Former NPS regional director criticizes agency's proposed management overhaul

As the National Park Service reshapes the way its parks are managed, a former NPS official weighs in on the potential changes. Don Castleberry, former NPS Midwest regional director, talks about the need to put resource protection above other competing priorities, such as the growing use of recreational vehicles in national parks. Castleberry, a member of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees who oversaw both Grand Canyon and Everglades national parks, also addresses the agency's maintenance backlog and the increasing demands being placed on park managers.


Brian Stempeck: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Brian Stempeck. Joining us today is Don Castleberry, former Midwest regional director for the National Park Service. Mr. Castleberry thanks a lot for being here today.

Don Castleberry: Thank you for having me, my pleasure.

Brian Stempeck: You're in town to testify at a Senate hearing that went on this morning. Just getting everyone up to speed a little bit, last summer there was a controversial memo that came out from a Park Service employee talking about changing the way the national parks are managed. Took a lot of fire and since then the Park Service has backed off that proposal a little bit and basically come out with kind of a new proposal. I wanted to get your thoughts on with this new management proposal is really all about.

Don Castleberry: I guess the first thing to understand is what this proposal is. It's basically a revised management policy for the whole agency of the National Park Service. And since the 1940s we've had management policies in place. And they've been revised periodically, but almost always based on the Park Service's perception that there was something that needed fixing. That there was some change in the law or some basic new reason why you had to go back and revisit your policies. In this particular case what happened was a political appointee from up in the Department of Interior, which is the department under which the National Park Service operates, had basically taken it upon himself to apparently step down into the parks themselves. And say we're going to revise the policies. Not only did it start with his initiative and not by an initiative of anybody that works for the Park Service that determined we had a need, it also was done in secrecy. And all the people that he enlisted to help him, the Park Service people, were sworn to secrecy. So a document emerged from that exercise. That was, frankly, it was pretty atrocious and as soon as it saw the light of day and the public saw what it said there was an outcry. And the outcry of opposition to this effort was heard by the members of the Senate. And as a result the hearings were held today.

Brian Stempeck: Now since this memo basically came out the Park Service has been more open about the process and kind of backed away from that draft. They've met with kind of a plan that by all accounts most people say it's a lot less extreme ...

Don Castleberry: Right.

Brian Stempeck: Than the original thing that came out. If I'm a visitor to a national park and these rules, new management rules, went into effect, what would be different from my eyes?

Don Castleberry: Basically nothing. And this is important to understand, is that there's sort of two sides to this debate, which is a long standing debate which has to do with sort of use of the national parks in contrast to preservation that we're mandated by Congress to do. The people who want to make these changes they will sometimes couch it in terms that well we're just trying to make it so that the public can enjoy the parks more. But that's not what would happen with this draft. What happens here is mom and pop and 3.2 children that go to Yellowstone would never see any difference. They would never know we had a policy and they wouldn't see any difference, at least not anything discernible to them. What this mostly has to do with is when you're a park superintendent, and I've been superintendent of five different parks and I've been regional director of two parks that, two regions that had multiple parks in them, when you're in those kinds of management positions you're always being confronted with people who want to introduce other kinds of uses. We're talking here about people that want to joy ride on off-road vehicles or base jump off of Half Dome in Yosemite or perhaps ride their jet skis around and that sort of thing. So they're basically what we would call consumptive or intrusive types of uses that we're trying to hold down, keep out or hold to a minimum. Those are things that most people don't come to a national park to do anyway. And most people who come, like mom and pop I just mentioned, they don't really want to see that. They don't want to see airplanes flying over at low levels. They don't want to see jet skis and hear the noise and so forth.

Brian Stempeck: At the same time though when there's management rules that came out in 2001, there's a lot of people, especially Republicans in Congress, who say that those rules went too far on the side of conservation and not allowing enough of the use and the uses you're talking about. I'm not saying that the parks should be wide open for those kinds of uses, but that they should be allowed to a certain extent. Where do you think the middle ground is on these basically to kind of extreme issues?

Don Castleberry: Well, that's what they say, but I'm not sure that I agree with that. In other words the revisions in the past, they were done in '88 and again in '01, they were not particularly ideologically driven. They were done because the Park Service saw some particular need that happened to occur under a president and an administration each time. But they were not like the Republicans come in office, so we're going to do management policies that suit our needs and then when the Democrats come in they're going to do them. These are generally policies that basically hark back to the basic laws that drive the park service, which basically the 1916 act that established the National Park Service. Which basically said that your purpose is to conserve the scenery and natural and historic objects and provide for their use in such a manner as to leave them unimpaired for enjoyment of future generations. So those didn't change on parks and political reasons, although they're different points of view that may have been being pushed by the different administrations. But that's one thing we're trying to avoid. We're trying to avoid a case where the park service gets whipsawed every time a new administration comes in, because the public doesn't care whether it's a Republican or a Democratic administration. They want to know is my park protected and can I come and enjoy it?

Brian Stempeck: Discussing the current policies. Now that the National Park Service has backed away from the controversial memo and they've come out with a more reasonable plan, in most people's eyes, still though, they're getting a lot of criticism. There's a lot of interest groups that have come out, the park service retirees, different outdoor groups saying that they don't approve of this plan still. And at today's hearing a lot of senators were also critical. Do you think the Park service is now going to back off this approach or taken a lot slower look at it?

Don Castleberry: Well, frankly I'm among those who think that the new revised policies didn't go far enough in terms of coming off of some of those things that the Hoffman draft presented us. And I think that they will go back. I'm certain they will go back and do more revisions even yet. And they should. Your characterization that its say softer than the original Hoffman draft is correct, of course it is, but they didn't really fix the problem. They basically, what they did was the same person who was driving it the first time went back to the Park Service people and said well give me some softer language, but you've still got to get it approved by me. And you still can't talk about it. So the park people that actually look at these policies are the park superintendents because they've got to make decisions every day about somebody wanting to do something in a park.

Brian Stempeck: I was going to ask about that. I mean from your perspective, you've managed many national parks and as you said you were the regional director for two different regions. What do you see today as the biggest issue facing national parks that should be addressed by the agency?

Don Castleberry: Well, it probably has to do with the burgeoning of different types of activities and technologies that come into the park. We've always had that. When the parks first were established way back in 1872 and then the Park Service in 1916, people didn't even come to the parks with cars. They came on the train. When cars came in it caused us to have to adapt and change the way we did things. That's happening again now except we're dealing with the technology revolution and the information revolution and all these kind of things that people, toys that people have now that they want to play with. And the big thing that I think we worry about is you can ride your Jet Ski anywhere, you can ride your off-road vehicle anywhere, you can even ski anywhere, but in a national park you're not doing any of those things in relation to the thing that the park is really established for in the first place. In other words what would be this a riding your off-road vehicle down trails to the bottom of the Grand Canyon? It might be fun, but we need to find ways to make sure that doesn't happen. So it's the burgeoning of all this pressure, the larger population, the fact that we have all these facilities in the parks that are old now and beginning to deteriorate. And we have a huge backlog of needs to be either repair them or replace them.

Brian Stempeck: It seems though that the trend is kind of going in the opposite direction. As you mentioned there's more people who want to ride their off-road vehicles, their Jet Skis in the park. There's also a sense that there's a growing commercialization of the parks.

Don Castleberry: Yes.

Brian Stempeck: We've seen different proposals floated about potentially selling certain lands, a big controversy over the National Mall being used for commercial purposes, that sort of thing. What's the sense among park managers on that trend and whether to fight it and how to basically come to terms with that?

Don Castleberry: Well, we almost universally oppose those sorts of things. One of the senators at the hearing today made the point that he had, well, it was Senator Bingaman, said that he had always viewed national parks as islands of tranquility that were free of commercialization. And you didn't go into a park and find yourself being hammered with signs to sell you things and commercial pitches of various types. And that's how we feel about it. We're leery of commercialization creeping into the parks because money talks. And money will eventually overwhelm your best efforts to keep the parks pristine.

Brian Stempeck: OK Don, we're out of time. Thanks a lot for coming by our studio today. We appreciate it.

Don Castleberry: Thank you very much.

Brian Stempeck: I'm Brian Stempeck. This is OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

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