The National Park Service is expected to adopt management guidelines today that affirm the importance of conservation in parks, resisting efforts by the motorized recreation industry to open more parkland to snowmobiles, power boats and off-road vehicles.
By adopting the guidelines, the park service is retreating from an earlier proposal to change 90-year-old policies, a move that critics said would have weakened protection of natural resources and wildlife, while allowing increased commercial activity and off-road vehicle use in national parks.
After a public outcry and criticism from Congress, the agency backtracked, saying the proposed changes were simply a starting point.
The new guidelines, which are expected to be signed by outgoing park service Director Fran P. Mainella, maintain the current standard for protection of resources and instruct park managers to prohibit activities that would degrade them.
The park service had been lobbied by manufacturers of recreational vehicles and the American Recreation Coalition, which contended that the agency overemphasized protection at the expense of recreation.
The controversial draft polices would have required officials to prove that an activity "permanently and irreversibly adversely affect a resource or value" before banning it. Critics said that standard would have been all but impossible to meet.
"This is a victory. Now the emphasis is on preventing and avoiding damage, not mitigating," said Bill Wade, former superintendent at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Wade leads an organization of retired park service employees who strongly opposed the proposed changes. "We credit the career professionals of the National Park Service for collectively standing up against the onslaught of Department of Interior political operatives."
Last year's proposed changes were the work of Paul Hoffman, a deputy assistant secretary of Interior who oversaw the park service. Hoffman was later reassigned by then-Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton.
Norton's successor, Dirk Kempthorne, endorsed the guidelines being adopted today.
"We're very pleased," said Thomas C. Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Assn., a nonprofit organization that lobbies for parks. "Secretary Kempthorne delivered strong and effective policies that protect parks and improve the visitor experience."
Park service management policies are drawn from congressional directives, case law and the 1916 Organic Act, and have afforded national 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.