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Bush legacy leaves uphill climb for U.S. parks, critics say

Some National Park Service veterans say it may take decades for the agency to undo policies that tended to favor commercial interests and energy projects over conservation.

January 25, 2009|Julie Cart

ARCHES NATIONAL PARK, UTAH — Kate Cannon gazed across the high red desert to the snowy La Sal Mountains rising in sharp relief at the horizon. That view of uninterrupted nature is what draws nearly a million yearly visitors to this remote part of southeast Utah.

"Look at the mountains," said Cannon, superintendent of Arches and neighboring Canyonlands national parks. "You can see them. Part of the majesty of this country is the grand sweeping views. The visitors do love it."

Cannon has been focusing on this view after the federal Bureau of Land Management decided in November to auction oil and gas leases on 360,000 acres of public land in Utah, including 93 parcels on or near the boundaries of these parks and nearby Dinosaur National Monument.

The leasing decision was put on hold by a judge Jan. 17, after protests from the park service and environmentalists who complained that the view from the famed sandstone arches and spires would be despoiled by the new roads, heavy equipment, drilling platforms and veil of dust that would accompany the exploration for fossil fuels.

But it is only a temporary victory on the heels of what some in the park service see as a string of defeats in which the nation's parks often acquiesced to the encroachment of commercial interests and energy projects during the eight years of the Bush administration. Among the recently approved projects is a uranium mine two miles from a Grand Canyon visitors center.

Critics of the Bush administration -- former park directors among them -- say its emphasis on commerce over conservation left a legacy that the national parks could be grappling with for decades to come.

Though some of President Bush's actions could be erased with a stroke of his successor's pen, other policies, such as exploration and drilling leases, could take months or years of costly effort to undo -- and would probably be subject to legal challenges.

A hint of the new administration's approach came on President Obama's first day in office, when he put on hold a number of controversial, last-minute environmental rules rushed in by Bush administration officials.

Current and former officials say the National Park Service has taken an unaccustomed back seat to its sister agency, the Bureau of Land Management, which began calling the shots on public lands. The BLM handles the bulk of federal oil and gas leasing that Bush said was key to increasing the nation's energy independence.

"The agency has been demoralized; the employees of the National Park Service have been beaten down," said Bill Wade, former superintendent at Shenandoah National Park and cofounder of a park service retirees group that has been critical of the Bush administration. "The feeling is that their professional expertise and judgment hasn't counted for much; their scientific and research experience hasn't contributed to decisions."

Interviews and reports from the Interior Department's inspector general show a department in disarray.

Some park service veterans are waiting to see what transpires under Obama's Interior secretary, former Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.). In his first message to employees last week, Salazar said he would stress stewardship and conservation on the nation's 630 million acres of public land.

"If we get lucky and we have a good strong National Park Service director, a lot of this can be reversed quite quickly," said Roger Kennedy, a former park service director and director emeritus of the National Museum of American History.

The leading contender to head the park service appears to be respected agency veteran Jon Jarvis, the Pacific regional director based in Oakland.

Interior spokesman Chris Paolino denied that the department has favored the BLM over the park service.

"There has been and continues to be a great commitment to work cooperatively, with input from all agencies, particularly the National Park Service, with issues of air and water quality surrounding the parks," Paolino said. "That cooperation will continue to be strong."

Bush spoke glowingly of the 84-million-acre park system. As a presidential candidate in 2000 and 2004, he pledged to eliminate the service's nearly $5-billion maintenance backlog by 2005; the most recent estimate to repair and upgrade the nation's parks is $8.7 billion.

Still, the Bush administration managed to keep the park service budget intact, Paolino said. "The park service has the largest operating budget in its history, and that's because of the president."

Beyond issues of infrastructure, former Interior officials and park service directors from both parties say Bush left behind a demoralized department.

Beginning in 2004, Interior's inspector general cited a "culture of fear" and of "ethical failure," and in one report concluded: "Simply stated, short of a crime, anything goes at the highest levels of the Department of Interior."

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