NATIONAL Park Service aficionados are wondering how much of a difference the appointment of Roger Kennedy as Park Service director will make in dealing with the system's troubles.
For two decades the National Park Service (NPS) has drifted from its moorings. Political interference, dwindling congressional support, and lack of effective leadership have contributed to plummeting morale within its ranks. Now, however, with a new director and with strong support from his superiors - led by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt - there is a surge of hope that the Park Service is about to regain its place as one of the most respected public-service agencies in the government.
Although park visitation has increased rapidly and many additional areas added, the number of park rangers has not increased for a decade, salaries are among the lowest in government, duties have greatly expanded, and threats to natural habitats have increased. A year-long internal study in 1991, during the 75th anniversary of the founding of the service, pointed out the system's many deficiencies. A symposium of NPS and citizen leaders recommended more than 90 far-reaching changes to better preserve and
protect the parks and interpret them to the public.
The appointment of Mr. Kennedy, who recently retired as director of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, has disappointed some people who preferred either a candidate from within the Park Service or from outside but with natural-resources expertise. Others, however, believe that because a majority of the 367 park-system units are primarily of historic or cultural significance, it is proper that the Park Service be led for the first time by a historian. In a recent conversation, Kennedy to ld me of his conviction that both natural and cultural areas must be given renewed stewardship as well as more-effective management and interpretation of their values to the public.
The election of Bill Clinton and Al Gore Jr. and Mr. Babbitt's appointment as interior secretary left many observers optimistic over a quick rise in Park Service fortunes. But expectations sagged when the White House turned down Babbitt's original list of candidates, ostensibly because the administration wanted either a "big name" or a minority.
TV-news anchorman Tom Brokaw noted in an interview that he had been offered the job and had declined. The White House personnel office requested a resume from a black state parks and recreation director but never got back in touch with him. When Babbitt submitted his new top candidate, Kennedy, a proven Washington manager, author, and broadcaster, the White House personnel office replied that Kennedy "was not a proper fit" (bureaucratese for "we're looking for someone with higher ratings on the political
scale"). The word leaked out that the front-runners for the job were two Democrats who lost their reelection bids in 1992: Rep. Les AuCoin (D) of Oregon and Rep. Peter Kostmayer (D) of Pennsylvania. A frustrated Babbitt arranged a one-on-one meeting with President Clinton and managed to persuade him to accept Kennedy for the good of the national parks.
Another source of optimism is the selection of Wilderness Society President George Frampton to be assistant secretary of the interior for fish, wildlife, and parks. The post is responsible for supervision of the Park Service and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Mr. Frampton's special assistant for national parks is expected to be T. Destry Jarvis, highly regarded within the Park Service and in conservation circles for his work as a vice president of the Student Conservation Association and a former vice president of the National Parks and Conservation Association.
It will take time to correct the accumulated woes besetting the Park Service. But the political meddling in Park Service management by anti-conservation ideologues, which was such a problem in the Reagan administration and early in Bush's term, now appears to have vanished. As interior secretary in the early 1980s, James Watt refused to acquire lands and new areas needed to fill out the system. He backed park concessioners in their efforts to develop park accommodations and allow expanded commercial acti vities. His assistant secretary for fish, wildlife, and parks, G. Ray Arnett, tried to abolish heavily used NPS urban "recreation areas" such as Gateway and Golden Gate around New York and San Fransisco. Secretary Donald Hodel's assistant secretary, William Horn, overruled Parks Director William Penn Mott on personnel evaluations, and Mr. Horn's special assistant frequently bypassed Mr. Mott and gave park superintendents orders that favored landowners near the parks.
Even with the new team in place, the service faces enormous problems. Park buildings, roads, and service facilities sorely need repairs and maintenance that will cost more than $4 billion. When Congress recently killed Clinton's stimulus package, the NPS lost $270 million earmarked to begin the process of correcting these deficiencies.
The NPS has barely started trying to achieve some of the changes recommended by the 1991 symposium. Nor has it made much progress toward the changes recommended in a scathing 1991 National Research Council report on science in parks. Obtaining adequate money and building support in Congress will take time. But many of the needed changes can be made more quickly through management and policy shakeups, which should be easier to achieve by a director from the outside who is backed by a secretary of the inte rior committed to helping and protecting the national parks.
Kennedy's close contacts with lawmakers and committee staffs during his 13 years as head of the National Museum of American History and his executive experience in previous posts at Justice, Labor, and Health, Education, and Welfare Departments should help him rebuild support in Congress for the Park Service.