Inside the Department of the Interior, Paul Hoffman, a cowboy with a beef against land conservation, has a vision for our national parks—and it involves submitting them to the menace of snowmobiles, A.T.V.'s, and privatization. His attempts to radically alter the National Park Service mission, however, have provoked a public outcry among the parks' true stewards, including one man, in Death Valley, who's standing his ground.
Paul Hoffman doesn't ride a horse to work, but he might as well, from the way he swaggers into Washington's gloomy and cavernous Department of the Interior building with his cowboy hat cocked. He's no inside-the-Beltway type, no, sir. Cody, Wyoming, is the town he calls home, and out in the woods is where he likes to be. Yet something very curious has happened to the former head of Cody's chamber of commerce. He's now a deputy assistant secretary at the National Park Service. As one of Interior's top political appointees, he's made it his mission to open America's national parks to more of the fun that Hoffman thinks most visitors want to have. Snowmobiling is one of those kinds of fun. Jet Skiing is another. Hunting would be nice, too. With any luck, he'll get a lot of what he wants before the summer is out.
Almost no one outside of Interior had heard of Hoffman until last year, when he produced a startling document to further his kinds of fun: a revision of management policies for the 390 units of the U.S. National Park Service, one of the nine public-lands agencies under Interior's aegis. Like so many of the environmental changes wrought by the Bush administration, this sounded bland and unimportant. It wasn't. The management policies are the Park Service's bible. Changing them is like changing the Ten Commandments—or, in the case of the Park Service, the fundamental commandment written in 1916, when the service was established. The Organic Act calls for the parks to be left "unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." In ways both subtle and profound, Hoffman's new language opened the parks to uses that do impair them—now and for the future.
The draft was reportedly Hoffman's own work, but it reflected the wishes of the multi-billion-dollar mechanized-recreation industry, which, perhaps not surprisingly, has contributed generously to the Bush administration. Three of its leading advocates have met with Hoffman and supported him in his labors. One is a lobbyist whose pet ideas, nursed from the early 1980s, resonate throughout Hoffman's draft.
The re-write, which was leaked last summer, caused such consternation that a new draft was written. This one, says Interior, is the work not of Hoffman but of 100 Park Service career employees. Some of the worst ideas are gone. Others remain, in softer but no less consequential terms. A final draft is now working through its last stages.
In oversight hearings, Democratic lawmakers have railed against the revisions. "This is about a set of political priorities that are going to shortchange our treasures," warns Senator Ron Wyden (Democrat, Oregon). Six Republican senators, including Lamar Alexander (Tennessee) and Olympia Snowe (Maine), agreed: they signed a strong letter of concern to then Interior Secretary Gale Norton. Alexander went so far as to write a strong follow-up letter of his own. "I am not convinced," he wrote to N.P.S. director Fran Mainella, "that the rewrite process is even necessary at this time." Yet there's nothing that he or other lawmakers can do to stop Interior from pushing it through. "It sure looks like they have a lot of administrative discretion to work their will," Wyden says. "The tragedy here is that, by the time you can get more responsible leadership, these guys will have done a lot of damage."
Hoffman would be worth scrutiny if he were merely a top political at Interior who happened to re-write those management policies. But he's more than that. He's the appointee who, critics say, carried out his superiors' wishes—the embodiment of what the Bush administration feels about national parks, and how it wants them changed. He's not as smart as his superiors, critics say, and not as subtle. But that just makes his story a more blatant version of theirs, its truths more glaring and egregious.
In the five years since a new political regime moved into the block-size limestone Interior headquarters, at 18th and C Streets, Interior's top politicals, starting with Secretary Norton, have made it clear: however else they regard the national parks, they also consider them to be irksome money pits. They've suggested privatizing thousands of Park Service jobs—what they term "outsourcing"—a way not only to save money but, in the eyes of many critics, to destroy the culture of an agency they view as not obedient enough to them. Some have even proposed having corporate sponsors share park costs in exchange for donor recognition. Despite a 2000 campaign pledge by President Bush to spend $4.9 billion addressing the parks' maintenance backlog, only a pittance in new moneys has been put to the cause. That hasn't stopped the administration from taking credit for "fixing" the maintenance backlog—by spending billions already committed by Congress—but the fact is that park buildings, roads, and bridges are crumbling.
Meanwhile, many parks' operating budgets, with inflation, can't cover their increased costs. Overall, the parks budget for 2007 has just been cut by $100.5 million, to $2.16 billion, despite a shortfall last year of $600 million. Some of that latest cut will come from the fund for acquiring new parklands—a fund already slashed in half in the Bush years, from $97,800,000 in 2000 to $44,000,769 in 2005. The last thing the administration wants, so it seems, is new parks.
In the hierarchy of public lands, national parks by law have been above the rest: America's most special places, where natural beauty and all its attendant pleasures—quiet waters, the scents of fir and balsam, the hoot of an owl, and the dark of a night sky unsullied by city lights—are sacrosanct. Historically, conservation has always been the top priority, trumping any suggested use that might degrade them. This administration has a different view. Through a willfully perverse reading of the Organic Act—and despite a thick stack of court rulings through the decades—the administration has declared conservation and recreation to be equivalent national-park priorities. As long as the recreation in question doesn't have an "unacceptable impact," as the new management policies put it, Interior's politicals are all for it. As one Park Service insider says, "They either don't get the difference between national-park-designated land and other public lands or they don't care. They think this is much ado about nothing."
That critic insisted on anonymity, as did many at the Park Service and Interior who shared their concerns with Vanity Fair. One high-level Park Service person left four messages on this reporter's phone machine, concerned about what would happen if his superiors learned he'd talked: he felt sure he would be fired and deprived of his government pension.
This culture of intimidation, critics say, has settled over the Park Service like a shroud. Parks superintendents have learned that questioning Interior dictates is a good way to stall a career rise or induce an unwanted transfer. So the campaign against new management policies has been led by the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees—a group formed in May 2003, after Bush took office, now more than 500 members strong—while their working counterparts stay mum. One active superintendent, though, has spoken out, on the record: J. T. Reynolds, of Death Valley National Park.
On a clear blue day, Reynolds takes the wheel for a ruminative drive along Death Valley's salt flats. The desert air is crisp, the temperature a mere 65 degrees—a gorgeous respite from the summer highs of 120 degrees that gave this eerie land its name and make Death Valley one of the hottest places on earth. Even now, Reynolds passes only an occasional car. If any environment seems safe from the intrusions of man, this is surely it, for Death Valley is protected not merely by nature but by law: it's the biggest national park outside of Alaska, after the 1994 California Desert Protection Act nearly doubled its size to 5,000 square miles. And yet the prospect of off-road vehicles zipping across those salt flats is not as unlikely as it may seem.
"What concerns me," says Reynolds, "is the idea of changing the Organic Act.… It is the law that establishes the Park Service. It is the law that binds all the Park Service areas as units. Congressional intent tells us that 'preserve and protect for future generations' is paramount, and that if we're going to err on any side of protection versus use, we're going to err on the side of resource protection. That's part of one's indoctrination. There are training sessions where the Organic Act is taken apart element by element.
"This is the issue," he says, "that many of us are willing to fall on our swords for."
Reynolds, 59, has the broad shoulders and powerful arms of a football player, which is what he was a long time ago at Texas A&M. But he also has the careful diction and intellectual pride instilled in him by his mother, who overcame discrimination in Galveston, Texas, to graduate from the Tuskegee Institute, one of the South's first African-American universities, and go on to a career in education. Reynolds was an Eagle Scout who married his childhood sweetheart. He was a Vietnam-era veteran, then a Park Service career man who moved from one park to another as he rose in the ranks: Yosemite, Everglades, Gates of the Arctic, Grand Canyon.
Reynolds got to Death Valley in early 2001, just as the Bush administration took office. For a year, the job was just as he'd hoped: a last stint before retirement in a park as beautiful as it is extreme. Reynolds grew to love watching the sun rise and set from Telescope Peak. He and his wife would walk out on the salt flats on a moonless night and feel overwhelmed—scared, really—by the utter darkness and quiet. Then, in early 2002, Paul Hoffman paid them a visit.
Reynolds knew that Hoffman was one of his new political overseers. He didn't know more than that, because Hoffman had no prior experience in the federal government. He'd come straight from Cody, Wyoming's chamber of commerce. How had he ascended to such a political perch? Perhaps because in the 1980s he'd served as Wyoming state director to then congressman Dick Cheney. Hoffman was a crony: Mike Brown in a cowboy hat.
According to Reynolds, the visit was billed as routine, a chance for Hoffman to see one of the crown jewels of his new dominion. At the time, the Death Valley superintendent had no idea that, back in Washington, Hoffman had already begun re-writing the Park Service management policies.
On the drive along the salt flats, Reynolds says, Hoffman asked him what he thought of the Surprise Canyon situation. Reynolds knew it well. Surprise Canyon lies on the western side of the Panamint Mountains, which rise starkly from the flats like mountains of the moon. Over the years, extreme-four-wheel-vehicle enthusiasts had made a sport of driving up the canyon's vertical spring-fed waterfalls. The vehicles were super-modified Jeeps called "rock crawlers." The drivers had to drill holes in the canyon wall, stick in metal bars, then winch their way up. Often, the rock crawlers flipped or fell, spilling antifreeze and motor oil into the stream. As a result, the canyon's ground cover was destroyed.
Until the 1994 California Desert Protection Act, all of Surprise Canyon had been under the Bureau of Land Management, subject to less stringent use standards than parklands. Still, an environmental group had sued the B.L.M. and forced it to close the canyon off to rock crawlers. Five years later, the enthusiasts had come back to the B.L.M. to demand they be let in again. Since part of the canyon now lay within Death Valley Park's expanded borders, they'd apparently made their case to those in Hoffman's circle as well.
From Hoffman's questions, Reynolds concluded that the deputy assistant secretary sympathized with the extreme-vehicle group. Reynolds was baffled. He explained that the restored canyon was inappropriate for rock crawlers. Then, Reynolds says, Hoffman asked where off-road vehicles were allowed in Death Valley. Reynolds explained they were allowed in one area called Dumont Dunes, but nowhere else.
"Why not?" Hoffman asked.
"Well, number one, we have some threatened endangered species, and we wouldn't want them impacted," Reynolds said.
Hoffman seemed unconvinced, Reynolds recalls. An Interior spokesperson says Paul Hoffman does not even know what a rock crawler is and does not recall having any conversations about them.
Last summer, three years after that visit, Hoffman's draft of the new management policies leaked out to the press. Reynolds, it so happened, was the one active superintendent who criticized them publicly. Two regional directors happened to be in Washington the week an article appeared in the Los Angeles Times. Hoffman poked his head into an office they were using at Interior. "What are you guys going to do about Reynolds?" Hoffman reportedly asked. An Interior spokesperson says that Paul Hoffman never asked this.
Since then, Death Valley National Park has been the subject of at least three investigative reviews. Those are the first such assessments the park has received since Reynolds arrived in early 2001.
The reviews appear to have found nothing significant amiss. Still, Reynolds's supporters are doing what they can to protect him if Hoffman tries anything. Last December, the Death Valley superintendent was given the Stephen T. Mather Award, named after the founding director of the Park Service, who helped write the Organic Act. The award was bestowed by the National Parks Conservation Association, a nonpartisan group with a number of Republicans on its national council, including Mather's grandson, Stephen Mather McPherson. Reynolds was honored for his "leadership" and "dedication to the long-term protection of the national parks." But everyone at the event knew the honor had an additional purpose: to help inoculate Reynolds against retribution.
On that same trip in early 2002, Hoffman drove from Death Valley to Mojave National Preserve. Another local group had called his attention to a use issue. Mojave had become a preserve only with the 1994 Desert Protection Act, and a lot of Californians, particularly hunters, were still upset about that. Hunting was allowed at Mojave—that was part of the deal that had brought its l.6 million acres into the parks system, and why it was called a preserve, not a park. But some hunters felt that Mojave's superintendent, Mary Martin, hadn't done enough to support them. They were furious that she hadn't agreed to maintain the area's "guzzlers." These were artificial watering sources—pipe-fed tanks and troughs—abandoned by ranchers who'd happily sold their lands at a premium to the federal government to create the preserve in the first place. The hunters felt the game populations would suffer without guzzlers. That would give them fewer animals to shoot.
"This is a hunting park," the deputy assistant secretary reportedly declared. (An Interior spokesman points out that hunting in the preserve is authorized by law. Counters Mojave's chief of resource management Larry Whalon: "It was a big effort in what he wanted to portray [the park] as.") Martin, an effervescent woman who'd won an award for diplomacy with local residents, reportedly tried gently to explain that, while hunting in the preserve was allowed, it was limited by, among other things, the Organic Act.
Months later, Hoffman returned. This time he was accompanied by some three dozen hunters who belonged to a national group called the Safari Club. At a contentious meeting, lawyers and lobbyists for the organization also weighed in, both in person and by speakerphone. Martin stood staunch against them all. "It was a circus," recalls Martin's assistant superintendent, Larry Whalon. "We had individuals ranting—quail hunters, bighorn-sheep and deer hunters.… Our lead ranger finally said, 'This is a national park, not a zoo!'"
For more than two years after that, Martin avoided putting in new guzzlers. Memos from Hoffman's office accumulated in her regional director's office, until the pile was inches thick. Memos came, too, from the office of Republican Congressman Richard Pombo, head of the House Resources Committee. Pombo has become notorious as having one of the worst environmental records in both houses of Congress. Last fall, his staff proposed that 15 national parks with low visitation rights be sold as a cost-saving measure. Pombo's staffers worked in concert with Hoffman to pressure Martin. (Rob Howarth, a staff director on Pombo's committee, acknowledges that he "had a number of meetings with Mary Martin," but he says his relationship with her was "very good." He adds: "What happened between her and deputy secretary Paul Hoffman, that's not my business.")
Martin was able to fend off this broadside until the 2004 election. But with Bush's victory, according to two Mojave staffers, Hoffman demanded new guzzlers be put in. Interior says that Paul Hoffman did not order Mary Martin to install guzzlers but did ask her to consider them. Interior also says Hoffman, along with the Park Service, believed that guzzlers did not require a NEPA study, but more than one Mojave staffer made it clear to Hoffman that a NEPA study would have to be done on the guzzlers before they were installed. Any government decision that might have environmental effects must, by law, be strictly reviewed in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act.
Martin complied. Immediately, an environmental group sued the Park Service for ignoring NEPA. Last year, a judge ordered the requisite NEPA review. By then, Martin had left to become superintendent of Lassen Volcanic National Park, in northeastern California. She chose a park of no interest to hunters or off-road-vehicle enthusiasts. This spring, her ex-colleagues back at Mojave will have to decide, based on the NEPA review and Interior's wishes, whether or not to put in the guzzlers. "The fun is just beginning," sighs a Mojave parks administrator. "Because no matter what choice we pursue, someone will be mad and very likely that group will sue us."
Paul David Hoffman's résumé features a headshot with cowboy hat and a "personal mission statement" that begins: "I believe that my gifts come from God and that I am called to use those gifts to serve people by helping them improve their physical, emotional, and economic well being by listening to hear their needs … " His experiences include summers spent working as a ranch hand and hunting guide in Wyoming. In the mid-1980s, the résumé states, Hoffman was a loan officer at Cody's First Wyoming Bank, before becoming state director for then congressman Dick Cheney from 1985 to 1989. Cheney's appointment as secretary of defense, in 1989, in the first George Bush's administration, prompted a special election for his seat, which Craig Thomas, now the state's senior senator, won with some on-the-ground help from Hoffman as road manager. The onetime outfitter then slid over to work for Wyoming senator Alan Simpson.
That's as much as can be gleaned from Hoffman himself, since he declined to speak with Vanity Fair. From the way he spent the 1990s, however, he clearly wanted to expend his new political capital on Yellowstone National Park.
Like many of his neighbors in Cody, Hoffman had a complex relationship with Yellowstone. Cody is one of the park's surrounding "gateway" communities—the park has one on each side, with Cody to the east—and many local businesspeople rely on the park-bound traffic that flows through it. But to many the park's superintendents have always seemed too strict, banning or restricting uses that generate business or that keep locals from leisure pursuits that might be environmentally destructive. Everyone, it seemed, had a Yellowstone story. But Hoffman's was more colorful than most.
His grandfather had been a hunter, Hoffman liked to recount. One day, a posse of U.S. cavalry, then the park's patrolling agents, surrounded him and the elk he'd just bagged. The cavalry accused him of poaching within park borders. Hoffman's grandfather declared he knew where the line was, and he was outside it. The exchange grew heated, and as Hoffman's grandfather told it, the sergeant hit him in the face with his Colt revolver. Hoffman's grandfather had already given over his gun, but now he grabbed it back and slammed the sergeant just as hard in the face. "He went down like a stuck pig," recalled Hoffman's grandfather in a family account, with one eye dangling from its socket. When the other soldiers reached for their guns, Hoffman's grandfather shot one in the shoulder, then made his escape. Days later he found his way to Canada, where he stayed for some time, sure that if he returned, he might be charged with murder. Eventually he drifted south of the border again, only to hear that the ranger had somehow managed to drag himself through deep wilderness to safety and recovery. This was Wyoming, so Hoffman's grandfather was merely brought before a judge to face the charge of poaching elk. His grandfather pleaded no contest.
Hoffman's own Yellowstone dust-up began in the mid-1990s. As head of Cody's chamber of commerce, he bridled as Yellowstone's new superintendent, Mike Finley, declared that parkland snowmobile use had gotten out of hand.
"I'm not afraid of conflict," says Finley, who's since retired to become head of Ted Turner's environmental foundation. "It didn't matter which party was in power. If someone came up with some brainchild that wasn't in the long-term interests of the park, then I'm sorry. Because I took my oath very seriously. When you tell me in statutory law that I am to provide for the use and enjoyment of these park areas to leave them unimpaired, then unimpairment is my standard.… My experience with Hoffman was that when he talked about 'use,' it always had a commercial connotation. Not a family staying in the park and having a good time. Always a commercial connection, in this case snowmobile renters."
Hoffman got nowhere with Finley. Instead, he had to watch as the Clinton administration, in response to Finley's concern, undertook a study of snowmobiles in Yellowstone and reached the obvious conclusion: banning the machines would be best for the park and its wildlife. Over three years, according to the Clinton-era mandate, snowmobiles would be phased out at Yellowstone, in favor of bus-like snow coaches. "Had Gore become president," observes Destry Jarvis, then a senior adviser at Interior, "that's where we'd be."
Instead, Bush took office and called for a new review, which ended up costing $2.4 million. No one had much doubt how it would turn out: the snowmobilers' local champion was, after all, Interior's new deputy assistant secretary of fish, wildlife, and parks.
To many of the new politicals at Interior, snowmobiles in Yellowstone was a rallying cry: the iconic issue that distinguished their stance on the use of public lands from that of the Clinton administration. To them, the right to snowmobile in Yellowstone might as well have been as fundamental as any enshrined in the Constitution.
It was, first, an issue of local economic interest—western interest. "The philosophy is: western guys are closer to the land—they know how to use national parks and forests better," observes Mike Finley. "They sort of forget about the 'national' part of that."
But the philosophy of former Interior secretary Gale Norton and her top politicals ran deeper and darker than that—to an extreme libertarianism. In certain spheres, national parks were considered federal deadweights, best cut loose and absorbed by a laissez-faire market, or at least funded by the private sector. Don Barry, assistant Interior secretary of fish, wildlife, and parks in the Clinton administration, now executive vice president of the Wilderness Society, describes what he calls a "starve the beast" mentality. "The ever smaller budgets work to starve the parks system and national wilderness areas deliberately," Barry suggests. "Then what happens? The parks are so desperate, they have to bring in local economic partners—to outsource vital services. The local economies profit from this, and the culture of the Park Service is destroyed, which is what this administration wants, too." Rob Arnberger, a 34-year veteran of the Park Service who retired as the regional director of the Alaska region, calls it a "perfect storm of ideology and special interests."
Hoffman was appointed in January 2002. In the year before, Norton had all the input she needed on snowmobiles in Yellowstone from a genial Washington lawyer and lobbyist named Bill Horn. More than anyone who actually works at Interior, Horn seems to be the department's guru on the balance between conservation and recreation in the parks. Back in the Reagan years, he served as assistant secretary of Interior for fish, wildlife, and parks—the slot directly above the deputy post Hoffman would soon fill. Today, Horn represents the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, the largest of the organized motorized-recreation groups. Despite his return to private practice, Horn has close ties at Interior. "He's on our corridor all the time," confirmed one Interior insider.
At the same time, those ties haven't kept Horn from suing Interior on behalf of snowmobilers; however, this conflict caused no ill will since, according to critics, the department was rooting for the snowmobilers, too. Quickly enough, the government settled the suit and agreed to do a new environmental study. Yet this new review reached the same conclusion: the park was better off without snowmobiles. So the government, still unconvinced, has launched a third study which will bring the taxpayers' tab for examining the impact of snowmobiles in Yellowstone to a cumulative $6.9 million. The administration has decided that until this one is done, in 2007, as many as 720 snowmobiles a day will be allowed in Yellowstone, 140 in neighboring Grand Teton National Park. On average, far fewer snowmobiles have entered the parks since then, as ongoing news of the issue has dissuaded most visitors from using them. Yet the impact of just 250 to 300 snowmobiles a day—with new, quieter engines—has already exceeded Park Service standards.
Hoffman's draft was an end run on the snowmobile wars: a nifty way of establishing a precedent that would make their use hard to ban unless it was shown to have an "unacceptable impact." Horn says he weighed in with opinions when he could, and indeed many of his long-held ideas are echoed in the document. Most of those ideas seem to lessen the importance of conservation while promoting enjoyment—enjoyment on mechanized vehicles made by companies that happen to be Bill Horn's clients.
Certainly, in Hoffman, Horn had a willing pupil. According to colleagues, Hoffman hung a poster in his office that listed all the fun things prohibited in national parks. He hung a cross on his closet door, and a biblical quote beneath it. On his desk, he kept a book that explained how the Grand Canyon had been created 6,000 years ago. Hoffman is, according to one colleague, a Young Earth creationist. An Interior spokesperson says that Paul Hoffman's beliefs have no bearing on the conservation of natural resources today. When copies of that very book showed up in the Grand Canyon bookstore, Park Service geologists howled in protest. But there the book remains.
His new co-workers soon got used to seeing Hoffman walking the halls in his cowboy hat and boots. He had a cowboy's openness and affability, but also a cowboy's impatience with rules. One Interior insider recalls him telling colleagues, in effect, not to let science and philosophy get in the way of having fun. An Interior spokesperson denies this. One colleague recalls him intensely lobbying a room of agency lawyers to help him relax the rules on firearms possession in national parks. When he didn't prevail, says someone close to Hoffman at the time, Hoffman got ornery.
It was apparently for the cause of greater fun in parks that Hoffman put the 2001 management policies on his computer and started redlining away. Generally, the policies are revised every 10 or 12 years—typically by career Park Service employees. For Hoffman to take them on a mere year or two later was novel, to say the least. According to sources, the motive was clear: the new regime wanted new policies that reflected its philosophy. "There was a perception that because the management policies were published in January 2001 they were a Clinton thing and had to be bad," says one Interior insider.
One of the first passages Hoffman redlined out of the 2001 draft was the core mission of the Park Service. "Congress … has provided that when there is a conflict between conserving resources and values and providing for enjoyment of them, conservation is to be predominant." With one keystroke, it was gone, replaced by "The Service must balance the sometimes competing obligations of conservation and enjoyment in managing the parks."
With a legal legerdemain quite impressive for a former chamber-of-commerce head, Hoffman declared that superintendents must now prove that a given activity on national-park property would have an "unacceptable impact" before disallowing it. Critics charge they'd have a hard time showing that until the impact became unacceptable. So with two words the parks would be open to almost any use anyone proposed. When a use did impair a park, according to Hoffman's proposed framework, the superintendent should work to "mitigate" it rather than rule it out altogether. Before, superintendents had been charged with "protecting" or "preserving" their parks. Now these words were declared synonymous with "conserve." But as retired superintendent Jerry Rogers observes, "If that's the case, why not use the same word throughout? No two words mean exactly the same thing, after all. If they did, there would be only one word, not two." "Conserve," to many superintendents, set a looser standard than "protect."
One of Horn's favorite notions is echoed in Hoffman's draft. Horn has said he feels that the Organic Act calls for conservation only of tangible park resources: trees, rocks, water, and so forth. The stillness of a canyon, clarity of a view, or sounds of wildlife are intangible values, Horn argues, and are thus unprotected. Besides, he says, one visitor's idea of soothing park sounds may be different from another's. That the drone from a single Jet Ski ruins the park experience of everyone else within earshot is not, to Horn's mind, a problem. Parks, he likes to say, should not be "biospheres under glass."
Perhaps not by coincidence, one of the passages Hoffman redlined was this one: "In addition to their natural values, natural sounds, such as waves breaking on the shore, the roar of a river, and the call of a loon, form a valued part of the visitor experience." It too was gone, replaced by this phrase: "There are many forms of motorized equipment, and mechanized modes of travel, and improved technology has increased the frequency of their use. In some areas and under certain conditions, the use of mechanized equipment and mechanized modes of travel may be determined to be an appropriate use."
Along with Horn, other recreation advocates weighed in with comments to Hoffman. One was Ed Klim, a jovial midwesterner who, as head of the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, represents the four major snowmobile companies. He's pleased that the re-write calls for conservation and visitor enjoyment to be given equal weight. Klim, as befits his job, is a snowmobile enthusiast. He even argues that snowmobiles are a great way to answer the president's call for more physical fitness in America. "You ride a snowmobile, it's refreshing, you get outside.… It's stimulating, kind of wakes your mind up. In your arms and shoulders, you get exercise. You're kind of standing up, and when the vehicle goes over little bumps and stuff, and when you turn, it's surprising, you do burn calories.
"Sometimes," he adds, "you get your snowmobile stuck in snow and you have to pull it out: you get exercise that way."
Another player, according to Horn, is Derek Crandall, head of the powerful American Recreation Coalition. ARC calls itself the voice of a $250 billion industry, from snowmobilers to Jet Skiers, mountain bikers to equestrians. Top Interior politicals, including Gale Norton and Assistant Secretary Lynn Scarlett, regularly attend ARC's annual meetings to receive awards and give talks about opening up the parks. Crandall thinks the new polices help frame the parks for future needs. "How does the parks system stay as important to us in 20 years as it is now?" he muses. "How does a nation that changes, that now has cable TV and iPods, how do we stay relevant to that?"
Klim sits on Crandall's board, and both are close to a third player: Rob Howarth, staff director for Representative Pombo. Howarth is a young, fast-talking policy wonk with a passing resemblance to actor Rick Moranis. He says that the management policies were like a pendulum that had swung too far toward conservation in the 2001 draft and needed to swing back. Howarth readily acknowledges that 95 percent of America's 300 million parks visitors last year had very good experiences without snowmobiles and Jet Skis. He knows that the Yellowstone snowmobile controversy drew 500,000 public comments, more than any other issue in the history of the parks, and that the overwhelming majority of those comments called for conserving the park by banning the vehicles. "I'm familiar with those studies," he says. Yet he and Klim, Crandall, and Horn, and the special interests they represent, cheered when Hoffman's draft took shape just the way they wanted.
Last July, when Hoffman's draft leaked, even some of his colleagues at Interior were appalled. "When I read his draft," says one, "I thought, How arrogant this guy is! He has no idea how he's turning on his head core concepts of the Park Service. He would have been much more effective eliciting help. But he was too much of a yahoo to do that. There isn't anyone in the department who wouldn't say Hoffman's draft was a mistake." To the superintendents, the sheer surprise of the plan was as distressing as what it said. "We didn't even get a chance to comment," says Death Valley's J. T. Reynolds.
In previous administrations, alarmed superintendents might have turned to their directors for help. The director's first duty is to protect the service and its values from the politicals. But, according to several sources, they knew better than to expect support of any kind from Fran Mainella.
A former state-park director in Florida, Mainella has established a reputation for never standing up for her staff. Instead, she kowtows to the other top political appointees. "Some people are generous with her leadership, saying she's outmaneuvered," says Rob Arnberger, the former Alaska regional director. "I have a different view. I think the leadership of the Park Service was intentionally selected to allow this agenda to be pushed through." The worst part, suggests one retired senior-level person, is that Mainella's toadying is viewed with private scorn by the top politicals. "They don't particularly like her—I don't think she's terribly bright—but they manipulate her." An Interior spokesperson says these accusations are unfounded and untrue.
A self-described "team player" with her superiors, Mainella has been harsh with her staffers. "She has a total disdain for long-term professionals," says one retired Park Service employee. "I can think of example after example of people being completely devalued: run off, stuck in corners, transferred against their wishes, or hounded into retirement." According to an Interior spokesperson, Director Mainella values the contributions and advice of career employees and relies on them constantly.
One superintendent was actually fired—an almost unprecedented occurrence in the Park Service. Theresa Chambers, hired with much fanfare in the early days of the Bush administration as the first woman chief of the National Park Service police, says she thinks she may have been fired because a reporter asked her if it was true that, after 9/ll, many Park Service police were hired as air marshals, depleting the ranks. Chambers said it was. Without explanation, Chambers says, Mainella canceled a meeting the two were scheduled to have. Later that week, Chambers says, she was asked into Assistant Secretary Don Murphy's office and told to surrender her gun and badge. "Can you please tell me what I'm alleged to have done wrong?" Chambers asked.
"Well, we're investigating that," she says Murphy replied.
Larry Belli, superintendent of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, in North Carolina, says he was called into a superior's office and fired just as abruptly, about a year ago, with no explanation. Not long before, he'd had to decide what to do about beach-buggy enthusiasts who wanted to race up and down the park oceanfront. Belli says his superiors urged him to accommodate them, even though endangered piping plovers nested on the beaches. As soon as one of the vehicles ran over a plover nest, environmentalists sued. Belli got the ax. A sympathetic colleague says Belli didn't understand how to deal with Mainella and her team. "When they say they want me to do something," says this superintendent, "my response is always 'Put it in writing.'" Shortly before Belli's case was to be heard by the Merit Systems Protection Board, a settlement was reached with Interior. The record of Belli's sudden termination was expunged, and Belli was declared to have retired, as an Interior spokesperson says, "after a long and successful career." The spokesperson adds that all details of the settlement agreement are confidential.
One of Mainella's two goals, as she has reportedly told colleagues, is to be the longest-serving parks director ever. The other is to visit every one of the 390 parks in the system. Neither, observes one retired superintendent, has anything to do with defending her staff members or their deeply held values. An Interior spokesman says this claim is absurd, and that Ms. Mainella's management goals are clearly spelled out in a document titled, "NPS Legacy Goals and Four Year Plan."
When Hoffman's draft was leaked, Mainella sanctioned a senior-level retreat in Santa Fe to review it, reportedly because even top politicals felt he'd gone too far. At the same time, Mainella imposed a de facto loyalty oath—the first such mandatory vow in Park Service history. Henceforth, all applicants for managerial jobs at the Park Service would have to be vetted by the politicals at Interior. They would have to come to Washington and demonstrate their allegiance to the secretary's four C's—Norton's tedious and meaningless mantra of "communication, consultation, and cooperation, all in the service of conservation." More chilling, they would have to show their enthusiasm for "the president's management agenda." The service had always been apolitical; Mainella's blandly worded memo proposed to change all that. (The memo has since been retracted.)
By October of 2005, Hoffman's colleagues had finished overhauling his draft. Dubbed "Hoffman Lite," it was released to less surprise but no less consternation.
At the computer in his office at Death Valley, Reynolds scrolls down to some of the problems that leap out at him. "Those changes to the wording of the Organic Act are still there," he says, changes that make visitor enjoyment as important as conservation. Also, he says, "there are still areas throughout the document where words have been changed … from 'protection' to 'conserve' or from 'must' to 'could' or 'should'—changed to what I consider real wussy words, real mealymouthed explanations."
Many of Hoffman's early cuts have survived. Gone are the references to "intangible values": protecting peace and quiet, wilderness sounds and smells and views. All wilderness parks are threatened by that little deletion. But, according to critics, for Grand Canyon National Park the threat is especially direct and dire. For years, Grand Canyon has struggled to balance the desire of visitors for natural quiet with the droning of planes that carry airborne tourists. When tensions—and lawsuits—persisted, a Grand Canyon Working Group of air-tour operators, conservation groups, backcountry users, and the Federal Aviation Administration came to the table to hash out new rules agreeable to all. Recently, they decided that, by April 2008, half of the park will have to remain quiet 75 to 100 percent of the time. But if the "soundscape" is devalued by the new management policies, that agreement will fall apart. "The air industry is a huge, multi-million-dollar industry," says Roxane George, of the local Sierra Club. "They're only at the table because the courts and Congress have said they have to be there."
Since its dubious reception, Hoffman Lite has been put out for public comment and pored over in Senate and House hearings. In those sessions, lawmakers from both parties have expressed keen skepticism about it, but not to Fran Mainella. There in her stead has been Steve Martin, her assistant director, a former superintendent at Grand Teton National Park, who now has the thankless task of producing a final draft that pleases his career colleagues and his political overseers.
Martin's capacious corner office in the Interior building seems at odds, somehow, with his Park Service uniform: he resembles a ranger sitting in for an executive V.P. Visibly uncomfortable, he also looks like he'd rather be back at Grand Teton than here in the hot seat, flanked by three department flacks. He stresses that Hoffman Lite is undergoing more review, not just from the public but from many on his staff. When it's done, he says, it may actually do more than the 2001 version to protect parks.
But will conservation and visitor enjoyment now have equal weight?
Martin hesitates. "Conservation has to trump enjoyment," he says. "If there's a conflict, if use could cause degradation, you have to err on the side of the resource."
Why, then, does the standard of "unacceptable impact" reappear in Hoffman Lite?
Again, Martin hesitates. "It's not something that we would find appropriate to how we manage the resources of the parks system." Yet Hoffman Lite is still riddled with the phrase.
Martin insists that the concept of intangible resources will be restored in words of some kind. But, he adds, "we manage Langston Golf Course … and we manage Gates of the Arctic.… These policies have to work for both."
Would it be fair, Martin is asked, to say Hoffman's draft was a huge misstep?
Martin hesitates again, then says firmly, "Yes."
That's a gutsy reply, given that Hoffman is still one of Martin's bosses. For now, Martin seems to have the authority to shape the re-write as he sees fit. Whether he can get the politicals to sign off on it is another matter.
"Steve is fairly new to the D.C. game," says Don Barry, the former assistant secretary of fish, wildlife, and parks under Clinton. "I've spent 19 years at Interior … and I know how these things operate. The National Park Service won't stay in control of this thing. The sixth floor will call all the shots."
A week later, in mid-February, Martin appears before the House subcommittee on parks to make his pitch that all will be well. Representative Donna M. Christensen (Democrat, Virgin Islands) notes with dismay Fran Mainella's absence from the hearings. "I'm having difficulty understanding why the director is not here," she says.
"You said the final version would be vetted," Christensen says. "Who specifically at Interior will vet it?"
"The director is the signatory on the document," Martin says. "But the assistant secretary, the deputy secretary, or secretary, if she wants, will have a chance to review it."
Mark Udall (Democrat, Colorado) follows up on this. "You said before that political appointees will no longer be involved in the process," he says. "That's not the case, though, is it, if career people write it and politicals oversee it, right?"
Martin, the man in the middle, struggles again to answer in a way that pleases all. "The director of the Park Service is a political appointee," he responds, "and the assistant secretary and deputy secretary are political appointees. But having a surprise endgame … I don't feel like that's going to be the outcome of the process."
Soon enough, he'll know if he's right.
Michael Shnayerson is a Vanity Fair contributing editor.