Administration Officials Target National Park Historic Sites

Bruce Craig, November 2005

Since the creation of the National Park Service (NPS) in 1916, its primary mission has been to ensure that the nation's parks and historic areas would remain "unimpaired by human activity for the benefit of "future generations. However, recent proposals by senior Bush administration Interior Department officials and by a powerful Republican member of Congress seek to change all that. Paul Hoffman, the deputy assistant of the Department of the Interior and former state director (1985–89) for the then U.S. Representative Dick Cheney, looks to completely redefine the meaning of "impairment as it applies to the NPS's 388 natural and historic sites throughout the country, and Representative Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), the powerful chair of the House Resources Committee (the committee that has jurisdiction over the NPS), seeks to sell off historic areas and commercialize the parks in order to raise revenue.

Hoffman's proposal seeks to revamp the NPS's Organic Act by changing the meaning of "impairment of national park units from "an impact to any park resource or value [that] may constitute an impairment to one that proves to "permanently and irreversibly adversely [affect] a resource or value. The controversial redefinition is part of a larger 194-page draft "revision of the NPS guidelines, "Management Policies. The implications of the change on the long-term conservation and historic preservation practices of the NPS are staggering.

Opponents of the change, including the 400-member strong Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, argue that the very face of the national parks could be altered from places of refuge for natural and cultural heritage into sites opened up to developers, mining, logging, and recreational vehicles of every sort imaginable. According to Bill Wade, spokesperson for the coalition, "Regardless of what happens in the redrafting, the Department of the Interior is going to do what it can to get (the Hoffman proposal) in there. It can only be [through a] public outcry and the influence from Congress that can be brought to bear on this that the proposal can be "turned back.

Proposals by the chair of the House Resources Committee also have the NPS oversight and history watchdog groups up in arms. In a 260-page draft of a budget reconciliation bill (a tool that is used by Congress to meet budget goals), Representative Richard Pombo has advanced several controversial provisions aimed to help address the current governmental fiscal crisis. Among his ideas that purportedly are designed to save the government $2.4 billion is a proposal to sell no fewer than 15 national parks, including a number of historical sites: the Eugene O'Neill National Historical Site in Danville, California; the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Pennsylvania; the Fort Bowie National Historic Site, Arizona; the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House, Washington D.C.; and the Thomas Stone National Historic Site, Maryland, as well as a number of smaller, less visited natural areas most of which are located in Alaska, including the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve; the Lake Clark National Park and Preserve; and the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. If all the parks were sold off as Pombo wants, the total land holdings of the NPS would be reduced by 23 percent thus saving the government billions over a period of years.

In addition to the proposed park closures, Pombo also seeks to require that the NPS raise $20 million through commercial sponsorships and by granting naming rights for certain national parks facilities. His plan would permit commercial advertisements on national park vehicles and advertising would be mandated to appear in official park service maps and guidebooks; billboards would be placed on in-park buses, trams, and vans.

While Pombo is silent about the proposals, his House Resources Committee spokesperson states that the Congressman "isn't seriously thinking about putting national parks on the auction block, that the list of parks was drawn up for the Congressional Budget Office merely as a hypothetical situation. Nevertheless, NPS watchdog organizations have expressed outrage over the proposals and are taking them (especially the commercialization plans) seriously. Jim DiPreso, communications director for the grassroots organization Republicans for Environmental Protection (http://www.repamerica.org) maintains "Pombo's extremism, if turned into law, would turn our treasured national park system into a tawdry carnival of advertising and fast-buck commercialism, squandering a priceless inheritance.

Most likely, the underlying purpose of Pombo's proposals is something of a political ploy to call attention to budget alternatives that could be implemented to cover the perceived revenue shortfall if Congress fails to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska for oil and gas drilling as Pombo wants. If Pombo is to be taken at his word—that his legislation is merely a "conversation starter—then it certainly has had the desired effect. But if the Congressman is offering legislation as a "joke (as first claimed by his spokesperson) or merely seeking to taunt environmentalists as others first thought, it would seem to be a new low for a member of Congress, let alone a powerful committee chair.

—Bruce Craig is director of the National Coalition for History. He can be reached at rbcraig@historycoalition.org.