April 1, 2021

THIS LAND IS OUR LAND
RESTORING THE NATIONAL PARK
SERVICE AND OUR NATIONAL PARKS:
RECOMMENDATIONS FROM THE
COALITION TO PROTECT AMERICA’S NATIONAL PARKS

 

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

 

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
Cape Hatteras National Seashore

The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks (Coalition) is a non-profit organization composed of more than 1,900 retired, former and current employees of the National Park Service (NPS or Service), who collectively have nearly 40,000 years of experience managing and protecting national parks. We believe that our parks and public lands represent the very best of America, and advocate for their protection. Coalition members strive to apply their credibility and integrity by supporting the NPS mission and its employees, and by speaking out for national park solutions that uphold the law and apply sound science. A little over a hundred years ago, Congress created the NPS to manage the areas it had set aside as our national parks, where the Service was directed to “conserve the scenery and the wildlife therein and to provide for their enjoyment for future generations.” The NPS has successfully fulfilled its mission through two world wars; through times of social turmoil that threatened to tear the country apart when the rights of its citizens were denied; through a cold war; up to the present when terrorism confronts us both here and abroad.

Despite these challenges, a dedicated group of men and women committed themselves, often for their entire careers, to caring for and preserving the significant resources of our nation found in our national parks, and through the Service’s programs working with state, local and tribal governments. This work is frequently done without sufficient resources to do the job properly, and with little departmental or public recognition. Their efforts have been complemented by many ordinary citizens, who advocate for the parks’ preservation, or who volunteer their time, so that millions of Americans can continue to enjoy our national parks each year.

While our national parks have remained popular, the mission of the NPS has been politicized over the past four years and its employees have been made pawns in the process. This assault commenced literally the day after the inauguration in 2017 when the president personally called the acting director of NPS to have him produce evidence that would support the false claim that the president’s inauguration had been the most attended in American history. The politicization of our national parks continued throughout the administration’s term up to the 2020 election year where numerous events were held at national park sites to support the reelection efforts of the president. The dedicated employees of the NPS have been put in the difficult position of supporting these political park events, making it nearly impossible for them to avoid a violation of the Hatch Act and government ethics rules.

Nowhere has the disregard for employees been more obvious than in the administration’s refusal to disclose the number of employees infected with the Covid-19 virus and the parks in which they work, or its requirement that our national parks reopen without adequately protecting the health and safety of park employees from visitors who disregard public health directives.

“It is time to restore the National Park Service to the proud agency it has been for over a century and to allow our national parks to be able to fulfill the mission set by Congress so that these nationally significant natural, historic, and cultural resources can continue to be enjoyed by millions of visitors each year.”

The disdain for the NPS mission and its employees also was visible with the administration’s decision to leave the agency rudderless by choosing not to nominate and have confirmed by the Senate a director for the NPS for the entire first term of the administration – something that has never happened in the over hundred-year history of the NPS. Many senior leadership and superintendent positions remained vacant throughout the past four years, leaving NPS employees with no idea who was in charge, or how long acting leaders would be in place. Additionally, NPS employees were muzzled from speaking with members of Congress and the general public and efforts to obtain agency information by the public were ignored or delayed by months.

This neglect of the NPS was demonstrated in the budgets the administration submitted to Congress during the past four years. Each year from the FY 2018 budget through the pending FY 2021 budget, the administration has called for reductions of between $400 million to $581 million. Stagnant budgets over the past decade already had resulted in reduced hours of park operations, more deferred maintenance, inadequate staffing resulting in fewer visitor services, and decreasing morale among employees. Fortunately, Congress rejected the administration’s budget recommendations each year and allowed the parks to slowly rebuild.

View of Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park

It remains to be seen what impact some of the administration’s actions will have on our national parks as revised regulations affecting endangered species, migratory birds, clean air and clean water, along with a host of others are still tied up in litigation. The one thing that has spared the national parks from further degradation is the administration’s long losing streak in the courts where the decisions outlined continued violations of the Constitution or laws passed by Congress. It is time to restore the National Park Service to the proud agency it has been for over a century and to allow our national parks to be able to fulfill the mission set by Congress so that these nationally significant natural, historic, and cultural resources can continue to be enjoyed by millions of visitors each year.

To achieve this restoration, the Coalition has identified five specific areas for consideration to carry out this change in direction for our national parks:

        1. NPS Leadership and Organization
        2. Resource Stewardship
        3. Visitor Experience
        4. Employee Support
        5. Special Attention Items

These areas, along with recommendations for restoring the NPS, are discussed further below. The Coalition remains committed to working with the new administration to implement these recommendations in order to restore the agency’s mission and to ensure its employees are supported with strong leadership and a rededication to the NPS mission that has been sorely missing during the past four years.

Note: This document has been updated to reflect the latest news and actions coming out of the Biden administration. Updates to recommendations are posted at the beginning of each section. For the full scope of recommendations, please see the original report.

NPS LEADERSHIP AND ORGANIZATION

The NPS is steward of the nation’s most important natural, cultural and historic resources. The agency must have fully qualified, experienced, Senate-confirmed leadership, as required by law. In addition, the Department of the Interior’s organizational structure, of which the NPS is a part, must be re-aligned to remove unnecessary and redundant layers of bureaucracy designed to reduce NPS effectiveness.  Further, leadership positions for associate and assistant directors, superintendents, and program managers must be prioritized for hiring so that all staff have clear leadership support and direction.

Recommendations:

Restore effective leadership within the NPS by promptly nominating a director for Senate confirmation, and by prioritizing the filling of senior vacancies, including superintendent and program manager positions.

Update: On February 25, 2021 Deputy Director Shawn Benge announced the selection of Pamela A. Smith as the new Chief of the U.S. Park Police. Ms. Smith is the first African-American director of the Park Police in its history.

Restore the previous NPS regional structure and deliver a clear message to all employees about their supervisory reporting requirements.

Address a demoralized NPS workforce.

Update: On January 22, 2021, President Biden issued Executive Order 14003, which reiterated the importance of rebuilding the federal workforce. Among other matters, the order revokes the previous administration’s attempts to politicize the federal workforce by creating a new Schedule F, which would have undermined the civil service system and its merit principles. The president also revoked a number of other executive orders from the previous administration concerning collective bargaining, the use of official time for union activities, and procedures to facilitate removal of civil service employees. The Coalition had expressed concern about several of these actions that undermined employee morale within the federal government during the past administration.

Establish a task force to create a plan for diversifying the NPS workforce.

Update: On January 20, 2021, President Biden issued Executive Order 13985, that made it a policy of his administration that the federal government should pursue a comprehensive approach to advance equity for all and that directed all federal agencies to work to redress inequities in their policies and programs that serve as barriers to equal opportunity. This included efforts to engage with underserved communities and to identify ways within the first 200 days to identify barriers and potential actions needed to address full and equal participation in government programs.

Establish a task force to look at needed reforms for the U.S. Park Police and recommit to the holistic mission of NPS law enforcement rangers.

Include in the new administration’s first budget request to Congress a provision for two-year availability of funding for the Operations of the National Park System (ONPS) and the National Recreation and Preservation (NR&P) accounts for each FY.

 

Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park

RESOURCE STEWARDSHIP

Congress has charged the National Park Service with managing every unit of the National Park System “in such manner, and by such means, as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” The NPS faces enormous challenges in fulfilling this mission, from climate change, to invasive species, to impacts from excessive visitor use. The NPS must be provided with the support and necessary resources to achieve this critical work.

Recommendations:

Recommit to the resource protection mission of the NPS by providing funding for a second natural resource challenge of an additional $122.5 million over the next five years with an emphasis on the value of large landscape protection and wildlife corridors.

Update: The Coalition is sharing funding recommendations with the administration and with congressional committees during this year’s appropriations hearings to achieve this goal.

Reestablish the NPS as a global leader in climate change by restoring funding for a robust NPS Climate Change Response Program (CCRP) and by identifying parks most likely to be impacted.

Update: On January 27, 2021, President Biden issued Executive Order 14008 that puts climate considerations at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy and national security and that commits the U.S. to build resilience, both at home and abroad, against the impacts of climate change. Part of this effort is the creation of a National Climate Change Task Force, of which the Secretary of the Interior is among the members.

The Task Force is charged, among other things, with prioritizing action on climate change in members’ policy-making and budget processes.  Further, the head of each federal agency is required to submit a draft action plan within 120 days that describes steps the agency can take with regard to its facilities and operations to bolster adaptation and increase resilience to the impacts of climate change.  The coalition is sharing funding recommendations with the administration and with congressional committees during this year’s appropriations hearings on how the National Park Service’s CCRP can be part of this effort by properly funding its resilience and adaptation efforts.

This action followed the issuance of Executive Order 13990 of January 20, 2021, in which President Biden directed all federal agencies to immediately review and take action to address the promulgation of federal regulations and other actions taken over the past four years that conflict with the national objective of confronting the climate crisis. The order listed a number of existing oil and gas, as well as clean air, regulations that the coalition had objected to over the past four years as harmful to national park resources.

Recommit to the NPS role in the international arena of parks and protected areas including World Heritage Sites.

Update: On February 19, 2021 the Department of the Interior issued a statement applauding the designation of Fort Monroe in Virginia as a Site of Memory Associated to the Slave Route by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Located where the first enslaved Africans arrived in English North America in 1619, Fort Monroe is one of approximately 50 sites related to the history of the transatlantic slave trade to receive this designation.  Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, Shannon Estenoz said “The UNESCO recognition reinforces our commitment to continuously research, preserve, protect, and interpret the full history of slavery and freedom in the cultural landscape.” The coalition had expressed its concerns about the Office of International Affairs of the NPS having sufficient funds to continue to do its international work, such as the designation mentioned above.

Invest in a cultural resource challenge with a total of $200 million requested over the next five years to help restore cultural resource staffing and preservation efforts that have been lost over the last decade.

Update: The Coalition is sharing funding recommendations with the administration and with congressional committees during this year’s appropriations hearings to achieve this goal.

Provide increased funding for wildland and structural fire programs to ensure the integrity of park natural and cultural resources.

Establish a plan to ensure that full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) will go to the highest-priority land acquisition needs.

Update: On February 11, 2021, Acting Secretary of the Interior Scott de la Vega moved to restore LWCF to its intended purposes by issuing Secretarial Order 3396, which overturned Secretarial Order 3388 issued by former Secretary Bernhardt in November, 2020 that unilaterally conditioned the availability of State financial assistance on compliance with new policy prerogatives without meaningful consultation with stakeholders or the public, and that imposed new restrictions not mandated by law on the availability of LWCF funding for Federal acquisitions of land and water. The new Secretarial Order also directed the NPS to reinstate previous rules for the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Program that directs funds to underserved urban area parks and facilities. The coalition had said that land acquisition and state assistance decisions should be based on merit, not politics. The coalition also has consistently supported the state grant programs that provide park and recreational resources to underserved communities.

Further, Executive Order 14008 of January 27, 2021 directs the Secretary of the Interior, in consultation with its sister agencies, to report to the National Climate Change Task Force within 90 days steps the U.S. should take with the states, local and tribal governments, along with key partners and stakeholders, to achieve the goal of conserving at least 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030.  The coalition will continue to work with the NPS and partner organizations to see that the intent of the LWCF program is followed to help commit to this larger goal.

Create a task force to identify potential new natural, cultural, or historical sites to be added to the park system and prioritize the transmittal of legislation to Congress to establish these areas with an emphasis on people, places, and stories that reflect the diversity of our country.

Submit to Congress and work for enactment of National Heritage Area program legislation.

Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton National Park

Update: On February 26, 2021, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 803, the “Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act.” Among many other provisions, this bill establishes a National Heritage Area System within the National Park Service composed of all currently established national heritage areas and any that will be established by Congress in future years. Each national heritage area is authorized to receive up to $750,000 annually in appropriations from the National Park Service from FY 2022 through FY 2037. The bill now moves to the Senate for further action.

 Canyon de Chelly National Monument
Canyon de Chelly National Monument

 

In its continuing effort to remain relevant to the diverse people and culture of our nation, the national parks need to ensure that their stories are reflected in our parks. In recent years, the NPS has completed several theme studies, including those for Latino Heritage, Civil Rights and Reconstruction, Asian American and Pacific Islanders, Japanese Americans, and LGBTQ history, that could form the basis for identifying individuals and sites that could be added to the national park system in order to make it more representative of the diversity of America. To help with this process, a task force should be created to offer expert scientific and scholarly advice for evaluating natural and cultural resources consistent with NPS standards, and to recommend individuals and sites for which legislation is developed and transmitted to Congress for the establishment of new park units in the new administration.

Reinstate Director’s Order 100, Resource Stewardship for the 21st Century.

Proactively protect park resources and values from adverse impacts associated with federal oil and gas leasing and development on park lands (under NPS management), as well as on public lands adjacent to parks (under management by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)).

Update: On January 27, 2021 President Biden issued Executive Order 14008 that, among other things, directs the Department of the Interior to pause new oil and natural gas leasing on public lands and offshore waters, concurrent with a comprehensive review of the federal oil and gas program.  The EO review of the federal oil and gas program is intended to ensure that it serves the public interest and to restore balance on America’s public lands and waters to benefit current and future generations. The coalition had urged support for specific bills introduced in the last Congress to reform the oil and gas leasing program as well as interactions with the Bureau of Land Management when it involves lands adjacent to national park sites.  The pause in new oil and gas leasing will allow consideration of impacts of the leasing program on national parks.

Establish a cooperative agreement with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) establishing early notification and coordination requirements with NPS regarding proposed development of electricity, natural gas, and oil transmission facilities through or within units of the National Park System.

Seek rescission of the following rules under the Congressional Review Act:

  • Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) Final Rule on NEPA, Issued July 16, 2020.
  • NPS Final Rule: Hunting and Trapping in National Preserves in Alaska, Issued June 9, 2020.
  • NPS Final Rule: NPS Jurisdiction in Alaska (the “Sturgeon Rule”), Issued November 16, 2020.

NPS Proposed Rule on Electric Bikes, Issued April 8, 2020. Final rule pending; publication date TBD. This draft rule should be suspended or rescinded. It was prepared without the full review of potential impacts on park values and visitor use mandated by NPS Management Policies 8.1.2 for proposed new uses because e-bikes were found to be a preexisting use in 380+ parks. However, that “preexisting use” was authorized solely via Secretarial Order in 2019, absent any impact review and in defiance of policy and regulation existing at the time, thus sidestepping the protective intent of those processes.

Update: On March 30, 2021, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia denied the government’s motion to dismiss Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility’s (PEER) lawsuit as moot and granted PEER’s motion to file a supplemental complaint challenging the NPS final rule. PEER had originally filed suit against the NPS in December 2019 challenging the Service’s decision to allow e-bike use in 380 parks under the Secretarial Order even though electric bicycles were banned under applicable NPS regulations. NPS attempted to remedy this process flaw by issuing a final rule in November 2020 that eliminated the long standing ban on electric bikes; and the government subsequently moved to dismiss the PEER lawsuit claiming it was now moot.

  • NPS Proposed Rule: Changes to the regulations governing the listing of properties in the National Register of Historic Places, Issued – March 1, 2019. Final rule pending; publication date TBD.
  • NPS Proposed Rule: Commercial Visitor Services – Concession Contracts, Issued – July 20, 2020. Final rule pending; publication date TBD.

Update the NPS Planning, Environment, and Public Comment (PEPC) website to allow uploading of comment documents to make the website more user friendly and consistent with other federal agency’s public comment websites, and require the use of the PEPC website among all parks and program offices.

Manzanar National Historic Site
Manzanar National Historic Site


VISITOR EXPERIENCE

Visitors to every unit of the National Park System deserve world-class service, which can only be provided with adequate, highly trained staff and facilities.

Recommendations:

Build upon previous efforts to increase diversity of park visitors and their access to parks through a plan to make parks better known to the entirety of the American public and to provide transportation and other means to allow them access.

Update: On January 20, 2021, President Biden issued Executive Order 13985, that made it a policy of his administration that the federal government should pursue a comprehensive approach to advance equity for all and that directed all federal agencies to work to redress inequities in their policies and programs that serve as barriers to equal opportunity. This included efforts to engage with underserved communities and to identify ways within the first 200 days to identify barriers and potential actions needed to address full and equal participation in government programs.

Create a group within NPS to prioritize projects for implementation of the Great Americans Outdoors Act deferred maintenance program and have them serve as a liaison to the Department of the Interior, while reporting on progress on a regular basis.

Send Congress legislation and work for the implementation of a permanent reauthorization of the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA).

Provide a budget to Congress with a goal of adding 500 employees in each of the next five fiscal years to partially restore the NPS park and program office staff lost over the last decade.

Update: The Coalition is sharing funding recommendations with the administration and with congressional committees during this year’s appropriations hearings to achieve this goal.

Increase the far-less-than-sufficient $750,000 provided to newly established park units to an amount that makes their opening to visitors feasible, and send to Congress a budget that reflects this new commitment while also including targeted funding for parks that have experienced increased visitation.

Cesar E. Chavez National Monument
Cesar E. Chavez National Monument

Reaffirm the previous commitment to the safety of park facilities by increasing funding for structural fire programs as well as wildland fire activities throughout the service.

EMPLOYEE SUPPORT

The employees of the National Park Service are some of the most dedicated public servants in all of government. However, to perform well and thrive, they must have adequate housing, administrative support, training, and career paths.

Recommendations:

Direct the NPS Human Resources Office to hold listening sessions that identify barriers to career progression and achievement of career goals within NPS and have the office establish a plan within six months of the new administration to address those barriers.

Issue a directive from the leadership of NPS to reform the hiring process to make it more responsive to parks and programs with a goal of hiring for positions within two months of a vacancy.

Gather input from park contracting managers and create a plan for reforming the contracting functions of NPS to make them less cumbersome and responsive to park and program needs.

Researchers at Tide Pools
Tidepool Monitoring

Conduct an evaluation of the existing employee development and training programs and based on its findings, establish a new strategic plan for these programs that address employee needs on a consistent basis.

Explore whether NPS needs additional authority to select and hire long-term seasonal employees in a timely manner and seek that authority from Congress, if needed.

 


Commit to providing additional resources for employee housing needs in each of the next four fiscal years.

Zion National Park
Zion National Park

Ensure NPS has the capacity to respond to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests consistent with the law.

Conduct a review of the need for additional staff capacity in the NPS regional offices.

 

 

 

 

Muir Woods National Monument
Muir Woods National Monument

SPECIAL ATTENTION ITEMS

The Coalition believes the following additional items warrant special attention from the new administration. Some of these recommendations can be implemented within the NPS, while others will require NPS participation in support of other agencies to ensure their implementation.

Recommendations:

Explore ways NPS retirees can contribute to the work of a new administration by mentoring current employees.

Determine if revisions are needed in law or regulations governing the use of park lands for partisan political purposes and seek those changes, if needed.

Work with OPM on strengthening, through the establishment of penalties, the Federal Vacancies Reform Act to ensure acting assignments do not extend beyond 120 days consistent with the law’s intent.

Establish a dialogue through the secretary of the interior with the White House about the importance of quickly nominating and seeking confirmation of federal judges as well as vacancies in the Merit Systems Protection Board.

Update: White House Counsel Dana Remus sent a letter to Democratic senators before the inauguration in January soliciting their recommendations for federal judgeships with a priority on candidates who are diverse and who have served as public defenders and civil rights attorneys.  The coalition had recommended the administration immediately begin the process of vetting and nominating candidates to fill judicial vacancies in order to counter the number of right-wing judges confirmed during the previous administration and to ensure more favorable environmental decisions in future court cases.

Work with other agencies, as appropriate, as well as the new administration to inventory and seek regulatory rollbacks of this last administration that are not available for Congressional Review Act action, primarily through various Environmental Protection Agency programs such as clean air & water, migratory bird treaty regulations, etc.

Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park

Update: On March 3, 2021, acting Interior Secretary Scott de la Vega revoked two Secretarial Orders issued by former Secretary Bernhardt issued on September 28, 2018, and October 18, 2018, that restricted the department’s use of scientific information unless its underlying data was publicly released. Acting Secretary de la Vega directed a review of any actions taken under the previous Secretarial Orders and a report within 90 days on actions might needed to be altered or reversed as a result of the department complying with those previous orders.  Further, the new Secretarial order asked for the revision of any scientific integrity policy in the department to ensure it bans improper political interference in the conduct of scientific research, and to prevent the suppression or distortion of scientific findings, data or results.

Update: On February 25, 2021, the Biden administration withdrew an appeal of an August, 2020, U.S. District Court decision that struck down a legal opinion issued by the Department of the Interior solicitor in the Trump administration that ended punishing companies for the “incidental” killing of birds under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Update: On February 2, 2021 federal district judge Brian Morris from the U.S. District Court of Montana vacated a Trump administration rule limiting the scientific studies the Environmental Protection Agency could use in crafting public health protections. The rule was finalized just two weeks before President Biden was inaugurated and could have required the disclosure of the raw data used in public health studies if the agency was planning on relying upon the conclusions from that data.  Typically, this information from medical histories is kept confidential, and had been used for several decades to support EPA regulations.  The coalition was concerned about a number of these types of regulations that could impact clear air, the use of things like pesticides, or other public health considerations that might impact the public such as Covid-19.

Update: On January 21, 2021 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia issued a ruling striking down a rule from 2019 by the Trump administration that would have eased EPA restrictions on carbon emissions from power plants.  The coalition expressed concern about a number of regulations from EPA from the past administration that adversely affected clean air and water. 

Update: On January 20, 2021, President Biden issued Executive Order 13990, which among other provisions, rescinded several Executive Orders and other presidential actions affecting a number of clean air & water, and other regulations that the coalition had expressed concern about over the past four years.  The revocations included:

        1. Executive Order 13766 of January 24, 2017 (Expediting Environmental Reviews and Approvals for High Priority Infrastructure Projects);
        2. Executive Order 13778 of February 28, 2017 (Concerning the Waters of the United States Rule);
        3. Executive Order 13783 of March 28, 2017 (Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth);
        4. Executive Order 13792 of April 26, 2017 (Requiring a Review of Designations Made Under the Antiquities Act during the Obama Administration);
        5. Executive Order 13795 of April 28, 2017 (Implementing an America-First Offshore Energy Strategy);
        6. Executive Order 13868 of April 10, 2019 (Promoting Energy Infrastructure and Economic Growth);
        7. Executive Order 13927 of June 4, 2020 (Accelerating the Nation’s Economic Recovery from the Covid-19 Emergency by Expediting Infrastructure Investments and Other Activities);
        8. Executive Order 13834 of May 17, 2018 (Efficient Federal Operations, except for sections 6, 7, and 11);
        9. Executive Order 13807 of August 15, 2017 (Establishing Discipline and Accountability in the Environmental Review and Permitting Process for Infrastructure Projects, while requiring the Director of OMB and the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality to consider whether to recommend a replacement order);
        10. Presidential Memorandum of April 12, 2018 (Promoting Domestic Manufacturing and Job Creation Policies and Procedures Relating to Implementation of Air Quality Standards);
        11. Presidential Memorandum of October 19, 2018 (Promoting the Reliable Supply and Delivery of Water in the West);
        12. Presidential Memorandum of February 19, 2020 (Developing and Delivering More Water Supplies in California);
        13. The Council on Environmental Quality’s (CEQ) draft guidance entitled, “Draft National Environmental Policy Act Guidance on Consideration of Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” of June 26, 2019. CEQ was also directed to review, revise, and update its final guidance entitled, “Final Guidance for Federal Departments and Agencies on Consideration of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and the Effects of Climate Change in National Environmental Policy Act Reviews,” of August 5, 2016.

Download a PDF copy of this report here.