- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 31, 2007

This week, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne released his blueprint vision for the future of the national parks. It was unique in many respects and gives us hope that national leadership can again foster national unity around treasures that our children and grandchildren will inherit.

The 391 sites of the national park system should be places that bring people together around common purposes of enjoyment, recreation, learning and personal renewal. They also can foster unity by protecting some of our finest historic, cultural and natural resources that tell us who we have been and who we are as a people.

The recent history of the national park system, however, has been a discouraging one — with environmentalists pitted against recreational groups; with historic buildings literally crumbling; with funds for the purchase of private lands within parks dwindling; and with the loss of popular park rangers who bring places such as Gettysburg and Yellowstone to life. This was the park landscape, until recently.

On the 90th anniversary of the national park system last August, President Bush directed Mr. Kempthorne to set specific performance goals to ensure our national parks were something to celebrate at the 100th anniversary in 2016. The vision of the report, and the process to make it an initiative of the American people, are a model for how leaders in government can restore trust, set a standard of excellence and bring us together as a people.

The National Park Service began by conducting authentic listening sessions. The response from the American people was so strong and their input so valuable that the service expanded the sessions from Alaska to Florida, opened the online circuits and brought competing interest groups together to create a common vision of what our national parks could become. The president and secretary’s initiative quickly became a plan from the American people.

Instead of attempting to establish politically expedient, theoretical goals, the Department of Interior established specific performance goals that force each superintendent of our national parks to report on and rise to a standard of excellence. The goals are ambitious, achievable and relevant to the park experience of visitors. Some include: restoring all native habitats by controlling invasive species; completing an inventory of all cultural resources; restoring historic buildings; rehabilitating thousands of miles of trails; increasing the ethic of citizen stewardship with support for volunteers; and more. Each park superintendent will take this plan and over the next decade produce yearly updates on progress in meeting these performance goals. And there are likely new resources from the administration and the Congress to meet them.

The vision for our national parks at the centennial also took into account what will be different about America in this century. The park service talked to futurists, census experts, leaders in technology, philanthropists and those who study human behavior. The face and attitudes of Americans will change in the coming decades, with more Hispanics and African Americans and fewer whites; with workers valuing more time rather than just more money; with children becoming further disconnected from the outdoors; and with a changing climate and security risks that will alter how we manage our parks.

“The Future of America’s National Parks” blueprint does not tell the whole story of a government process gone right. You had to see it unfold to believe it — previously warring factions in the parks community talking openly about how they would come together around a common vision and enlist Americans to share in it; leaders from different parties and ideologies parking their partisanship and preconceptions to generate ideas that transcended both; and a leader in government listening, pushing us to go further with our ambitions, and boiling down complex ideas into understandable language.

This is that rare government report worth reading and initiative worth supporting. It also may restore a little hope in the ability of our government to function and its people to be led.

John M. Bridgeland is CEO of Civic Enterprises and vice chairman of the Earth Conservation Corps.

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