Opinion: Give Park Control to States
Editor's Note: The following opinion piece was written by Wally Owen, a retired rancher from Medora, N.D., and appeared in the Bismarck Tribune.
It is a painful reality that Theodore Roosevelt National Park is beset by an onslaught of demoralizing problems such as air and noise pollution, viewsheds destroyed, invasive weeds, elk, horses, buffalo, prairie dog management challenges and looming budget problems. Quite frankly, one might wonder if Theodore Roosevelt National Park can maintain its status as a national park. For many years, its status was that of a memorial park.
Cuts to the budget are raising concerns about the continued management of the National Park Service in North Dakota. This is prompted by concern about the proposed closing of Painted Canyon Overlook just east of the park on Interstate 94.
The decision is being made by National Park Service without any public involvement or consideration of the economic impact it would have on tourism and North Dakota’s economy. It’s being done with no consultation with the governor’s office, state departments of tourism and commerce, or the communities most affected. If the same type of impact was proposed that would affect the national park, there would environmental impact statements required, public hearings, etc.
It does not take close examination to reveal the flaws in the proposal and raise doubts about the National Park Service’s ability to make these decisions. Many innovative responsive management strategies need to be reviewed. The public has a right to be involved. At a minimum, an economic impact statement needs to be prepared in such a decision.
As Lincoln said, “The time has come to think anew and act anew.” It is in the mutual interest of the state, local communities and the nation to keep our National Park Service areas open to the public and to fulfill the trust that these special places will be available for generations to come. A federal, state and private partnership needs to be formed to ensure their continued operation. What is best for our national parks may not be what is best for the National Park Service, and the reverse is true as well.
A state oversight commission is required. The state has the expertise in the state Parks and Recreation Department, Game and Fish Department, Forest Service, State Historical Society of North Dakota and other agencies to manage the services associated with the national park under the National Park Service guidelines. The private sector, state and county have the ability to manage security, roadwork and waste removal under those guidelines.
The land should remain as units of the National Park System, in title, ownership and standards of operation. Responsibility for maintenance and operation could be transferred to the state and/or private contractors. The existing general management plans for these areas would remain in effect with periodic review, but responsibility for implementation of the plans would rest with the state or contractors. The contracts or agreements would be for five years, with annual performance review or similar procedures the National Park Service deemed appropriate. If for any reason the state or private entities did not satisfy the requirements of the agreement, operations and maintenance functions would be returned to the park service.
The National Park Service alternative is to close the parks and/or discontinue the services. This is suicide because the parks must have public support to survive. The National Park Service is gambling that by closing services and facilities, it will gain public support.
The bottom line is that if something isn’t done — either increased revenues or reduced cuts — we’re going to see some facilities and services ended in our national parks.
Shutting down the national park services or facilities for even portions of the year would devastate the tourism industry. The national parks reflect our values. They are the people’s parks, not the National Park Services’ parks. We need innovative, responsive management strategies to effectively operate these areas.
A continuing liaison with the National Park Service would be necessary for policy interpretation, but direct-involvement operations and implementing management plans would not be expected. Through this partnership, we can provide the public with continuing quality service while reducing the burden on the federal government. We can really achieve federal fiscal responsibility to the taxpayers and still keep these parks open. We need to ask this question, and develop a new vision of opportunity. This cannot be done without public involvement.
If the Interior Department and state of North Dakota and/or private enterprise agree that they are able to manage these parks, or parts of them, up to national standards and expectations and be cost-effective, then how can we actually make it happen?
Identify what park standards aren’t being met, and how any perceived deficiencies should be and can be corrected. Is there a role for state, private and local partners?
Appreciate and encourage any discussion of maintaining and improving our national parks. The citizens can only hope that these comments will provide a framework for continuing debate.
Then the public can be the judge as to how the National Park Service is meeting its mission statement.
More About Wally Owen
Wally Owen and his wife, Dee Ann Baertsch, were born and raised in Southwest North Dakota and have spent the majority of their lives in the area. Owen began his real estate career after graduating from Dickinson State University in 1973. In 1976 he became the executive vice president of the North Dakota Association of Realtors. He later joined the staff of Northern Realty Bismarck, as vice president in charge of recruiting, training and managing sales staff. In 1983 Dee Ann and Wally moved back to Medora, they operated Peaceful Valley Ranch in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, along with their real estate investments, banking and Little Missouri Real Estate. Wally has formal real estate education from the Realtors National Marketing Institute, American Management Association, continuing education from the University of North Dakota and many other real estate seminars. Wally is a licensed real estate agent with Little Missouri Real