I think of Battery Weed, a skeletal 19th-century fort commanding the Narrows of New York Harbor. From the top of a bluff just minutes from my house, I regarded the neglected granite fortress with sadness, for its eventual collapse seemed inevitable. I was wrong. By and by, Battery Weed would be captured by the Park Service and tidied up as a showcase feature of Gateway National Recreation Area. Rummaging around in even older memories, I see surf pounding the white sands of Nauset Beach (now Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts), wind rippling a sea of wild switchgrass in the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas (Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve), sunlight dancing across a flow of ancient lava near Grants, New Mexico (El Malpais National Monument).
Yet for all the bright memories, there's reason to fear that America's national parks may now be facing their most daunting test. The present danger goes beyond the usual alarm that the Park Service is strapped for adequate funds to maintain the parks and therefore overwhelmed by visitors who are "loving the parks to death." That of course is a huge problem, but not a new one. Budget shortfalls have harried the Park Service and the system for many decades and under many administrations. Yet the most unsettling danger over the past five years—at least until Dirk Kempthorne replaced Gale Norton as Secretary of the Interior last May and Fran Mainella announced her intent to resign as director of the Park Service—has been an atmosphere of veiled hostility created by political appointees at the highest levels of both agencies. That atmosphere not only rattled the morale of many career professionals in the field but also assaulted the legal and regulatory fabric that has effectively held the National Park System together for 90 years.
In fits and starts over those same five years, I've been taking the pulse of the Park Service and the system, talking with regional directors, park superintendents, interpretive and law enforcement rangers, and public affairs specialists. Some have retired from the agency since we spoke, a few taking early retirement rather than toeing the party line and biting their tongues behind a fixed smile. The relatively new Coalition of National Park Service Retirees now counts among its more than 500 members 5 former directors or deputy directors, 26 regional directors or deputies, and 130 park superintendents and assistant superintendents. Many of these former top professionals put in for retirement since 2001. "We're losing some of our best people," a ranger said to me last year at Yosemite Valley. "Where is it going to end?"