By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
The Bush administration has issued new draft guidelines for managing the national parks that make conservation the top priority -- ahead of recreation and energy development.
The new management rules -- which outline how park supervisors should handle issues including homeland security and whether to allow off-road vehicles to cross nature areas -- pleased environmentalists but angered off-road vehicle users, who said they fear that the Interior Department is modeling its practices after those of the Clinton administration.
In a news conference Monday, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said department officials had decided that preserving the country's parks ranks above any other management goal.
"When there is a conflict between conserving resources unimpaired for future generations and the use of those resources, conservation will be predominant," Kempthorne said. "That is the heart of these policies and the lifeblood of our nation's commitment to care for these special places and provide for their enjoyment."
Environmentalists had sharply criticized two earlier drafts of the rules, including one version leaked to the media in August that was written by Paul Hoffman. Hoffman, a political appointee, served as a deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks at the time and now holds the same title in the Interior Department's policy, management and budget division.
Park advocates noted that the most recent management draft released in October, which ran more than 200 pages, included language that would have made good visibility in national parks an "associated value" rather than a "highly valued" resource as it stands under current rules. The latest draft restores the current language.
"They made virtually every change we recommended," said Ronald J. Tipton, senior vice president for programs at the National Parks Conservation Association. "The only conclusion you could draw from this is Secretary Kempthorne has taken a keen interest in national parks. This is a priority for him."
Don Amador, the Western representative for the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a group representing park users nationwide, said the administration had gone too far in placating its critics.
"Our concern is we don't want the administration to go back to the Clinton-era policy of putting preservation over recreation," Amador said. "They're both important, and motorized access to national parks, whether it's snowmobiling in Yellowstone or riding a sports-utility vehicle in the desert Southwest, are important ways for people to use and enjoy their parks. We just want to see a balance."
The administration will now take public input on the proposal for 90 days. That it was willing to revisit the matter of how the government manages its parks, Kempthorne said, shows the department's commitment to serving the public.
"The true test of any vibrant organization is that it can examine itself critically and constructively to strengthen its vision and improve its operations," he said. "With these revised policies, the National Park Service has again demonstrated its ability to engage citizens in productive dialogue and benefit from the valuable insights and suggestions of its employees, friends and partners."