Striking at the heart of Parks
An attempt by the National Park Service to rewrite the guidelines governing protection of parks has prompted conservation groups to cry foul.
The guidelines are the ultimate yardstick used to measure activities in national parks, whether it’s allowing cell towers and billboards or limiting the number of campers at backcountry sites.
The park service claims they are merely changing a word or phrase here and there for clarity and that the changes will have little consequence. Opponents claim the new language is less clear in mandating protection for parks, allowing wiggle room on everything from fighting air pollution to saving tranquil settings.
“Our concern is that the proposed changes to the management policies don’t provide more clarification. They lead to a greater amount of ambiguity,” said Greg Kidd with the National Parks Conservation Association in Waynesville.
The new guidelines and mission statement were drafted last year. Following a public comment period now under way, the Park Service will decide whether to adopt the new guidelines.
In November, 25 former high-level park managers called on National Park Sevice director, Fran Mainella, to abandon the effort to revise park policies. In an open letter, they claimed the planned revisions “are a drastic and dangerous departure from a long-standing national consensus.”
The trickle-down effect of the new guidelines could be seen here in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
One of the rewrites causing ire among environmentalists would take the goal of restoring pristine air quality off the Smokies’ to-do list. The old guidelines charge parks with protecting “clear skies” as a natural resource and “scenic views” as highly-valued characteristic.
The new guidelines water down that goal by accepting some degree of air pollution as inevitable. The new guidelines define “natural conditions” as “conditions that would occur in the absence of human dominance over the landscape, but not necessarily the absence of humans.”
“The proposed changes would allow human impacts to be included in the definition of natural,” Kidd said.
Cell towers and billboards, long barred from the Smokies as not conducive to the natural setting, could even be allowed if their presence only hints at man in the landscape rather than suggesting man’s dominance.
The new guidelines also demote clear skies from being a natural resource to a secondary resource.
Values versus use
Also topping concerns is new language that could jeopardize the National Park Service’s mission to preserve the park unimpaired for future generations, according to Kidd. In the past, preservation has always trumped visitor enjoyment of the park, especailly when enjoyment interferes with other visitors’ experiences or compromises the quality of the park for future visitors.
The new emphasis on enjoying parks could impact the Parkway’s policy banning developers from building entrances to their subdivisions off the Parkway. The theory is that numerous subdivision entrances along the Parkway would sacrifice its values.
The Parkway’s policy was backed up in the old National Park guidelines.
“When there is a conflict between conserving resources and values and providing for enjoyment of them, conservation is to be predominant,” the guidelines state.
The new guidelines state that the Park Service has “broad discretion” to “balance the sometimes competing obligations of conservation and enjoyment.”
Under this looser language, neighbors along the Parkway could argue their enjoyment of the park is not being honored.
It’s all in a word, Kidd said. The new guidelines require parks to “cooperate” with their neighbors, versus “collaborate” under the old guidelines.
“Collaborate is one thing. You are asking for their input and want to know their concerns. When you are required to cooperate, that subtle change in language would suggest the outside party has a stronger hand,” Kidd said.
The issue of preservation versus enjoyment could touch on the Smokies’ policy to limit the number of campers that can stay at a backcountry campsite any given night. A backcountry permit system ensures the campers who are out there have a remote experience. The new guidelines could place unrestricted access to the backcountry above desires to preserve that remote experience, however.
The new guidelines could redefine the ongoing debate between horseback riders and hikers in the Smokies. Horseback riding is allowed on 80 percent of trails on the North Carolina side of the park. Some trails cannot hold up to the wear and tear, ruining the trail experience for hikers. Trail crews have said some of the trails are simply not suitable for horses. But the prospect of taking those trails off the list for horseback riders would be difficult under the new guidelines that give recreation activities a higher priority.
The old guidelines ban uses that “constitute impairment of park resources and values.” Any activity with potential negative impacts must first be evaluated before it’s allowed.
“Now that equation has been flipped around,” Kidd said. “It would turn that equation on its head by allowing a use until it is proven to be detrimental.”
If it turns out in retrospect that the activity impacts park resources, the park must first try to accommodate the activity by reducing its impacts rather than banning it.
Several aspects of the rewrite could jeopardize National Parks’ efforts to protect a feeling or characteristic associated with a park, such as tranquility or remoteness.
The new guidelines are also less clear regarding soundscapes, which could interfere with attempts by National Parks to limit air sight seeing. In the Smokies, helicopter flight-seeing operations are based outside the park in Cherokee and in Pigeon Forge. There are no laws protecting the park from flight-seeing, but the Federal Aviation Administration recently has been charged by Congress to develop regulations in conjunction with individual parks.
But the yardstick to measure noise pollution would become more subjective under the new guidelines. Instead of a mission to “preserve, to the greatest extent possible, the natural soundscapes of parks,” the new guidelines say “protect natural soundscapes from degradation due to unacceptable noise.”
Replacing the yardstick of “natural soundscapes” with “unacceptable noise” leaves its meaning up for debate.
The Blue Ridge Parkway bans commercial vehicles, such as a Coca-Cola delivery truck or dry-cleaning service van, for example. The theory is splashy logos and advertising messages on the side of vehicles ruin the experience for other visitors, mentally jolting them out of the scenic environment they came there to connect with.
The old National Park guidelines state that “whenever possible, commercial traffic will be prohibited on roads within parks.” That line is deleted in the new guidelines, however. Instead, it calls for a park to use “cooperation, consultation, and communication, to work with the agency of jurisdiction to route commercial traffic away from NPS roads within parks.” It also changes “whenever possible” or “whenever practicable.”