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Park Service Retiree Group Wades Into Political Waters

By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, September 28, 2004; Page E01

This is not the kind of group you would want as your enemy. Its members have experience, political savvy and an insider's knowledge of how the place is run. They also aren't afraid to talk.

Call them the AARP of the National Park Service.

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The Coalition of Concerned National Park Service Retirees is a newcomer to the phalanx of interest groups in the nation's capital, but it has managed to leverage its influence by disclosing leaked internal memos, taking its case to Capitol Hill and zeroing in on key regulatory issues that the Bush administration has on its agenda for park management.

Last week, for instance, the group released a 65-page report that recommended the creation of a sort of Civilian Conservation Corps to address the backlog of park maintenance projects, an increase in the annual operational budget of the parks, and a look at new ways to govern the parks. The report criticized Bush political appointees for decisions it says are not protective of the parks.

Though many of the parks have been in decline for decades, suffering from funding deficits and maintenance backlogs, the coalition said key regulatory decisions made by the Bush administration involving the environment and oil and gas drilling near the parks, and an emphasis on recreation rather than preservation, have exacerbated the problem.

"It is time to change the way the park system is governed and distance it from political whim and 'park-barrel' politics," said John William Wade, retired superintendent of Shenandoah National Park and a founding member of the coalition, which was formed last year.

The administration brands the group as a partisan organization trying to discredit Bush administration accomplishments in the parks, such as tackling the maintenance backlog and opening a new sand dune national park in Colorado.

Lynn Scarlett, assistant secretary for policy, management and budget at the Interior Department, which manages the Park Service, said that there are many "earnest" current and former superintendents who want to enhance the parks. "On the other hand, there is a small set that has a more narrow political emphasis," she said.

That is code for the campaign of Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John F. Kerry. A June 2004 press notice shows that three of the coalition's top members were on a Kerry campaign conference call with reporters to "kick off a week of events to expose the Bush administration's failure to protect America's national parks." Wade said those former Park Service employees were speaking for themselves and not for the coalition. He was not among them.

The coalition was formed shortly after the Campaign to Protect America's Lands, another Interior Department watchdog group, drafted several former National Park superintendents for a press conference last May. The objective was to air concerns about outsourcing of jobs in the parks, the use of snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park, and threats to air quality in parks -- all issues that have caused business to clash with these groups.

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