Many critters under its wing are about to begin their deep winter sleep, but the Interior Department is emerging from its election-season hibernation. For weeks leading up to Election Day, Interior bureaus across the country were under their standard quadrennial orders to do nothing worthy of publication and thus keep the agency from becoming an election issue. That accomplished, lids are popping off from coast to coast.
Budget officials are looking at sensitive deficit-cutting options, including a controversial proposal to increase user and entrance fees at national parks. This plan was championed to no avail by then-secretary James G. Watt, but officials say they hope to get a more sympathetic hearing from Congress now that Watt is gone, the deficit looms even larger and studies indicated that the increases would generate about $20 million.
Under one draft plan, park entrance fees would rise as high as $10 (from a current maximum of $3 per motorized vehicle); parks, national forests and wildlife refuges would charge for guided tours, which are now free, and there would be fees for camping on a variety of public lands.
SHAKEUP IN THE PARKS . . . The Park Service is also generating intrigue because of the impending retirement of director Russell E. Dickenson, who started out in the park service 38 years ago as a ranger at Grand Canyon National Park. Dickenson, according to several sources, was eased out by Secretary William P. Clark, who was known to be concerned about Dickenson's practice of traveling extensively around the national parks, sometimes vacating his Washington desk for almost a month.
Clark nonetheless arranged for Dickenson, 62, to serve on the national parks advisory board and to remain on the payroll through June 1, when he will qualify for maximum retirement benefits.
The graciousness of the send-off appears to have satisfied Dickenson's many admirers, who credited him with fending off several of Watt's development initiatives.
Meanwhile, the search for someone to fill the coveted post is under way, with much of the attention on Jack Fish, director of the National Capital parks region. Sources said Fish's was the only resume Clark requested from within the park service, although speculation also has centered on mid-Atlantic regional director James W. Coleman Jr., southeast regional director Robert M. Baker, Yellowstone superintendent Bob Barbee and Everglades superintendent Jack Morehead. Clark has made clear that Dickenson's deputy, Mary Lou Grier, a Watt appointee, is not a candidate, according to sources.
LIFE AND DEATH . . . The assistant secretary who oversees parks, fish and wildlife, G. Ray Arnett, has also announced his retirement. And officials have recognized it by displaying a sort of Arnett memorial photograph in the display case outside his office. The case sports a photo of two female hunters bearing shotguns, with eight dead, wild birds displayed before them.
Arnett raised hackles two years ago for having the dead-bird photo placed in the case that usually celebrates living things. It was quickly removed. The day Arnett's retirement was announced, the controversial photo returned to its old spot as a prank.