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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Wednesday, 15 Jan 2003

WASHINGTON, D.C.

Yesterday we released the National Parks Conservation Association’s fifth annual “America’s Ten Most Endangered National Parks List.” As a result, the day was a hectic blur of press calls and requests for interviews. Which is of course exactly what we want — the press clamoring on the phone for information on national parks.

National parks are being attacked from a variety of angles, as you can learn about on our website. Nonetheless, people tend to think national parks are doing just fine; they’re protected, after all. But protection on paper isn’t enough, and for years, Congress and the White House have withheld adequate funding for park protection. The parks are decaying from age and neglect, and simultaneously threatened by forces at work outside their boundaries, such as air pollution and development. So that’s what America’s Ten Most Endangered Parks List is all about: letting the nation know about the problems facing our national parks.

We started working on this year’s list last March, which is to say the day after we released the last list. It was around then that I proposed moving the release date up to January, traditionally a slow news period. I wanted to take advantage of that quieter time, when there’s less competition for news coverage, to get as much attention for the parks issue as possible.

Choosing the parks for our list is a major challenge. We began last summer by soliciting candidates from staff. Parks have to meet certain criteria, and generally, we end up with 15 or 20 parks from which to choose. Then we have to winnow the list to 10 — or actually fewer than 10, because usually three to five parks remain on the list from the previous year. We weigh the dangers that individual parks face until we have distilled the 10 most endangered. Our “Ten Most” list is a cooperative effort that depends not only on communications folks but on all NPCA staff, as we run press releases and fact sheets by our experts for approval, add their corrections, send material out for review again, and then correct the corrections. The process of writing up and editing press releases — we do 11 of them, one for each park and one omnibus release, plus one fact sheet per park — takes on the trappings of, say, the Indy 500: Everything goes by in a rushed blur. The past few days have been consumed by editing and re-editing the releases and then wondering if we’ve got them right and reviewing each one again. By yesterday morning, though, the bulk of the work was done, and we were waiting to see what we would reap.

Short of funds and warm bodies, the NPCA Communications Department is dependent on highly dedicated staff willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done. One of my four staffers, Kate, has taken up the “Ten Most” list as if it were an abandoned child. She has nurtured it and fed it press releases and fact sheets and made press calls until she was certain it had grown up into a big strapping lad ready to greet the world.

And yesterday the world came calling. Kate, whose energy level rises with the excitement of a barrage of press calls, had a maniacal glitter in her eyes before the day was done. We know we had scored big. We spotted our list on CNN early in the morning. Then other TV stations picked it up. Before 10 a.m., a camera crew showed up at the office to tape one of our spokespeople. Throughout the day, we were tethered to our phones by the sense that any moment could bring the urgent call of a reporter on deadline.

By the end of the day, the activity slowed, the Indy-NPCA wound down, and the blur began to sharpen into a clear image of exhausted people. As the day darkened into night, we began to relax. Our technical staff could finally can kick back, after working hard to translate press releases and fact sheets into web-ready text and adding photos. The pins-and-needles sensation of wondering if the press would call was replaced by the pins-and-needles sensation of wondering how many newspapers picked up the story. We won’t know for weeks, until our clipping service gets us the goods.

What we do know is that we’d passed through the gauntlet of the Ten Most list, and did our best to help alert Americans about the need for better park protection. For more info on the list, stop by our website. The portal is always open. Or anyway, it’s supposed to be. We’ll keep a pixel on for you.

Thursday, 16 Jan 2003

WASHINGTON, D.C.

Yesterday, as Grist reported, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) released its fifth annual “America’s Ten Most Endangered National Parks List,” hoping to spread the word that our national parks are in trouble and need help.

Today, we started to get a better sense of how widely that word has spread. Much to my relief, Kate — godmother of the “Ten Most” list — reported that the list was covered in newspapers all across the nation and was picked up by network affiliates. And Marie, our web director, told me our site got 1.2 million hits the day of the release, way up from the roughly 40,000 hits we get on an average day.

The list appeared on Headline News all day. It was featured on the CNN website. We got a call from a reporter at the London Times wanting to interview someone on staff about the list. And then here we are, yakking about it in Grist. To top it off, I read a nice, two-column article about the list in the Washington Post, which included a good quote from the National Park Service. Let’s hope that’s a sign that the Bush administration is readying itself to do meaningful work on park problems.

Time to sit back and be amazed at how a handful of people and a little modern technology can reach well over 100 million people around the world within hours. But we can’t rest on our laurels for more than a few minutes. The list is behind us, and we’re on to the next thing. The fact is, even on the day we were releasing the list, we had begun to move on to the next thing, as the staff of our diversity program held a meeting to discuss the future.

The NPCA Diversity Program seeks to involve people of color in the national parks experience. Conventional wisdom suggests that people of color do not visit the parks in numbers comparable to their proportion of the general population. A book I read (It’s the Little Things) that touched on this subject suggested that this was true for African Americans in part because of fears evoked by remote areas heavily visited by whites — fears kindled by the decades of terrorism that whites wreaked on blacks in isolated parts of the nation. I can’t vouch for that conclusion, but I can say that NPCA’s goal is to help shape a National Park System in which all Americans can feel at home.

This goal is important because, within a few years, more than half of all U.S. citizens will be people of color. That demographic shift will affect the nation from top to bottom. Maybe we’ll even get a president whose name ends in a nice, round vowel, or whose complexion is dark, or who has fully functional breasts. For all its talk of equality and freedom, the U.S. has been embarrassingly narrow in its choice of leadership. As the political influence of all cultures and colors increases, the national parks will increasingly need the support of people of color.

And people of color will need the support of the national parks. America’s heritage is in the national parks. Parks preserve samples of our wild places. They preserve our history and culture. And not just Anglo-Saxon American history, but Latino history and Native American history and the history of other ethnic groups as well. Sites where Japanese-Americans were interred during World War II are now park units. More than 20 parks commemorate the role of African Americans in shaping the nation’s history. All of us can find ourselves in the national parks.

NPCA is working to find ways to get more people of color into the parks. People like me, who measure a successful day in the woods by how few people they see, may cringe at the thought of getting more people into the parks. If access to parks like Yellowstone and Denali were limited to people named Di Silvestro, I’d be ecstatic, especially as most of my relatives think a park is a place called Central. But in the real world, where people continue to pride themselves on having children — a feat that has been done successfully only about 6 billion times in the last 75 years or so — populations are going to grow, and the parks are going to attract more and more people. And if the national parks attract people, they should attract all people, and all people should feel comfortable visiting them.

Meeting such challenges is far more difficult than merely getting out the word on troubled parks. So now it’s back to working on the things that make parks endangered, from snowmobiles to polluted air, and from the shadows still cast by racism to the need to give the parks a face that matches that of our nation. To solve these problems, we need the support that projects like the “Ten Most” list are meant to generate. As our diversity program and our activist work make clear, the future of the parks begins with the people. If you want to join in, knock on our door.

Friday, 17 Jan 2003

WASHINGTON, D.C.

Writing for Grist about what I do on a daily basis has lead me to consider how different my life is from what I expected when I was a young, budding conservationist. I thought eventually my work would entail something like Marlin Perkins telling me to jump out of a boat and into the Amazon to wrestle a swimming anaconda. Nothing could be further from my current reality. Sometimes I look around, here in Washington, D.C., and ask myself (or anyone who will listen), “What am I doing here?”

My day begins on a train platform in suburban Virginia. During the 40-minute ride to Washington, I edit and revise work I did the night before. I don’t smell pine trees scenting the air at dawn, or hear the cry of the loon wavering among shadowed woods. I hear a man snoring and snorting in the seat next to me as he wheezes his way through a few more winks. I look around the crowded train — no elbowroom for Daniel Boone or any outdoorsman here.

At Union Station I catch a stream of humanity clop-clopping to their connections, briefcases slung over sagging shoulders. The subway platform is jammed shoulder to shoulder, the Red Line running late. As I ride down the escalator, the sight of all the disgruntled travelers reminds me of an 1890s-era photo I have at home of women in long dresses and men in black derbies waiting for a train. I see the subway platform as a photo viewed a hundred years from now. We are all the ghosts of the future, passing on minute by minute. The escalator dumps me among them.

Once I arrive at the National Parks Conservation Association headquarters, I drop off my coat and briefcase in my cube. No wafting breezes; the windows are sealed. No chatter of birds — just the chatter of other staffers. To escape, I have recourse to earphones, a computer that plays CDs, and the Meat Puppets, who will pretty much drown out anything.

At work, I attend a regular weekly meeting. We talk about upcoming projects. We discuss the ordering and buying of new NPCA lapel pins and who will get them. Minutiae, but someone has to do it; those lapel pins don’t create themselves. We talk about messaging, and how to express our concerns about parks more clearly to the public.

Later, I rush through lunch in the limited time between one meeting and another. Next comes an hour of discussion with board members about a potentially upcoming but maybe dead-in-the-water project. Too controversial. Maybe. Maybe not. Decision delayed. We think things through carefully because, as one of our mottoes says, there’s just too much to lose.

A phone call comes in for Communications Analyst Kate and me. Seems that someone in Congress is thinking about attacking the National Parks Conservation Association’s “Ten Most Endangered National Parks” program. Ah yes, the loyal opposition. My pulse quickens. Excitement. Challenge. Then an email arrives saying that another person in Congress, having seen our “Ten Most” list, is thinking about drafting a letter asking the appropriate people in the Bush administration why something isn’t being done to better protect national parks. One more level on which we’re making a difference. Terrific.

Then I go shopping for a cake. Who would have thought a zoology degree would lead to a cake hunt? But there is good reason. Kate, the “Ten Most” godmother, has put so much work into the project that I must reward her. Flowers won’t do the trick; she’s allergic. A potted plant? But that’s a gift that puts the recipient to work — watering, repotting, all that. A cake, just for Kate and her husband, seems the thing. Chocolate cake. Chocolate richer than J.P. Morgan. I hope she likes it, small token of appreciation that it is.

Walking back from the bakery I nearly get run over by a car at rush hour. Drivers are responding to traffic lights with a certain, shall we say, creativity. So much for youthful visions of drifting among bison herds and encountering grizzlies on mountain trails. I stop off at a drugstore to look for a copy of Outside magazine featuring a great article on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, home to caribou and grizzlies and, if the Bush administration gets its way, home-to-be of oil wells. I look all over the newsstand. Seems every magazine has a scantily clad woman on the cover. I don’t find Outside. So I go outside.

The air reeks of traffic fumes. I see a book in a store window, a photo collection with mountains on the cover. I stop to look. Imagining mountain air, I glance around the street. What a contrast there is between desire and reality: people clopping by, flaccid faces, gray buildings above, patch of gray sky.

How did I, a sincere conservationist, come to a daily diet of cubes, crowds, and air pollution? I think of Mount Logan in Glacier National Park, on a September day, snow in the air, no one around but my girlfriend and me, the mountain imperturbable and mysterious as it watches the world from the lofty height of the ages. I think of Olympic National Park: rain-dripping ferns crowding the forest floor, velvet mosses covering rock and fallen tree. These mosses and the dense undergrowth hush my footsteps, giving me a strange sense of invisibility, of being witness to a world that existed before humankind. The trees all around soar so high that, standing at the foot of a typical giant, I have to put my head back and back and back to see to the top. Ed Abbey once suggested that our forests are holier than our churches and should be treated accordingly. In Olympic, you can’t dispute that. There you see the handiwork of the force that created the universe, be it by chance or holy plan.

Thinking about the beautiful places preserved by national parks, what springs to my mind is a quote from Edith Wharton that I used as the epigraph for my first nonfiction book, The Endangered Kingdom. “What did it all mean,” she wrote, “that there should be this beauty, so ever-varying, so soul-sufficing, so complete, and face to face with it these people who one and all would gladly have exchanged it for any one of a hundred other things.” Such as an oil well.

Which tells me exactly why I am here in D.C., in a cube, in a sealed building — tells me so clearly that it doesn’t matter to me if I ever again wander a national park, lost among centuries-old trees, or if I ever see the Arctic coastal plain dense with caribou in summer coats. I am here so that those things will be there.

Still, I half-hope that when death comes for me I will be at some wild place that we who care have saved from those who would exchange it for any one of a hundred other things — that I will be far, far away, where no human will find me, crumpled and silent and still, and wolves will pick my bones clean.