Roger Di Silvestro is the senior director of Communications for the National Parks Conservation Association. He has been a professional conservationist for more than 25 years and has written six books on wildlife conservation.

Tuesday, 14 Jan 2003

WASHINGTON, D.C.

Today, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), which since 1919 has been working to ensure the best possible protection and management for our national parks, will release to the press the 2003 NPCA Ten Most Endangered Parks List.

As in years past, the list highlights threats posed to important natural areas by air pollution, lack of adequate funding, development immediately outside park boundaries, and policies that allow the use of vehicles such as jet skis and snowmobiles within national parks. These vehicles wreak ecological havoc and disrupt the peace, quiet, and unvarnished natural experience people seek in visiting national parks.

These are old, familiar problems — yet all of them have become far more acute and worrisome under the Bush administration. Take snowmobiles in Yellowstone. The administration has not only overturned a National Park Service Plan to ban snow mobiles in the park and ignored the tens of thousands of Americans who oppose the vehicles’ presence; it has also issued a plan that would actually increase the average daily number of snowmobiles in Yellowstone.

Or consider air pollution in national parks. On certain summer days, some parks suffer from air pollution that rivals that of Atlanta and Los Angeles, according to 11 years of National Park Service data. Under federal law, these national parks are supposed to have the cleanest air in the country. The administration’s response to this threat to human and park health: changes in clean air regulations that will lead to increases in certain types of air pollution.

The greatest risk to parks, however, is a rule-change the administration announced on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve — two of the best nights of the year to release news you don’t want anyone to notice. In this case, the news was the revival of a provision of a 1866 mining law that allows roads and highways to be built on public lands along any route presently traced by a road or trail — even if the trail is 150 years old and has never been traveled by a motor vehicle. The rule amounts to little more than a giveaway of public lands, and it will hit especially hard in Alaska and the West.

In Alaska, more than 2,700 miles of roads and trails in 13 national parks and preserves could be developed under the 1866 rule. In California, local counties have laid claim to more than 2,500 miles of potential road routes in the Mojave National Preserve and Death Valley National Park. And counties in Montana, Idaho, and Oregon have spoken for every road on national forestlands within county boundaries.

The Interior Department received more than 17,000 public comments on the proposed rule change. Ninety percent of those comments opposed the rule, but that opposition was ignored. This rule could affect 17 million acres in 68 national parks, according to the Park Service.

I find myself wondering what legacy the Bush administration imagines leaving behind. The Nixon administration could have looked back on a record that included passage of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. That legacy would materialize in in cleaner, safer, healthier air and water, more protected species, and more protected lands for all Americans.

The Bush Administration is working toward a legacy that, if its polices remain unchanged, will be characterized by dirtier air, dirtier water, thousands of miles of new roads in national parks and other public lands, languishing species — and that is just the beginning. Are these the accomplishments for which the administration really wants to be remembered?

That was the question looming in my mind as I helped wrap up the various tasks involved in releasing the endangered-parks list. The question is haunting, because it raises fundamental issues about human nature and personal values. Where in human nature lies the urge to reduce to rubble the natural world in the name of growth — when, with a little foresight, industry and the environment could flourish together?

I like to think that even the most misguided person can learn to value the environment. I like to think that, given thorough and accurate information about what’s happening to our natural world, people will change their minds and their goals. I like to think this way because I like to think there are no lost causes — particularly as I contemplate our most endangered national parks.