The resignation of the head of the National Park Service leaves the Clinton administration with the difficult task of choosing a successor as the agency struggles through one of the most turbulent periods in its 90-year history.
"I intend to join the fray by fighting for our parks as a private citizen," said Park Service Director Roger Kennedy in an interview after announcing his departure. "In some ways you can be feistier outside the government than you can in it."
Although conservationists praised Mr. Kennedy this week for standing up to Republican lawmakers who tried to close parks and trim the Park Service budget, observers say his reform agenda fell victim to partisan gamesmanship and anti-federalist sentiments primarily in the West.
Kennedy realizes that he leaves behind the Park Service in more, or less, the same condition he found it: An agency burdened by a chronic maintenance backlog, fiscal woes, falling employee morale, and a growing tide of park visitors.
"The Park Service is not only an agency in serious crisis, but it will remain in crisis as long as the Congress continues to micromanage it," says Paul Pritchard, president of the National Parks and Conservation Association.
But many members of Congress argue that the park system has grown too large for the federal government to manage. They point to sites (homes and museums) that don't properly belong in the park system.
Kennedy has agreed to stay on until a new director is nominated and confirmed, which Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt says could take months to complete. A short list of successors being considered by the Clinton administration includes Robert Stanton, the retired field director of the Park Service's National Capital region in Washington, D.C. Mr. Stanton is respected for his political savvy in the beltway. He would be the first African-American to head the prestigious agency.
Other candidates include John Cook, a native American and the field director of the service's Rocky Mountain region; Michael Finley, the superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, and Denis Galvin, the acting deputy director and noted budget strategist.
Whoever succeeds Kennedy - one Interior Department source gives the edge to Stanton - will inherit a highway and building maintenance backlog surpassing $4.5 billion, or nearly 4-1/2 times the entire annual Park Service budget.
He or she (there's never been a female director) will have to fix 2,500 park housing units rated as substandard for human occupation. The next director must cope with the damage caused by floods in places like Yosemite, the controversial shooting of bison on behalf of ranchers in Yellowstone, and an exodus of Park Service talent to the private sector.
"As director, Roger has set a new standard of excellence in articulating the purpose of our diverse national park system to the public, the Congress and the world," said Mr. Babbitt of Kennedy.
Despite the Clinton administration's effort to put a positive face on Kennedy's departure, little could be done to conceal the director's growing dissatisfaction.
"The big point is that the physical needs of the national park system can no longer be ignored," he said. "These problems will have to be addressed the same way municipalities address their sewer, water, and roads when those things are falling apart. There's a penalty to pay for silence."
Dismaying to Kennedy was how some members of the last Congress decided to make the Park Service a sounding board for antifederalist sentiments and turned funding for the agency into a divisive game of political football. "Had things gone differently, I would have rather played more offense and less defense in defending the integrity of parks," Kennedy says.
For the first time ever, the new director must receive Senate confirmation and the nominee must also possess "substantial experience and demonstrated competence in land management and natural or cultural resource conservation."