A rare view from the Smokies

March 15, 2007

View from Mt. CammererAn unusual occurrence happened in the Smokies Tuesday. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne and National Park Service Director Mary Bomar came to Great Smoky Mountains National Park to listen and to hike.

During the day they hiked with some school children, and then that evening they held a session in Gatlinburg, Tenn., to hear suggestions and ideas on President Bush’s $3 billion National Park Centennial Initiative.

That’s unusual because it runs counter to the notion that Interior Department bureaucrats, mostly Bush-appointees, put politics before protection, ignore park problems, and are on a budget-slashing binge.

Jeffrey Hunter notes that the media advisory for this event was sent just the day before. Yet subsequent reports indicate the session was well attended and many people were given the opportunity to comment.

National Parks Traveler has the best coverage of the listening session I’ve read so far in a guest post by Owen Hoffman.

Hoffman says it was a good thing to see the administrators listening and responding to the public.

The overall atmosphere of this meeting was definitely upbeat and an improvement over what I witnessed over one year ago in Sevierville, Tennessee, when I attended an ill-fated and poorly organized NPS “listening session” that was intended to introduce the public to the details of the proposed draft re-write of the NPS Management Policy Guidelines.

But he saw signs of concern. Though little of it was mentioned during the session, the parks service is moving in a direction that places more emphasis on seeking and relying on philanthropic partnerships to carry out park goals.

This is a trend that needs to be watched. We should not have to resort to funding our parks like we fund sports arenas, with corporate naming rights and priorities that are out of step with the community’s interests.

But maybe — just maybe — if there are enough of these listening sessions, and if enough people participate to let their voices be heard, we can get park bureaucrats to re-align their goals with our need for wild and natural places that are protected for future generations.

That would be rare.