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New Parks Plan Omits Some Terms That Sparked Furor

October 19, 2005|Bettina Boxall | Times Staff Writer

The Bush administration has backed away from the most controversial parts of a proposed revision of National Park Service policy that critics said would have opened the park system to more commercial activity and off-road vehicle use.

Draft management policies released Tuesday by the Department of the Interior no longer contained proposals by a political appointee that had caused a furor in the park service when they were leaked in August.

"The initial impression is this proposal appears to be a very dramatic improvement over the earlier draft," said Robert Arnberger, a retired regional park service director who maintained that the earlier proposals would have threatened nearly a century of park policies and law.

Although the new draft quieted the storm, it did not allay all concerns. Some said the new proposal could still subtly erode the service's historical emphasis on park conservation in favor of more attention to visitor uses.

At issue are management policies that guide the service in deciding what to allow in national parks. The change of a word or phrase in key passages could make enormous differences in how parks are run.

The new proposal omits language that some park advocates said would have undercut a strict, historical standard for conserving parks and protecting them from activities that would have impaired visitors' experience of the parks. It dropped sections that would have allowed snowmobiles on paved park roads and weakened requirements to maintain a dark night sky or preserve quiet. And instead of allowing the display and sale of religious materials in park facilities, it would permit the sale of inspirational books.

Paul Hoffman, the assistant deputy Interior secretary behind the earlier draft and a former director of the Chamber of Commerce in Cody, Wyo., said in a Tuesday teleconference that the first proposal was intended to stimulate discussion. "It did that," he added, saying that he and the roughly 100 career park service employees who developed the final proposal yielded on some points.

The new policies, Hoffman said, adhered to the park service's mandate, "which is one single mission that provides for both the conservation of the resources and enjoyment of the same."

But Denis Galvin, a former deputy director of the park service who helped craft earlier versions of the management guidelines, said park policies dating to 1918 had made conservation the predominant park value. If there was a conflict between conservation and park use, preservation trumped.

The proposal released Tuesday, he said, appeared to make enjoyment and conservation equals. He also said there was other language that might open the door to more snowmobile and personal watercraft use in parks.

"I think this would be more permissive [than existing policies] but not nearly as permissive as the Hoffman draft," Galvin said.

Craig Obey, vice president of the National Parks Conservation Assn., a nonprofit advocacy group, said that though "the most damaging" proposals had been dropped, the proposed revision "might weaken the agency's mandate to protect park air quality."

The revision, to be published today in the Federal Register, is subject to a 90-day public comment period.

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