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THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE
The Park Service makes a good place to begin. It was an American invention—Yellowstone, established in 1872, was the first national park in the world. The service now has nearly 16,000 employees, administers 334 separate locales (variously called parks, monuments, memorials, historic sites, scenic waterways and parkways et al.) and is probably the best known and liked of all the Interior agencies. Nevertheless, the Park Service has become more controversial during the Watt administration than at any other time in recent memory.
Watt likes the national parks. He has said so repeatedly, and his deeds bear out his words. Aides say he wants to visit more national parks than any previous secretary. Apparently, maintaining a national park system is a traditional activity that appeals to his fundamentalist views and that he regards as at least a tolerable form of statism. Some months before Watt took office, General Accounting Office officials prepared a document that contained a list of things that needed fixing up in the parks system and of proposed new facilities. The total bill for this work would be $1.6 billion. Watt seized on this report, saying that it proved that while former Interior executives and congressional committees had been prating about preservation, they'd allowed the "national jewels"—as he frequently calls the parks—to deteriorate. Watt said that rectifying this shameful situation would be a top priority of his administration. Thereupon he created PRIP (Park Restoration and Improvement Program) and, despite the general push to cut domestic budgets, he has succeeded in getting the approximately $200 million per year requested for it.
PRIP has served as something of a p.r. gimmick—and a fairly misleading one, critics charge—that has enabled Watt to claim that he, the supposed antipreservationist, has been more generous than his predecessors toward the parks. This is true so far as new maintenance funds go, but overall park funding has been cut. Watt believes that the parks system is largely completed—"We've discovered all the Yellow-stones," says an aide—and that expanding it is a waste of public money and an exercise in creeping statism. He derides the purchasing orgies of his predecessors in the Carter, Ford and later Nixon years—which, even in the service at the time, were sometimes sarcastically called the Park-a-Month Policy. He has placed an absolute ban on initiating the acquisition of any new park.
This moratorium on buying new lands is the parks-related decision that has most stirred the wrath of conservationists, preservationists and congressional committees dealing with the service. They argue that because Watt's mind is set against acquisition he continues to ignore two major long-term threats to the parks. First, there is the external threat posed by developments of various sorts on adjacent lands, which may degrade or, in effect, destroy parks. A condominium erected too close to a park—two vacation homes were built on an inholding in Grand Tetons park last year, and a subdivision is planned on an inholding in the Santa Monica National Recreation Area—can spoil views and threaten water quality. Second, each year park crowds increase. If more and more people continue to use the same areas, damage to the setting that made the land desirable as a park in the first place will inevitably occur. The solution to both problems is to expand the system, perhaps not at the previous rate, but enough to spread out use within the parks and control detrimental usage of lands near them.
I believe that the Park-a-Month policy needed to be changed. It resulted in the acquisition of some mediocre properties, a number of which were purchased to stroke influential Congressmen, and reduced resources available for parks maintenance. However, the idea that we will never need or want any more parks seems unrealistic. Therefore I was anxious to ask Watt if he foresaw a time when it would be advisable to add new lands to the system. He said, "No. We've got to learn to live with what we have."
The Endangered Species Act, created by Congress and signed into law by Nixon in 1973, has generally been a popular law because most people apparently believe that trying to save small populations of hard-pressed species from extinction is a decent endeavor. However, there has been grousing about the Endangered Species Act in certain conservative circles, in which some people view it as clear proof of how pervasive the Rocks Have Rights nonsense has become. Developers in the rural West saw the Act as yet another invasion by federal regulators, because to protect species it's usually necessary to protect their habitat and thus restrict human use of it. Finally, the Endangered Species Act seemed to culminate a trend that had been building during much of this century—the feds taking over the management of wildlife from the states and private individuals. Among those who find this to be bad public policy is the Heritage Foundation, a far-right political think tank to which Watt has close personal and philosophical ties. After Reagan's election the foundation issued a massive document entitled Mandate for Leadership that contained many suggestions about how federal agencies should be operated under a conservative administration. Seventy pages were devoted to Interior, which Heritage scholars felt had become a hotbed of statist—socialistic—preservationist activity. A major ill was identified as the subversive influence within Interior of "biological types," also referred to in one supplement as "prairie fairies and tree huggers." Many of these hang out in the Fish and Wildlife Service, the principal agency for dealing with American fauna, which the Heritage mandate described as a "limited-purpose agency [whose actions] are not in the general public interest, but in fact seriously damage the general welfare of this country's citizenry."
As to the Endangered Species Act, the Heritage Foundation commented that the listing of these creatures was the FWS activity which "may have the greatest impact on the development of public and private lands of any law currently on the books." It is obvious that the foundation thinkers regard this impact as unfortunate.
Because that view is fairly common among those who make up the Reagan constituency, it was widely predicted that when the Endangered Species Act came up for congressional renewal in 1982 there would be a bloody fight, with Watt and his allies orchestrating a campaign to gut the law. Watt did ask that consideration of the bill be postponed until 1983, apparently because Congressmen would be unlikely to tinker with a popular law during an election year, which 1982 was. However, Watt's request for a delay was rejected, and conservationists succeeded in getting the law renewed. As renewed, the act was perhaps a stronger one in preservationist terms than its predecessor. But there have been complaints that Interior is doing no more than just living with the new law—and a bit grudgingly at that—and has engaged in some administrative maneuvering that has reduced its effectiveness.