National Park Service Listening
Session: Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Crater Lake Institute
March 14, 2007
Subject: Gatlinburg listening session
I attended yesterday's NPS first
"listening session" on the National Park Centennial Initiative
in preparation for the 2016 NPS centennial. The meeting was held
at the Mills Auditorium near the Gatlinburg Convention Center in
Gatlinburg, TN. For those of you not familiar with the area,
Gatlinburg is situated right outside the northern border of the
Great Smoky Mountains National Park and is a major commercial
tourist center and gateway community.
Despite the very short public
notice for this meeting given in the local media, there were
about 300 persons in attendance. However, approximately 40 were
plain clothed superintendents from other parks who were
attending because this "listening session" coincided with a
special conference for Southeast regional park
superintendents. These high-level NPS employees mostly stood in
the back of the room. The room was filled to capacity.
Most of the NPS uniformed staff who were in attendance were from
the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, with the exception of
Southeast Regional Director Patricia Hooks, who was in
attendance and in uniform.
Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne and NPS Director Mary
A. Bomar, along with GSMNP Superintendent Dale Ditmanson,
facilitator Steve Whiteshell, Superintendent of San Antonio
Mission on detail for this project, and a court reporter were at
the front of the room. They assumed the role of official
"listeners." Their opening comments were cordial and very brief.
Contrary to what I had been informed of prior to the meeting via
our CNPSR listserve, the NPS "listening session" format was not
one of multiple workstation break-out sessions. Instead,
it resembled more of a town-hall meeting in which each
pre-registered attendee desiring to make a statement was given 2
minutes to speak. Steve Whiteshell, enforced the time limits.
It was readily apparent to all attending that Director Bomar and
Secretary Kempthorne made a dedicated effort to listen to each
and every commentator. They often responded directly to the
comments made. I was impressed with their demeanor and their
exceptional demonstration of listening skills.
I was also impressed with the general underlying theme of most
commentators, which was "Keep parks unimparied for the enjoyment
of future generations." "Keep privatization and
commercialization out of our parks, there's enough of that in
Gatlinburg!" "Parks are primarily there for inspiration,
contemplation, education and recreation and belong to all of the
public." "The NPS needs to minimize conflicts between the
primary objectives of preservation and protection of cultural
and natural resources and while providing access to park
Three speakers were NPCA staffers representing the NPCA
Southeast Region. These included Don Barger, NPCA regional
representative, from Norris, TN, Emily Jones, and Gregg Kidd.
Both Director Bomar and Secretary Kempthorne acknowledged the
presence of NPCA at this meeting and emphasized that the NPS and
NPCA had a tradition and a legacy of a close working
Owen Hoffman speaks
with NPS Director Bomar at the Listening
Secretary Kempthorne made it a point to state that at a previous
meeting, NPCA promised him that their organization would stand
up and applaud if the Bush Administration woudl be able to raise
an additional $250 million for our parks. Kempthorne then
countered that the Bush Administration was developing an
increased budget inititiative for FY'08 that would increase park
funding by $258 million.
During last night's meeting, the educational value of national
parks and the educational role of the national park ranger was
given a high priority by many speakers, and this value was
acknowledged by those in sitting in front of the room who were
charged with doing the "listening." The principal of the
Gatlinburg elementary school was in attendance. He and a group
of his students had been on a hike earlier in the day with Sec.
Kempthorne. They were in attendance to support the educational
values of the park and the importance of the park for their
Because the format of this meeting was organized for a steady
sequence of input from registered participants to give 2 minutes
of oral comment, there was not opportunity for open discussion
nor debale of details of the president's 2008 budget initiative,
nor was their an opportunity for debate or elaboration on
specific issues. The attendees were encouraged to follow-up with
written comments and to use the NPS web site reserved for online
comment at www.nps.gov/2016.
The overall atmosphere of this meeting was definitely upbeat and
a most definite improvement over what I witnessed one year ago
in Sevierville, TN 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. That meeting was intended for
the NPS to do the talking and for the public to do the
listening. It didn't go over very well at all.
Surprisingly, at last night's meeting, I did not hear much from
pro-development interests, although there were many in
attendance representing the interests of local gateway
communities. A few mentioned the historic value of the
controversial North Shore Road on the North Carolina side of the
park and were long-time supporters for its completion. Lynn
Faust of Knoxville, TN made an impassioned plea for the
preservation/restoration of the historic developments and lodge
inside the park at Elkmont, including the need to restore the
now demolished Wonderland Hotel.
One mountain biker made a plea for more mountain bike access
inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He received a
direct acknowledgement from Sec. Kempthorne that President Bush
himself is a mountain biker and would be sympathetic to his
request. The mountain biker claimed to be a conservationist and
preservationist, and often performs volunteer trail maintenance
when riding on trails.
There were at least two active members of the CNPSR
present, Warren Bielenberg, and myself. Warren stated that
without more permanent NPS positions, increasing park
staffing through additional volunteers and more seasonals
amounts to even more work for existing staff who must recruit,
train, and supervise a continually changing cadre of part-time
personnel. Warren said that this would be most definitely the
case with the proposed increase of 300 seasonals.
Secretary Kempthorne said that the proposed increase was not 300
additional seasonals but 3000. Kempthorne promised that
increases would also occur among NPS permanent positions as
I was speaker number 25. I found myself totally unprepared to
deliver my miriad of thoughts within a 2 minute time period. In
my preparations to attend this meeting, I had no idea what was
going to be the operational format for public input. So, when
called to the mike, I had to think very fast and prioritize my
comments, taking into consideration all that was said by the 24
who spoke before me.
I basically made a plea for the US Government to support basic
park operations directly and that parks should not have to rely
on private funding to operate. After all, the US Natonal Parks
are for all Americans.
I voiced my concern that when visiting parks in recent times, it
is very rare to find a national park ranger. We see mostly
volunteers and natural history association employees in our park
visitor centers. As a park visitor, we seldom see anyone in the
park wearing the uniform of a real ranger, unless it happens to
be a law enforcement ranger inside a prowl car.
I made a plea for the protection of "the other half of the
park," and mentioned the importance of the NPS taking a
leadership role in promoting the aethetic awareness and cultural
values of a dark and starry night. I made a brief plea for
consideration of an NPS Ranger Reserve composed of past NPS
employees who are available and would eagerly serve the NPS in
times of special need, if asked.
As I talked, I observed Mary taking notes. As I finished, I was
amazed at how stressful and difficult it was to make an
articulate presentation in just a 2 minute period of time.
Park staff, Director Bomar, and Secretary Kempthorne remained in
the room for almost an hour after the conclusion of the
listening session. In all, 40 individuals had spoken, and no
additional persons came forward at the conclusion of nearly 2
hours of public commentary.
My overall impression of this meeting was positive, but I felt
somewhat concerned that there was no real opportunity to get
into details. Certainly Secretary Bomar and Secretary Kempthorne,
and all others in attendance at this meeting, got the message
loud and clear: that there are many Americans who value our
parks highly and that we want these special places kept
unimpaired for future generations to come.
It was only today that I read the official NPS brochure
distributed from last night on the National Park Centennial
Initiative having to do with "Signature projects and programs."
In this brochure it is firmly stated that such projects will:
rely on leveraging of
philanthropic, partnership, and government investments for
the benefit of the parks and the park visitor
provide for a margin of
capture the imagination of the
secure at least a 1:1
use current staffing, unless
additional staff is provided through endowed positions or
be sustainable in design,
material, and location
Among the items stated above, I am
most concerned about item (5.) above. This written statement
appears to be in conflict with the answers given to Warren Bielenberg by Secretary Kempthorne. It also reminds me of the
situation currently faced by major urban symphony orchestras
whose principal chairs are filled through endowments from
I hope you my write-up of impressions of this first "listening
session" to be of interest.
We would like to thank Owen, a board member of the Crater Lake
Institute, for taking the time and effort to attend this meeting
and for making a contribution to the proceedings.