As the Second Century Commission releases its recommendations for the parks' next 100 years, its co-chairs reveal the process that unfolded over the last 12 months.
By Former Sens. Howard H. Baker, Jr. (R-TN) and J. Bennett Johnston, Jr. (D-LA)
In August of 2008 we had the honor of leading a distinguished group of citizens who had gathered at Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area to “begin an intensive effort to analyze the condition and function of our national parks and chart a vision for the parks for the next century of service to the American people.” That was our official purpose, but the meeting set in motion a journey through the park system. It allowed us to hear about problems, see opportunities, and form conclusions
about its future.
There were two dozen of us with varying experiences in the parks. As senators, we had actually voted to create parks and influenced key policies. Others had devoted entire careers to the parks. Some were intrigued by the opportunities the parks provide for science, education, civic engagement, youth programs, reflections on our nation’s history, its spectacular beauty, its biodiversity. Some spoke for the changing character of the nation and the need to ensure that the parks serve all of the people. Individually, we were politicians, scientists, historians, biologists, advocates, professors, educators, executives, reporters. Collectively we were a team of advocates interested in the parks—their purpose, problems, and potential.
Such a group does not assemble by chance. Several years of planning preceded this gathering. The National Parks Conservation Association brought us together, funded by a grant from the Robertson Foundation. The National Geographic Society agreed to produce our report. This project was to be supported by a group of consultants with deep knowledge of national parks, programs, and policies.
As senators, we had participated in the creation of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in 1978 as part of the National Park System. One of the principle purposes at that time was to protect air quality in the nearby Los Angeles basin. But as we toured the park and questioned the staff, we found much more than that. In the 30 years since, the area has become a mosaic of living communities and protected lands. The National Park Service owns only 14 percent of the roughly 150,000 acres within the park boundaries—the remainder is managed through creative partnerships among national and state parks, nonprofits, and volunteers. It is a home to movie sets and movie stars, but also hosts inner-city youth and their families who come to pursue challenging outdoor activities. It educates tens of thousands of school children in nature and history. It works to save cougars in the few green corridors left in an intensely urban setting. It was an inspiring way to begin our parks journey.
The complexity of the Santa Monica experience and its lessons would be repeated in our subsequent park visits. When our nation created the parks, we not only set aside land, but we created an idea—a legacy that was alive, expanding, and evolving. If it continues to evolve and grow, it holds great potential for the nation.
Perhaps Commissioner Milton Chen captured the idea best when he observed that there were four great democratic institutions: public schools, public libraries, public broadcasting, and public parks. He went on to reflect that perhaps the 21st Century role of national parks was to “build human capital.”
The gold of a late New England autumn greeted us in Lowell. It seemed a jarring contrast to southern California; America’s first planned industrial city, founded in 1826, had by the mid 20th Century seen much of its textile industry leave town. Some city visionaries saw these abandoned buildings as an opportunity, and considered historic preservation a key to city’s renewal. The programs of the National Park Service were lever and anchor for a rebirth that is now studied worldwide. In fact, in 1978, the two of us worked closely with Sen. Paul Tsongas to pass legislation establishing the complex relationship of city, state, local, and private interests that has driven Lowell’s success.
But our Lowell experience caused vigorous debate among the commissioners. National Geographic President John Fahey asked if urban renewal was the mission of the National Park Service. Through discussion with community leaders, we came to see that the park was only part of the larger effort to revitalize the city. Today the agency operates museums and visitor centers. The Tsongas Industrial History Center is a cooperative venture with the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and hosts students from all over the country. Innovative tax credits developed in concert with the Park Service spurred private developers to convert historic mills into offices and residences, breathing new life into the city.
When we were working on the legislation, Sen. Tsongas explained why he wanted the Park Service to manage these components rather than simply setting up a grant program. He wanted a resident in his city that was committed to its success. He was right.
Our second day in the Northeast was spent in the Essex National Heritage Area. It comprises all of Essex County, a 500-square mile area with a population of 730,000 and 34 cities and towns. The Park Service operates two sites here: Salem Maritime and Saugus Iron Works. A visitor center developed and operated by both parks is situated in downtown Salem.
We were familiar with heritage areas based on our work supporting the creation of Cane River and the Tennessee Civil War Heritage Area in our own regions, and we were heartened to see this successful example.
So although we expected our Lowell meetings to bear little similarity to the Santa Monica Mountain experience, many similar themes emerged. In each case, the Park Service operates in a complex environment—doing what the agency does best, but in ways that support and complement the needs of living communities and acting as convener, catalyst, and storyteller to help create places where past and future frame the present. Peter Senge was struck by the impact parks made, “not just in bits and pieces, but in the larger sense of the role they play in life. Their preservation is a process that leads to that impact. The impact is the ‘what’ to the preservation’s ‘why’.”
Deep winter found us in Yellowstone. With sub-zero temperatures outside we watched a preview of Ken Burns’ film, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. The excerpt focused on the creation of Yellowstone, and reminded us of the struggle and conflict that attends the birth of almost all national parks. We listened to employees of the National Park Service as they described their vision of the future and the current state of the agency. Although more than 2 million acres of the Yellowstone ecosystem have been set aside for 135 years, representatives from the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the Interagency Grizzly Bear Task Force believe that maintaining the region’s health still presents an enormous challenge. Their message: In today’s world, no park is large enough—what happens beyond the park boundaries frequently determines the fate of park resources. Former Alaska Governor Tony Knowles pointed to the need for consistent management practices among all agencies and private interests as an answer to this problem.
We had divided into committees to scrutinize in detail particular subjects including science, education, funding, history, and natural and cultural resource protection. Each group’s report to the full Commission began in Yellowstone. Justice Sandra O’Connor, an active member of the education committee, exhorted us to be succinct and practical in our recommendations.
March found us at Gettysburg. We went there not only because it was the site of a great turning point in American history, but because the recently completed visitor center and museum provided an innovative example of a private-public partnership in which philanthropy played a significant role.
Author and commission member James McPherson told us about the importance of parks in civic learning. He placed the battlefield in the continuum of the nation’s history, linking it to the promise of the Declaration of Independence. As he said, Americans cannot fully understand the battle without visiting the park—“an idea expressed in place.”
We heard from recently established parks that continue to broaden the cultural diversity of the system, including Rosie the Riveter and Cane River. We discussed youth programs with the actual young people served by them.
Our final meeting, in early summer, was at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The focus of the visit was the role of science in park management. Ten months of committee work had to be synthesized and prioritized. One of the committees, Connecting People to Parks, chaired by REI ’s Sally Jewell, made a memorable presentation. The group asked each commissioner to describe their first experience in a national park. Governor Jim Blanchard remembered his family driving from Detroit to Yellowstone when he was six. Maria Hinojosa described a recent trip to Yosemite with her 80-year-old Mexican-born mother. Carolyn Finney reflected on the irony of being a Commission member when her dad could not get a job with the Park Service because he was African American. In addition to the five Commission meetings, we hosted three well-attended public meetings in Washington, Chicago, and San Francisco. A website (www.visionfortheparks.org) was established to gather further public input. All this informed our final recommendations.
And what were our conclusions? We won’t repeat all of the recommendations here, but it is our consensus that the national parks and the National Park Service have the potential to play a larger role in the lives of all Americans. As Commissioner Sylvia Earle observed, “If we didn’t have a National Park Service, we would have to invent one.”
The traditional role of guardian of our national heritage—flora, fauna, and culture—is an idea that has evolved, and it should continue to grow to meet the needs of the future. We can be better educated, live in more viable communities, slow climate change and its impacts, expand our idea of history to include all our stories, and preserve our continent’s biodiversity by making logical additions to the park system, while inviting all Americans to participate. It will, of course, require change: A Park Service that is more catalyst and convener, one with a stronger capability to carry out its mission. An agency with more public funding, though in the big picture, the investment is minimal (the 2009 Park Service budget was one-thirteenth of one percent of the federal budget). The parks will also require an increasing role for philanthropy and the creation of an endowment to support those functions that the agency must perform in perpetuity.
In the beginning we were a group from many backgrounds. As we left the Smokies, new friendships had been formed, new commitments made, new support for the parks discovered. Commissioner Meg Wheatley summed it up best when she said, “I feel like I’m a better American.”