Unhappy Campers

National Park employees says Bush policies are endangering public lands.

Sure, every job has its complainers. But listen to what a few rangers and other employees of the National Park Service and the Interior Department said during a recent independent survey.

"I have been with NPS for more than 25 years," wrote one. "Sadly, over the last two years, I have seen a once-proud agency being driven into the ground by an administration that has contempt of our work, our ethic and our pride as Park Service staff."

Wrote another: "The privatization initiative has hurt more than any other misguided effort from Washington that I've seen in my 15 years with NPS."

A third complained about "a strong sense that the director and other leadership of the NPS have their own agenda which does not coincide with the mission of the NPS. The leaders don't know what they're doing (akin to having prisoners run our nuclear power plants)."

These responses--and hundreds of others--suggest that morale is sinking among the men and women who work as stewards to America's public lands. Much of the criticism stems from a push from the Bush Administration to privatize park services with scant evidence that the effort will save taxpayer dollars or provide better protection for wilderness areas.

In the survey, sponsored by the Campaign to Protect America's Lands, 79 percent of the respondents say employee morale is on the downturn. Nearly three-fourths said they had a great deal of concern about "special interest influence on park policies/decisions," while a staggering 88 percent said there was an increasing trend of "decisions influenced by politics rather than professional experience/science." And 84 percent said they had a "great deal of concern" about their ability to protect park resources under the Bush Administration.

"The tens of thousands of American men and women who have dedicated their lives to the protection and non-partisan management of the national parks by serving in the National Park Service are saddened and incensed by recent actions taken by the Bush Administration to undermine the laws intended to safeguard our parks and wilderness areas," said David Haskell, former science center director for Grand Canyon National Park, in a prepared statement. "These protected areas are all that is left of our untrammeled heritage. We will not be denied the freedom to protect them from an administration that is in the process of ignoring and destroying the legislative safeguards that took so many decades to build."

The e-mail survey was sent last month to roughly 12,250 park employees, who were offered a chance to fill it out anonymously. About 11 percent responded.

The high number of dissatisfied workers could mean that response was skewed toward a particularly vocal subculture of unhappy campers, but many former top administrators from the parks are also speaking out against the Bush Administration.

In August, more than 120 former high-ranking park officials, working with the Campaign to Protect America's Lands, sent an open letter to Bush and Interior Secretary Gail Norton complaining about efforts to turn over park services to the lowest bidder and the failure to invest in park repairs. Although Bush promised to spend $5 billion on parks during his 2000 campaign, the administration has spent between $200 and $300 million, according to figures from the Campaign to Protect America's Lands.

Kim Crumbo, who worked for 20 years at the Grand Canyon as a wilderness manager and river ranger, says the survey "indicates there's a morale problem."

"A lot of people like their jobs still," says Crumbo, 56. "It has to do with the direction things are going based on the political appointees at the top."

Crumbo, who retired about four years ago, now works with two conservation groups, the Arizona Wilderness Coalition and Grand Canyon Wildlife Council. Lately, he's been involved in a public process to determine the future of the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River. But after almost two years of gathering public input, the Interior Department is now seeking a congressional end run around the process.

"It pretty well negates the all the public involvement and comments to date that are defending a wilderness designation," says Crumbo.

Current and former park employees aren't the only critics of the Bush Administration's environmental policies. If Arizona Sierra Club lobbyist Sandy Bahr were going to give the Bush Administration a grade, it would be "a big F."

From blocking new listings of endangered species to promoting a forest thinning plan that "puts the national forests in the hands of the timber industry," Bahr says the Bush Administration ranks among the worst she's seen.

"That's not to say we had great environmental advocacy in even the past administration, but the Bush Administration has very effectively used the administrative processes to subvert environmental laws," Bahr says, "and what's really sad about it is they constantly get away with it, because there are so many other issues people are focused on."

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