Saturday, March 22, 2008

National Park head scratching

The classic comment in the movie All the Presidents Men was uttered by 'Deep Throat' who said, "Follow the money." A number of stories have fallen into my lap in the past week and I need help making sense of it all. The parks have been underfunded for years. Last year President Bush announced a budget with a matching fund program that could pour an additional $3 billion bucks into the park coffers over a ten year span. Last week I read an article in the Ashland Daily Press about a new historic conservancy group forming in the Apostle Islands which seems to be in an old fashioned pissing match with the park administration. I also read an article about a disabled rights group in San Francisco that's filed a class action suit against the National Park Service for inadequate access to the facilities at Golden Gate National Park. Finally, a group of concerned kayakers, led by CASKA in Chicago are collecting funds to put bear boxes on more of the Apostle Islands that don't currently have them. The Friends of the Apostle Islands Nat'l Lakeshore have offered matching fund up to $500 per box in a dedicated bear box fund. (OK, OK, I promise; no more hot links for the rest of the post!).

Soooo.....lets see. The chronically underfunded parks seem to have a few more bucks coming in and the administration plan seems to be to encourage more private funding and matching fund setups. Friends groups and special interests seem to be prepared to pitch in. It would be interesting to see the plan that is or isn't in place to administer and account for the money that is donated for specific purposes. A more important question is whether or not special interests are a good or a bad thing. Special interests by their very definition have focused and specific interests. When I kayak to Outer Island I have a special interest in sticking my food in a nice safe bear box in the campsite rather than trudging into the woods with my mildly intoxicated cronies at dusk, looking for a suitable tree to pitch a rock into with a rope attached and hoping it doesn't come back down on someones head. Wilderness advocates on the other hand, might be dead set against a bear box, or a picnic table, or any man made structures and want to offer earmarked funds to have them eradicated. This of course would put them in direct conflict with the newly formed Apostle Islands Historic Preservation Conservancy, who wants to preserve the brownstone quarries, fish camps, lumber camps, and other evidence of the thousands of years of human habitation in the Apostles. And should there be wheelchair access to said facilities? Wilderness advocates might well argue no. They managed to get all the old traditional portage rests torn down in the BWCA, they wouldn't want a paved, graded path. Historic preservationists might say that it compromises historic integrity. The key paragraph in the Ashland Daily Press article on the NPS/Historic Conservancy urination contest was, "In order for the conservancy or any other group to provide assistance — either financially or through materials and labor — to the Park Service, a formal agreement must be signed. Apostle Islands currently has two agreements with the Friends of the Apostle Islands and the National Parks of Lake Superior Foundation". In a nutshell, you can't give em money unless you are 'approved'. How do you get approved? Who is involved? Certainly banks of government legal types, administrators, bureaucrats and such. And how much does personal bias, political bias, and personality play into the mix? If the park superintendent is a kayaker or maybe a amateur cigarette boat racer does that subtly color the decision?

Sorry folks, I have no answers whatsoever today. I just want to know roughly how it works and how specific special interests are weighed and dealt with. Any insight from readers would be greatly appreciated. And I'd also really like to know what a bear box actually costs. We've received numbers from $500 to $1200 from various folks. When I buy something I really like to take a peek at the price tag first. I purchased a helmet at Canoecopia this year. I hope that I'll be able to use it for surfing and not have to bring it on tours for bear box installation safety. I really like the matching funds concept. I sincerely hope the administration of the National Park Service can make it work.


Ranger Bob said...

Gosh- I hope that the relationship between the Apostle Islands Historic Preservation Conservancy (which I helped organize) and the NPS (for whom I worked some 27 years) doesn't really seem like "an old-fashioned pissing context" from the outside!

Since one of the main aims of the Conservancy is to provide assistance to the park, our goal is to build up a solid, mutually respectful relationship with park management.

It's tricky business, though, I'll agree. Advocacy organizations and watchdog groups perform a vital role, and as far as I'm concerned, fill a critical checks-and-balances function in our modern, "big government" era. Nonetheless, I am well aware that this sort of watchful oversight can be discomfiting to some government managers, who may not like the sensation that someone is looking over their shoulder.

Still, it's good to remember, that if things had been left solely to the National Park Service, there would be no Apostle Islands National Lakeshore: in 1930, an NPS representative came out, looked the islands over, and pronounced them neither pristine enough nor scenically grand enough to merit national park status. It took a lot of citizen activism, peaking in the 1960s, to get the idea of an Apostle Islands National Lakeshore off the ground.

Similarly, in the 1980s, the official Department of the Interior position opposed addition of Long Island to the National Lakeshore, and again, it took public pressure, combined with far-seeing and responsive legislators, to overcome the short-sighted agency position. So perhaps even more so in this park than most, the role of concerned, and determined, citizens has been vital.

By the way, there need not be any conflict between advocates of historic preservation and wilderness in the Apostles. The Wilderness Act does allow for preservation of historic resources within designated wilderness, and moreover, the wilderness boundary at the Apostles was drawn up to exclude a large portion of the most historically significant areas (eg, Sand, Basswood, and Long Islands, as well as the historic district on Rocky.)

With a modicum of mutual respect, I think it just may be possible for us "all to get along."

DaveO said...

Boy, I sure hope we can all get along. I thought it was a pretty good article in the Ashland paper. As far as the 'pissing contest' maybe it was the thin air at 9500' that made that phrase pop into my head. It seems fairly straightfoward to say, "Our group is interested in preserving or improving x,y,and z and would like to donate some dedicated funds to help with that". When it gets turned over to great legal minds in between the donating and the spending is when I scratch my head. The main point of the post is the difficulty of figuring out and sorting out the competing factions within the park. The annual cigarette boat deal always draws supporters and detractors on both sides. How to balance, how to get along....weighty issues for sure and I have no clue how they are resolved within the NPS.
Thanks for the info on Rocky also. Had no idea it was excluded (thats where the lower shot came from). Lastly, Washburn will miss the Good Thymes for certain!

kykr13 said...

One minor correction - Prairie Coast Paddlers is the group that started the bear box brigade in the Chicago area. CASKA accepted PCP's challenge, and we went on from there. The Apostles are now mostly wilderness area but bear boxes are on York Island - which is not excluded. I can see arguments in favor and against them because while they don't grow on trees, they do help protect them - among other things.

I read ranger bob's blog too, and when I saw your (Dave's) post I was hoping for a bit of a translation on the newspaper article. My impression from the article is that they have good things to say but we should be cautious - although I think this should always be the case when we're dealing with something like a National Park. Like Bob says, it took a lot of work to put things in place as they are so I think that if anything is to change it should be given careful consideration.

I'll miss Good Thyme too... Hope they'll rebuild!

Ranger Bob said...

I am SO bummed about the Good Thyme.

The good news/ bad news is that there are so many empty storefronts on Bayfield Street, they should be able to find new digs very quickly. I'm hoping!

DaveO said...

Thanks Steve. I guess in the back of my head I knew that PCP got it going and if I'd have read the CASKA blog closer it may have even said that. There are a few spots that cry out for a bear box with south Basswood, Trout Point on Stockton, Outers, Ironwood, and Cat leading my top 5. Hope to see you guys on the water this summer.

Silbs said...

Great piece, this one. It does become frustrating when everyone doesn't agree with me.

JeremiahJohnstone said...

Daveo, I read your post about some parks getting some additional coin within the next ten years. Is this the NPS Centennial initiative that you are speaking of? I know that the concept has been circling around and around in the Park Service and it seems as though the "Big Parks" always get the cream of the crop but lets hope that the little "pocket parks" as I have heard it, will get some of this much needed funding. In smaller parks, that extra funding may mean buying toilet paper or paint or for some lumber to build the bear boxes.
The following comments were written in one of my memos that I received at work.

" Secretary Kempthorne and National Park Service Director Mary Bomar will identify signature projects and set goals to be achieved by the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary in 2016. These goals will result in more ranger-led programs, restored natural and cultural sites and greater volunteerism and philanthropy. Secretary Kempthorne and Director Bomar will present their recommended goals and actions to the President by May 31, 2007."

Well, maybe the signature parks will be the Apostle Islands. The Historic Preservation is just that. It's nothing more than preserving something that is 50 years or older and persist within federal land. We have old CCC buildings that are still standing that are of no use to anyone anymore and may topple down on somebody but will they tear them down? Nope. So, I hope they will preserve some of those historic objects that you referred to in your post. Remember, if you don't get the bear boxes, hang em high. JJ