As many national parks face crippling overcrowding, the National Park Service is eschewing longstanding statutory planning mandates, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). NPS contends that laws requiring general management plans, establishment of carrying capacities, and annual reports to Congress no longer apply due to a January 2021 order from a departed Trump appointee.
The National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978 mandates that every park have a current general management plan that includes a “visitor carrying capacities for all areas” to prevent damages to park resources and the visitor experience from ruinous overcrowding. The same law requires an annual report to Congress on the status of this planning.
In spite of these very specific statutory requirements, they have been increasingly ignored by NPS, in that most major parks today lack up-to-date general management plans. The last such plan adopted, at Point Reyes National Seashore, was the result of a lawsuit. In addition, almost no parks have adopted carrying capacities, even in the face of record visitation.
“Without planning, the Park Service is like a rudderless tanker tossed about by forces it does not seek to understand, let alone chart,” stated Pacific PEER Director Jeff Ruch, noting that NPS will be receiving a large infusion of funds from the Great American Outdoors Act for an array of projects. “General management plans are often the only avenue for the public to weigh in on what is otherwise a complete black box of park planning.”
In a September 1, 2021 response to a PEER Freedom of Information Act request for the annual reports required by law to Congress, NPS conceded that it had “no records responsive to” that request but asserted the statutory requirement for an annual report to Congress was “obsolete” while admitting that it remains in the U.S. Code. Instead, the letter states that “Updated NPS planning policy was recently issued through Director’s Order #2: Park Planning (DO #2)….”
This Director’s Order was issued on January 11, 2021, just days before the Biden inauguration, by Margaret Everson, an unconfirmed Trump appointee who was not even an NPS employee but “Counselor” to then-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. Ms. Everson resigned shortly thereafter.
The letter goes on to say “The NPS is committed to providing prompt updates to members of Congress and other elected officials on the status of management planning in national parks upon request. Given the updated approach to meeting planning requirements… it has proven to be more useful and efficient to provide individual park updates about these documents, rather than a list of limited information covering all NPS park units, as was provided in the past.” (Emphasis added)
“This ‘updated’ approach to planning makes it almost impossible to gauge the extent and nature of planning throughout a national park system with 423 units and counting,” added Ruch, pointing out additional flexibility does not excuse the requirement for planning to cover all aspects of park operations on a timely basis. “In the total absence of a general plan, ad hoc, piecemeal planning obscures any measure of quality control or comprehensiveness.”