American Institutions Current Issues in the National Park Service

A look at the latest news headlines for the National Park Service (NPS) include everything from the economy’s impact on vacation travel to national parks and monuments, to hiker’s dilemmas, to discovery of human remains, to drops in deer populations.

The NPS was founded in 1916 through the National Park Service Organic Act. The organizational leadership includes the Secretary of the Interior who delegates direct management to the National Parks Service Director. Both positions require Senate confirmation.

Dual Senate confirmations mean that this is the first current issue in NPS affairs, given the increasing political polarization, political gamesmanship and competition between those who range from preservationists who want no change to the land to those who want to profit from protected lands and monuments without regard to any protection.

With its own police force, the NPS Park Police, the NPS has responsibility for keeping the peace in the same way as urban law enforcement. But the territory covers over 84 million acres of land and over 12,000 miles of roads and over 21,000 structures, including campgrounds and lodging. With crimes ranging from fugitive apprehension to illegal marijuana crops, it is not an easy job to manage the vast tracts of land that fall under the NPS’s responsibility.

In other words, the crimes and misdemeanors of the world happen in the national parks and monuments. Add in violations of trail rules, risky hiking and climbing activities, incredibly isolated, inaccessible and hazardous locations, environmental crimes and mistreatment or theft of prehistoric treasures, and we still have not scratched the surface of current issues in NPS law enforcement.

Shrinking wetlands and fire management are two major current issues. There are shrinking and threatened wetlands from the arctic to the equator that are under the NPS’s responsibility. Add in biodiversity and habitat preservation for the same vast areas, and the enormity of the job of preserving nature and natural places during times of budgetary restraints becomes apparent.

Public controversy and disagreement always surrounds the incredible efforts that are taken to recover human bodies or to rescue stranded hikers, mountain climbers or those who go out into dangerous and isolated wildernesses. The costs of search and rescue in situations that should have been avoidable weigh against the very reason that natural and pristine spaces are preserved in the first place: the freedom to explore and to enjoy them, especially when they offer great natural challenges to human abilities.

Other issues revolve around reuse, collection, demolition or refurbishing of historical buildings and treasures. While some want a fabulous new glass bottomed bridge for viewing the Grand Canyon, others consider it to be a horrible travesty. That monstrousity will bring in badly needed income and millions will see a natural wonder when they otherwise might have moved on.

The recent Glenn Beck rally at the Lincoln Monument on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s most famous speech is another example of social, racial and political controversy that can dominate the news and public opinion for brief periods, requiring the full attention of the NPS and especially its public affairs and law enforcement divisions.

In one local case, the NPS is removing historical trees to improve the view of Mt. Ascutney in New Hampshire. This is an example of the probability that, as one goal is established, there can easily be opponents who have other desires or goals in minds for 84 million acres of lands.

Another modern issue involves detailed and convoluted land swaps that are arranged in conjunction with the Bureau of Land management. In some cases, land swaps are done in order to eliminate broken up and landlocked assets that have gotten that way over the decades, and to put together contiguous stretches of land, especially along rivers and other waterways. Land swaps are the most cost effective way for the public to have better access to better plots of natural land, but can bring controversy and opposition when the value of the swapped land is considered.

Finally, with economic turmoil comes the ideas of selling national parks and monuments, privatizing concessions and services, and taking down the government profile. As with other aspects of over privatizing things, too much of this kind of activity can actually lead to more harm when management that only the governments should do is handed over to private and for profit enterprise. What happens is this: while the “image” of government grows smaller, the actual liability and responsibility of government remains the same.

The main asset that is lost behind private doors is public oversight and the public trust. Worst of all, the sales price is often far below the actual value of the sold off asset, or the true costs of privatizing can easily exceed the costs of the government running the operations and concessions in the first place.

The NPS is responsible for the largest land and asset trust in US history, and the current issues of budgetary crises, environment vs human activity, preservation vs private profit and privatization vs government management, in addition to deteriorating law enforcement, political, social and criminal conditions will challenge the NPS for decades to come.