The Trump administration has told park superintendents around the country they must notify Washington supervisors before issuing comments to other parts of the federal government when they are worried about drilling and other proposed developments near national parks.
In an Aug. 13 memo obtained by The Washington Post, David Vela, the National Park Service's acting deputy director, told field offices they need to notify headquarters in Washington if they want to submit comments to other agencies considering proposals on a broad swath of issues.
Former park officials and park advocacy organizations who reviewed the memo criticized it as an effort to rein in regional officials who may object to development such as the erection of oil rigs or cellular towers near national parks, potentially hampering the experience of parkgoers.
“Certainly, it seems to be a pretty big change from the days I spent my 40 years in the National Park Service,” said Phil Francis, who has served as the top official at the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He is now chair of the Coalition to Protect America's National Parks, an advocacy group.
Jeremy Barnum, a Park Service spokesman, countered that the guidance memo is simply clarifying existing policy and does not make any substantial changes to how park officials share information with other parts of the federal bureaucracy.
“This is not anything new,” Barnum wrote by email. “The memo was sent to provide common sense guidance to National Park Service managers on how best to provide consistent, productive, and timely engagement in other agencies’ proposals and projects that may affect parks and the visitor experience.”
The guidance may make it easier to allow development on government land adjacent to national parks, which are meant to give visitors a reprieve from the grind of modern life despite the fact that civilization often lurks at parks’ edges. Many national parks abut other federal lands that could be used for oil drilling or cattle grazing, which are often administered by the Bureau of Land Management. Both the BLM and NPS are agencies in the Department of the Interior.
But a park can lose some of its wild luster with cell towers looming in view or oil drillers obstructing migrating animals trying to make their way to the park. That has led park superintendents to offer written feedback on proposals outside Park Service borders.
In 2017, for example, local park officials in Utah asked BLM to hold off on leasing 17,000 acres of public land for drilling.
Staffers were concerned about how dust and smog from the oil and gas activity could worsen air quality and obscure the night sky across the canyon-cut parklands in southern Utah and southwestern Colorado.
“The visiting public expects high-quality experiences across federal land, and we are concerned that continuing to offer parcels for oil and gas exploration and development in proximity to our parks will be detrimental,” wrote Kate Cannon, superintendent of the Park Service’s Southeast Utah Group, in an October 2017 comment on the potential impacts to Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients national monuments.
BLM went ahead with the sale anyway.
Further north, the outcome was different near Dinosaur National Monument, a fossil-filled wilderness at the Utah-Colorado border.
The bureau ultimately decided to spare two parcels from an oil and gas lease sale.
Natalie Levine, program manager for government affairs at the National Parks Conservation Association, suggested that kind of candid communication — available for all to read on BLM’s website — may now no longer be made public under the new guidance.
“This is limiting the public's ability to see and hear what the Park Service might be concerned about,” she said.
According to Vela’s memo, parks must submit weekly reports notifying headquarters if they plan to file official comments on any “projects that relate to DOI priorities,” ideally giving Washington officials at least three weeks’ notice before submitting them to other agencies.
Those priorities include leasing for oil and gas, building hiking trails, maintaining wildlife migration routes and constructing power lines and cell towers.
Vela said that park superintendents should be prepared to provide headquarters with drafts of the comments if needed. He reassured park workers that “[w]e continue to rely heavily on the expertise and professional judgment of parks.”
NPS spokesman Barnum noted that past administrations have sought to make sure comments filed by field offices are in line with departmentwide priorities. “As has been the case in any administration, Washington may ask parks to provide the comments they are preparing should Washington determine that senior level awareness and coordination are needed,” he said. “That is not anything new.”
Francis, superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway from 2005 to 2013, said he did not need guidance from Washington higher-ups when submitting comments. He remembers writing to the U.S. Forest Service with his concerns about clear-cutting trees near his park, which runs for nearly 500 miles through Virginia and North Carolina.
“It makes me wonder what the motive really is,” Francis said. “I know that there's a lot of interest in energy development.”
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