In Need of Repair

Many National Park Service officials look to the future after eight dreadful years

It's a crisp, clear morning, and Rob Arnberger stands outside the midtown offices of U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, although he'd probably prefer to be wandering some intrepid desert trail.

Over a 34-year career with the National Park Service, Arnberger managed a passel of high-profile preserves, including the Grand Canyon and Saguaro National Park. Before retiring, he was director of the Alaska Region, overseeing no fewer than 16 national-park units.

But now, along with other formerly high-ranking professionals, he spends much of his time directing criticism toward the outgoing Bush administration. Like the others, he blames Bush neocons for devastating his beloved agency. And as an executive council member with the nonpartisan Coalition of National Park Service Retirees ("The only thing we're partisan about is taking care of our parks," he says), Arnberger's words carry plenty of heft.

The 674-member group has decried administration efforts to gut agency funding and open public lands to commercialization, increased off-road-vehicle use and resource extraction. And the coalition's fingerprints are all over a report, released by Grijalva's office that fall morning, tallying the relentless assaults on national parks over long eight years.

Arnberger calls the Grijalva report an "indictment" of current administration practices, "and a philosophical guidepost as to where we need to go with respect to our public lands.

"You can call it a blueprint, but I think it's deeper than that," he says. "I think it's about a connection to the American people, a philosophy of how we care for our natural and cultural resources--our national heritage--for future generations."

The report (see "Grim Tally," Oct. 30) takes particular aim at the mismanagement and misguided priorities within the National Park Service. It lists a slew of failings, such as the agency's inability to protect its own resources: A large percentage of artifacts at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument are stored in lousy conditions, while Utah's Dinosaur National Monument doesn't even have a safe place to display priceless fossils.

The Bush administration has weakened air-quality standards in federal preserves, and has overseen a diminishing science program. It has geared Colorado River flows within the Grand Canyon to favor hydropower needs over those of the ecosystem, and moved to increase the number of noisy and pummeling snowmobiles allowed in Yellowstone National Park.

But even more insidiously, the administration has employed a political screening process for civil-service managers, attempted to outsource many positions, and maneuvered to fundamentally reconstruct management policies. Political appointees have tried to shift the agency's emphasis from resource protection to recreation, and rolled out the welcome mat for commercial interests.

Since all of this largely happens behind the scenes, "I think a lot of it is lost on the majority of people," says Arnberger. "There's been damage done by political appointees, and it's happened at the very highest levels of the department, but the threats and intimidation have translated down."

Under former Interior Secretary Gale Norton, politics reportedly seeped into every corner of the Park Service. "At one time, there was almost a loyalty test to be appointed to this or that position," says Arnberger. "There was an interview process that you went through, and then you had to sign a document saying that you were going to implement the secretary's '4 Cs.'" That included embracing Norton's approach to "communication, consultation (and) cooperation, all in the service of conservation," according to a 2005 order from then-Park Service Director Fran Mainella.

Those words sound innocuous enough. But to many Park Service professionals, they were code for skewing management toward resource exploitation rather than conservation. And to ensure that everyone was on the same page, potential upper-level employees were screened at agency headquarters by a political appointee.

According to Mainella's order, all civil-service management slots went to those who showed the "ability to lead employees in achieving the ... secretary's 4 Cs and the president's management agenda." And that agenda? Reducing the rights of civil-service employees, the embrace of faith-based initiatives, and farming out many civil-service jobs to private contractors.

According to Arnberger, this put the political squeeze on career staffers, from superintendents to scientists. The Bush administration "has been absolutely and totally throwing that (professionalism) away," he says, "by intimidating it and marginalizing it, and forcing an ideological agenda on the Park Service."

He says the Bush presidency has been even more destructive than the notoriously anti-environmental Reagan administration. "This eight years has been a much more intense and active return to the dark ages than ever happened in the Reagan years."

Attempts to rewrite the agency's management policy are a perfect example, says Arnberger. "It was so fundamental as to actually violate law and regulations, and to fundamentally change the purpose of the national parks."

But dedicated Park Service professionals weren't about to cave in. "There was a tremendous effort mounted to turn that back," he says.

While he says administration operatives have been quite adept at stealth maneuvers, "they've only been marginally effective in making (their changes) happen. And the reason is that there's been a tremendous consortium of people who have come forward to protect the parks."

Among them is his Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. Before this administration, "there was no such thing," he says. "It formed in 2003 with three people who stood up. I was still a working person then, but I looked at that and said, 'Thank God,' because we couldn't stand up within the agency.

"The professionals in the agency had been muzzled. But the retired professionals who had equal credibility and experience could speak clearly and freely about what the real story was."

Arnberger retired in August 2003, and a month later was giving press conferences for the group. He calls it liberating. "The only ax we have to grind is to inform the public and policymakers about the importance of our national parks, the importance of taking care of them, and what the laws are surrounding those parks."

He also glimpses opportunity with a fresh administration--and a new secretary of the interior. The incoming president "will need to focus on what he needs from that person," he says. "And to me, it's two things: transformative leadership, and the return to principled leadership. That's what the American people deserve from that cabinet post."

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