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.
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.
Wade, 63, who retired in 1997, was one of those tapped. He spent 30 years in the Park Service, won numerous government awards and is probably best known for the ruckus he caused when he closed part of Skyline Drive to traffic in 1993 to save money and curtail pollution. That decision earned him the ire of business people around the park and of the Virginia congressional delegation.
He and the other superintendents at the press conference decided to send a letter to President Bush and Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, outlining their concerns. They canvassed for signatures and came up with other Park Service retirees. As the news spread, Wade said hundreds of former NPS employees wanted to sign on and be part of the group.
Since that event, Wade, who lives in Tucson, has become the coordinator of the group, which he says has grown to 325 members drawn from both political parties. With some $70,000 in financial backing from the Campaign to Protect America's Lands, the coalition has become a thorn in the side of policymakers at Interior.
"What prompted us to come forward was when some of us began to feel the Bush administration was not being straightforward about things going on in the parks," Wade said. He acknowledged that money problems in the parks may not be that much worse than in the past, but the Bush administration has insisted "that everything is fine and there is more money than there ever has been. When you look at the money reaching the parks, 85 percent of them have less money than last year."
Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Governmental Oversight, said the coalition can be effective in influencing administration policies because it can blow the whistle without the consequences that current government employees worry about -- such as demotions or being removed from a job altogether. The group also is notable because career government employees are often studiously nonpartisan.
Almost immediately after its inception, the coalition started releasing to the media and posting on its Web site internal Park Service documents such as staff meeting minutes on high noise levels from snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park and instructions to employees on how to handle media questions about budget cutbacks. It made public a biting volley of letters between Bush administration officials and the coalition.
One management memo, dated Feb. 20, 2004, and circulated to park superintendents in the Northeast, summarized how employees should handle media inquiries about operational plans for a particular park, instructing them to use the terminology "service level adjustment," rather than "cut."
Superintendents also were told that top officials in Washington would review service level adjustments to avoid "a public or political controversy."
Interior's Scarlett said it is routine for park managers to review a park's operations annually and make adjustments. "There certainly was never instruction to not use that word [cut]," Scarlett said.
Brian said that if there are political motives alone for forming the group, they will become apparent if Kerry gets elected and the coalition, in a word, retires.