Saving parks prevails

June 26, 2006

Let's pause for applause here as summer opens with a Bush administration declaration that conserving the condition and quality of national parks is a higher priority than making them available for recreational use. A gambit by the snowmobile, water scooter and ATV crowd that might have allowed them access to such serene protected places as Assateague National Seashore and Greenbelt National Park - environmental and aesthetic damage notwithstanding - was rejected in a last-minute reversal after a storm of protest.

"When there is a conflict between conserving resources unimpaired for future generations and the use of those resources, conservation will be predominant," Dirk Kempthorne, the recently confirmed interior secretary, announced last week.

This policy, which continues a century-long tradition, doesn't solve the money woes of a National Park Service that runs $600,000 short of operating expenses every year and has accumulated a $7 billion backlog of maintenance and repairs. Congress as well as the Bush administration must still be held to account for failing to protect the parks from deterioration because of inadequate care and staff.

But it was a good start on the job for Mr. Kempthorne, a former Idaho governor and senator whose environmental record has not been strong. The recommitment to conservation was also a satisfying comeuppance to political appointees within the Interior Department - particularly a Wyoming snowmobile advocate with ties to Vice President Dick Cheney - seeking equal status for recreation.

Probably most responsible for the administration's reversal on the management plan promoted by the former Cheney aide and now former Interior Department official, Paul Hoffman, were the park rangers, retired park employees and outside advocacy groups who got out the word and organized the protest.

Turns out Americans really care about protecting parks from the air and noise pollution of motorized vehicles, and want to prevent destruction of landscapes and wildlife habitat so they can be enjoyed by future generations. Nearly 50,000 public comments poured in on the Hoffman draft, resulting in a rewrite to reflect those views.

The battle isn't over. A snowmobile dispute is still under way at Yellowstone, the nation's oldest park. Other recreational uses will also be weighed on a case-by-case basis. What's more, funding shortages are destructive, too.

Yet Mr. Kempthorne has made a firm commitment to protecting the nation's most precious resources. Perhaps there's hope he will extend it beyond parks to all 500 million acres of rangeland, refuges and wilderness within his department's purview.

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