dialogue.
The changes are the brainchild of Paul Hoffman, who oversees the Park Service and was appointed deputy assistant secretary of the Interior in January 2002.
Hoffman came to the Park Service after serving as director of the Chamber of Commerce in Cody, Wyo. He had previously served as Wyoming state director for then-U.S. Rep. Dick Cheney from 1985 to 1989.
"Paul Hoffman had some initial suggestions and prompted us," said David Barna, a Park Service spokesman. "Paul Hoffman was playing devil's advocate. He was saying, 'Show us, the political appointees who make policy, why do you do things the way you do?' It was a starting point. We're a long way from that now. They have drafted a new raw draft."
The proposed changes, which have been in the drafting stage for two years, were leaked this week. About the same time, a group of 400 retired Park Service employees scheduled a news conference for today to announce a campaign to block the changes from taking effect.
Members of the group said they were particularly concerned about policy changes that would allow snowmobiles to travel over any paved road in any national park in the winter; elevate certain activities already occurring in some parks, such as grazing and mining, to "park purposes" -- which would ensure their continuation; and change the acceptable level of air quality from "natural background" to air that has been altered by human presence.
Park Service management policies are based on congressional intent, case law and the 1916 Organic Act, and have afforded parks the highest level of natural resource protection of any federally managed land. The policies instruct Park Service officials to balance visitor use with wildlife needs, resource protection and historic preservation, generally holding protection and preservation as their highest goals.
The Interior Department's proposed changes hinge on what Park Service employees say is a revision of what they have been taught is one of the highest priorities: to do no harm to the park.
Since its inception in 1916, the Park Service has been charged with maintaining parks "unimpaired" for future generations to enjoy. According to current policies, when park officials determine an activity may lead to impairment, officials are authorized to ban the activity.
The proposed changes would alter the definition of impairment from "an impact to any park resource or value [that] may constitute an impairment" to one that can be proved to "permanently and irreversibly adversely [affect] a resource or value." Critics say the new definition would set a standard that is impossibly high.
The policy changes were presented to Park Service officials in July. The Department of Interior sent a copy of the revisions to Park Service headquarters in Washington, which forwarded it to its seven regional directors. The directors responded by sending a searing memo to Park Service Director Fran Mainella, criticizing the revisions.
The agency convened a working group of 16 longtime employees Aug. 3 in Santa Fe, N.M.. The group met for three days to try to settle on a compromise version of Hoffman's proposal.
"I was profoundly shocked at how far it went," said a participant in the workshop. He said the group continued to work on the rewrite but was not sure if its watered-down version would be acceptable to Interior officials.