The Park Service Gets Suckerpunched by Congress

Here’s a really great example in High Country News about politics, the National Environmental Policy Act, and environmental protection. It seems those suckers in the National Park Service have spent several years writing a NEPA plan to reduce the noise levels from aircraft overflights on the grounds that these sightseeing overflights disrupt the natural quiet at Grand Canyon National Park, only to have congress pull the rug out from under them at the last second. You can read the gruesome details in the HCN article.

I’m very familiar with the Grand Canyon overflights issue, and when it comes to my national parks I am a purist, so my natural inclination is to utter some profanity about the bastards in congress. But really, interference in big issues like this – and the Grand Canyon overflights is a big issue in the parks world – occurs with some frequency. And who can say it shouldn’t? Who can say that the NPS is right and congress is wrong? The NPS is just as political as congress; it’s run by political appointees and is part of the executive branch of government. We have established no law that states authoritatively what the noise level above a national park shall be.  

There is no environmental law without politics. Here’s what I said about NEPA when reporting on the Cape Wind project:

As I’ve written here before, NEPA is a procedural tool, not an outcome tool. It doesn’t guarantee the best environmental outcomes. NEPA doesn’t even guarantee good environmental outcomes. It’s a paperwork hurdle. And with a federal project as politically charged as this expensive and massive green energy wind farm, we should expect nothing less than political pressure to get over that hurdle, just like the political pressure applied to use NEPA to kill the Keystone Pipeline Project.

Look, government is politics. Every decision is an act of compromise between competing interests: the sightseeing public, the park lovers, the aircraft operators, the local chamber of commerce, and on and on. Consider national parks: nearly every one is the result of a political compromise. We must accept this, because we couldn’t bear the alternative, which is authoritarianism. Democracy will always be messy.

From my perspective, we lost one here today. My preference is to experience my parks in a state of natural quiet. But I’m not the only one who gets a say. So I accept the outcome and soldier on and work toward a better result next time.

PS: Know that I hold a much different view if this were an environmental pollution issues. Yes, noise can be said to pollute as a matter of personal preference. Such preference decisions will always be subject to the politics I speak of above. What I’m not quite so open to is political compromise on issues of environmental harm, such as air and water pollution, endangered species protection and so on. Of course politics plays a role in these decisions as well, but I believe that the room for compromise must be much narrower than it is even today, such that we may debate the means but not the ends of reducing pollution and other environmental harms.


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