The Politics Of Conservation

Interview With Rick Smith, Former Acting Superintendent Of Yellowstone National Park

Tim McGivern
16 min read
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Richard Nixon is remembered mostly as a disgraced liar, but by today's standards (summed up in four words—Dick Cheney Energy Czar) he was one helluva Republican environmentalist. After all, Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, signed the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act. The first President Bush was no Nixon, but he did sign the 1990 Clean Air Act.

And of course there was President Teddy Roosevelt, the highest regarded Republican environmentalist of them all who helped establish the National Park Service. From its inception in 1916, the agency's core mission was, and legally still is, to conserve the nation's public parks in perpetuity. And by most reasonable measures the agency, in the long view of history, has lived up to that mandate nicely.

But since George W. Bush took office and appointed Gale Norton Secretary of Interior, a group called Coalition of Concerned National Park Retirees says the long-standing mission has been forsaken and a non-conservation, political agenda now guides the agency.

Like many of the other 200-plus members of the coalition, Rick Smith devoted his professional life to upholding the park service's congressional mandate to protect our natural heritage. In his 31 years of employment, he served as a ranger in Yosemite, trained new employees at the Grand Canyon academy and worked in the interior department's legislative offices in Washington, D.C. In the latter half of his career he was assistant superintendent of Everglades National Park before serving as superintendent at Carlsbad Caverns. He finished his career as director of the Santa Fe regional office before retiring in 1994 and now lives in Placitas. A few years back he even filled in as Yellowstone superintendent while the park service searched for a replacement.

Smith is mild-mannered as you'd expect a park ranger to be, and, like most seasoned bureaucrats who've weathered all sorts of presidential administrations, he's not the kind that gets caught up in partisan politics. But he is, to put it mildly, upset at what has happened in the past few years at the department of interior.

He is quick to note that never in the Park Service's 88-year history has a group of retirees banded together to express concerns to the president. “It's not normal, it's not typical,” said Smith, “It's unprecedented.”

In a letter to President Bush dated Jan. 22, 2004, 183 retirees (including four former directors of the National Park Service, two former deputy directors, 12 former regional directors and 75 former park superintendents or assistant superintendents) asked that the efforts at the interior department to alter long-standing park service management polices be stopped immediately. They demanded respect for the 1916 mission “that from this time forward the National Park Service is clearly and undeniably committed, first and foremost, to protection and preservation of its resources.”

The letter specifically decries Secretary Norton's attempt to overturn a ruling that bans snowmobiles from Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. In another example, the letter cites an interior department ruling that gives water rights from the Gunnison National Park over to the state of Colorado.

The letter states, by enacting these policies “the department ignored its three key mandates: the need for public input; the imperative of putting sound science ahead of partisan political deal making, and above all else, the National Park Service's core mission of conservation.”

Last week, Mr. Smith met with the Alibi upon returning from yet another trip to Washington where he met with New Mexico congressional representatives to draw attention to his cause. Here's what he had to say.

Elaborate on why you formed this coalition.

By and large, protection of our natural heritage is something we Americans all agree on. The preservation of parks have been largely a non-partisan issue.

It's a growing realization that the policies being pursued by the Secretary of Interior Gale Norton and the director of the National Park Service, Fran Mainella, appear to be inconsistent with the legislation that Congress passed to establish the National Park Service. Under the current administration, this bi-partisan tendency has been scrapped for narrow and partisan goals and objectives.

A good example is the Yellowstone snowmobile policy. This is an issue that's been studied for 10 years. The evidence is unequivocal that continued snowmobile use in Yellowstone is detrimental to park wildlife, hazardous to public health and it impairs the viewshed. Snowmobiles are sources of tremendous pollution. The evidence is clear. Then to turn around and say that we are going to continue to permit snowmobiles despite this evidence seems absolutely inconsistent with the idea that Yellowstone and other national parks are to be preserved in perpetuity, as opposed to becoming some kind of recreational funny farm.

How has the Bush administration reacted to the scientific data?

Well, a federal district court judge in Washington, D.C. said that, in reading the evidence from previous studies and environmental impact statements, there is no science in the department of interior's decision to reverse the snowmobile ban. He said it looks like pure politics and you know I don't see that managing our national treasure, the special places that the people of the United States have said should be preserved in perpetuity, ought to be managed according to politics. They ought to be managed according to evidence, with the long-term environmental health and cultural integrity of these areas considered. This judge said that the resources protection mandate of the park service trumps all others. Those were his words.

Where does the case stand today?

After the judge's ruling, Yellowstone National Park is operating the winter use in the park according to the rules published in 2000, under the previous administration. Because the snowmobile regulations provided for an orderly phase-out, there are still snowmobiles in the park. But next year, there will not be continued use. Now, the administration and the National Park Service have indicated their intent to appeal that rule.

Talk about the letter recently sent to President Bush.

What's unique about the park service is each generation of Americans, speaking through its elected representatives, gets to decide what should be protected in perpetuity. These places are so unique and so special they help us understand who we are as a people, what our history has been. It's really a unique and very valuable record of what each generation of Americans has done.

The legislation passed in 1916 said you have to take care of these places so that the resource values can be preserved unimpaired. This doesn't mean impair a little bit, or impair a lot. It means unimpaired. So as a group of retirees, we pay attention to what the park service is doing. Since 1994, I've never felt a need to contact other retirees and say ’hey, look at what's going on.' Not until President Bush's administration started doing things that we feel contradict the purposes for which the parks were established.

In May of last year, the former superintendent of Yellowstone, the former superintendent of Shenandoah National Park and myself did a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington and at that time we mentioned some of the things that were troublesome. We mentioned the snowmobiles. We mentioned the drive to privatize park service jobs. They have a nice word for that—they call it ’competitive sourcing.' They want government agencies to be efficient. It seems they want to sacrifice effectiveness on the altar of efficiency. So we mentioned that.

(Because of budget constraints and new policies) individual parks will lapse positions, meaning you don't fill positions when someone retires or transfers, so you have a reduction in personnel. That's happening all over the park system. That leads to reduction in visitor services, or reduction in amount of money spent on research, or resources protection, like backcountry patrols or monitoring of endangered plants or animals. That's a real concern.

Are there studies that show privitizing makes an agency more efficient?

Not that we know of. They cite proof, based on outsourcing that's been done at the Department of Defense. It makes some sense not to have painters as government employees, say when building homes at Kirtland Air Force Base. But you don't have that at the National Park Service. The jobs that seem to be targeted are jobs that make no sense at all. They've targeted archeologists, anthropologists, ethnologists, landscape architects, etc. These are the people when I was superintendent that provided me with the information I needed to make good decisions. One of the ways to cripple an agency like the park service and render it less effective is to target those types of people for outsourcing. You are simply robbing the park superintendent of gathering appropriate information they need to make proper decisions.

Subcontractors wouldn't be able to give you this information?

Sure they could. But you know it's one thing to be an archeologist at the University of New Mexico. But it's another thing to be a park service archeologist to know the organization's history and culture, to know the other employees. There is a synergy that exists that doesn't occur when you opt somebody in from the outside. They do their study, give the information and leave. They don't have to deal with the consequences. It's like being a consultant.

More importantly, many employees have multiple functions in the park. I may be an archeologist, but I may also be on the fire fighting team. I might also be one of the park's emergency medical technicians. That's very common. So you bring in an archeologist under contract, all he or she is going to do is the archeology and you lose those other functions.

You received an award for lifetime service during the first Bush administration. Still, some people will likely brush off your efforts, saying you are partisan?

I received that award from Manuel Lujan, in fact, when he was the interior secretary. The retirees who have joined the coalition, I have no idea if they are liberals, conservatives, neoconservatives or whatever their political interests might be. In my career, I worked for presidents Kennedy, Carter, Reagan, the first Bush, all kinds of administrations. The coalition is non-partisan politically, but we are very partisan when it comes to parks. I don't care who is in the White House. Arguably one of the greatest conservation presidents in our nation's history was Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican. Richard Nixon created the EPA. We're not talking about an issue that is generated by partisan politics. This is an issue of whether the parks are safe and being conserved according to congressional mandate.

The current leadership seems far less interested in a bipartisan approach to managing the park system than any other single secretary I ever worked for. Even in the darkest days of Jim Watt (secretary of interior under Ronald Reagan, who was forced to resign in 1983 and is also remembered for banning the Beach Boys from playing on the National Mall, saying they attracted “the wrong element”), he always held the park service up as something all Americans agreed we needed to uphold and protect. Up until Norton, Watt was the most partisan, but even then he said we might disagree with some management practices at BLM, but that these places are special.

What is the morale like right now among park service employees?

We helped commission a poll that was distributed to roughly 13,000 current national parks employees. The polling was conducted by Edge Research, a professional pollster that follows all the professional protocols of polling (results are posted at 1,300-plus responded, which according to Edge was three times the number of responses needed to be an accurate poll. I mean, Jesus, people reported the morale was terribly low, they feel intimidated, they feel that resource protection is a lower priority than it was a couple years ago. One thing after another, they felt that decisions were based more on politics.

It showed that what we are saying is not what the department of interior is trying to characterize us as—that we are just a small slice of disgruntled former employees. Every time they refer to us, they refer to us like that. And this poll shows that current employees feel the same way. There are actually 215 people we consider to be part of the coalition. But some opted out of signing the letter. Think about this: Two people said ’I don't want my signature on anything criticizing President Bush.' They said their kids work for the park service and they are worried about their kids' jobs. That's the level of fear that these people are generating.

But our group is a pretty thick slice of the former senior leadership. Most of the people were significant high-level, high profile managers. Former directors of the park service, former deputy directors, regional directors. We're talking about former senior leaders who have stepped up and said, ’enough—we need to call attention to what is happening.'

What do you think is the worst prospect for environmental damage?

Look at New Mexico. Much of what we do for cave preservation in Carlsbad is based on what our case specialists tell us—the scientists. If those jobs go away, or are out sourced, the superintendent isn't going to have information needed to make decisions about what level of visitation is allowed. Those are the things the superintendent wrestles with. How can I make sure visitors in 2050 see, by and large, the same things visitors see today. The experience shouldn't be destroyed by a lack of good management decisions. White Sands is a special place. There is a unique replenishment of the sands. It's a complex system. It needs to be managed carefully and professionally and the superintendent needs good science. When you think about it: How could you manage Bandelier or Gila Cliff Dwellings without archeologists or anthropologists? So to think that the information providers are the ones with bull-eyes on their backs, it's a great cause for alarm and that's the kind of thing that has caused this group of people to get together. …

Did you share your survey results with the department of interior?

That's a good story. We actually gave it to the director of the National Park Service with a cover letter that said you can treat this survey in a couple of ways. You can ignore it. You can claim the people who responded are disgruntled employees. Or, you can take the results seriously and look at the leadership issues and complaints. Of course, they simply said this is just a bunch of disgruntled employees, that only 10 percent responded. You know if you got a poll with 10 percent of all New Mexicans responding, it would be bomb proof. But they did what we expected them to do, and it's so sad. We know from former colleagues that some of the senior level employees said, ’We should look at what this poll shows us,' and the director just blew it off. It's really depressing. If it was one of these push polls, I could see that. But this wasn't like that.

I think if New Mexicans knew that behind the scenes there are these problems, that morale is low and people are being intimidated and ignored, they would be outraged. The administration is marginalizing—if that's a good word; I don't much care for it—but marginalizing the senior leadership. They don't want a professional opinion. Because many times a professional opinion doesn't agree with their already pre-established political priorities. So I think if New Mexicans knew the threats to these places we think are important, the callous disregard with which the administration is treating our national treasure, I think they would be outraged.

What about the overall budget deficit? How does that affect funding?

We have not made budget issues one of our priorities because quite frankly budget shortages have been bipartisan. But today, with so much money going to defense and homeland security, and the rest of the domestic budget is flat or declining, it's hard to say that the senior leadership would be happy about it. But we've steered away from that. We've tried to stay out of personnel issues. Our concern is the management of the park system. We're saying let's concentrate on the policy issues that effect the long-term management of the parks.

You also requested a meeting with President Bush.

His scheduling office said he wouldn't be able to meet with us, but they said somebody from the Department of Interior would. Then they called us back and said we could meet with NPS director Fran Mainella. I called her and she was out of town. Then we asked to meet with the deputy directors. They said they were too busy.

I've never seen people that are so on message. These guys are true believers like I've never seen. The conservation ethic that they seem to be espousing is multiple use and access, which is one of the great code words. One of the things they say is the Yellowstone snowmobile ruling denies people access. But it doesn't deny anyone access. People can go into Yellowstone, they can go to Old Faithful. The judge simply said there are some ways to access the park that are inappropriate, that do damage to the park's resources, that contradict the mission of the park. Nobody says you can't go to Yellowstone. It says you can't drive your snowmobile 70 miles per hour through the park whenever you want to.

Wasn't there some kind of public opinion poll taken on Yellowstone?

The original environmental impact statement published in 2000 opened a public comment period: 360,000 people submitted comments, that's the most we have ever had; 80 percent favored the gradual phase-out of snowmobiles. When the Bush administration announced they were going to re-examine the ruling, they did another environmental impact statement, which required another public comment period. I don't know how many people submitted, by this time 91 percent said they favored the phase-out.

So they ignored the science and they ignored the public participation in the process. Incredible! I consider that to be the worst kind of bureaucratic arrogance you can imagine. Ignore the science and ignore the people. I mean, holy smoke. That isn't the way we had been running the park service previously.

You know, it doesn't take long to do environmental damage, to alter the words for future generations.

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