The President’s Agenda: Restoring the National Park Service

This President’s Agenda proposal is one that’s close to my heart. The National Park Service (NPS) is an agency celebrated worldwide for the stunning legacy of natural, cultural, and historic wonders it manages. To those of us on the inside, the NPS is also renowned amongst federal agencies for its quality employees, dedication to mission, and commitment to providing quality to the American taxpayer.

Unfortunately, this once proud, mission-accomplishment-oriented agency is now suffering the same debilitating rot inevitable to all bureaucracies. Sclerosis has set in, and failure is its mistress.Burdened under an Atlasean-weight of rules and policies and paperwork requirements, the NPS is no longer able to respond to its most basic mission requirements, and the national parks suffer (although the park employees, who care the most, suffer above all).

The next president’s goal should be to reorient the entire agency with these fundamental reforms: restore the idea of the ranger-generalist; refocus the mission on the resources and users; and free the agency from meddling external bureaucrats. As a former NPS employee, if given the president’s attention, I would endorse the following workplace reforms:

  1. Liberate park personnel to work in a truly multidisciplinary manner. Presently, every federal job, from plumber to park ranger, is defined (or classified, in bureaucratese) by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). OPM sets qualifications, duties, and pay scales for every position in the NPS, and each employee is constrained by these OPM definitions of work load, performance, and pay. Predictably, the classification schema has resulted in a workforce that is rigid, intimidated by workplace rules, and demoralized by the lack of development and personal growth within the job. The tragedy is that the NPS has some of the best people in government. The next president should waive OPM classification rules for NPS employees and allow the agency to use its people as expert-generalists: employees with technical knowledge in one field who also can perform a wide-range of park-related duties. I’ll explain more in point 2.
  2. Part of returning the NPS toward its historic mission is to bring back the naturalist-generalist. Once we called this the generalist-ranger: Today, I think the NPS would best be served by individuals who reflect the diversity of the NPS mission – naturalists, ecologists, historians, outdoor enthusiasts, and so forth. We accomplish this with two reforms: First, end the emphasis on higher-education credentials in the hiring process. There is no need for a park’s “Natural Resources Manager” to hold a degree in biological or earth sciences. That is but one part of the equation. The NPS should consider other skills, interests, and talents as well. Also, the NPS doesn’t do science; the NPS manages resources and users of resources, and a lot of different educational fields could fill this role (recreation management first and foremost). Second, hiring decisions need to look beyond a narrow set of skills. Today the NPS fills a plumbing position with someone who has nothing but plumbing experience to do no more than plumbing work. This is absurd. In the NPS we need to expect more. The NPS should hire someone with plumbing experience who is also a naturalist (or historian or biologist) by background. The basic rule for filling a position should be this: park resource first, park user second, park discipline third.
  3. Make the NPS a truly interdisciplinary agency by allowing employees to work across the narrow confines of their current OPM-dictated job descriptions. The first employee who utters “it’s not in my position description” in response to a request for work should be fired, just to set the tone. Look, resource and recreation user problems are interdisciplinary by nature. If the NPS is to successfully manage these issues, it needs a workforce that can collaborate across disciplines. This needs to happen on a day-to-day basis; it can’t be limited to the occasional interdisciplinary team meeting.
  4. Further, the NPS needs to end the ‘management by division’ organizational structure in the parks. The departmentalization of park employees by divisions – law enforcement, resource management, planning, interpretation, etc. – is not conducive to a holistic approach to resource management. It also leads to the stove-piping of disciplines up the chain of command, where Washington bureaucrats exercise their control.

These first four points are critical for restoring the NPS legacy and mission, and to developing an agency responsible for managing native resources in a new century. Specialization in job disciplines is important, but roles should not be defined and constrained by that specialty. We need park employees who understand park operations from a holistic perspective rather than the narrow parameters of their OPM-classified job description. I could write on this topic all day, but for now will leave it as said and move on with these additional reforms (sorry the numbering starts over at 1).

  1. Free employees to focus on their jobs. The NPS has followed the path of every bureaucracy in history and burdened its employees under an unmovable weight of work rules and paperwork exercises. Atlases they are, with the weight of every bureaucratic whim and fancy piled upon their shoulders. No wonder moral and productivity suffer. Here’s a start: Eliminate absurd employee training requirements (yes, we know not to look up porn on our computers); end data calls and performance reports; simplify or eliminate procedures that require mounds of paperwork; treat employees as adults and stop the belittling safety regulations. There is so much wasted, unproductive use of employee time in federal agencies that it boggles the mind.
  2. Simplify park budgets. This is another “O” agency issue – the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). OMB, like OPM, has way too much influence, and requires way too much of the park service’s attention in all proportion to the value provided. OPM and OMB – these are bureaucracies overlaid upon bureaucracy, with all the accompanying egos, power struggles, inefficiencies and wasted energies inherent in such a flawed arrangement. Parks do not need 140 or 180 or 220 different accounting codes. They do not need to spend 3 months of the year formulating and reconciling budgets. I promise you I know a budget expert in the NPS who could simplify the budget process within a matter of days, and give us a process that is accountable, transparent, simple, and efficient.
  3. For Christ’s sake, can we give our seasonal employees health insurance? Sorry; this is a personal gripe.
  4. Improve supervision to improve employee performance and moral. The NPS has lousy supervisors. I’m sorry, but it’s true. A lot of good people are shoved into lousy supervisor roles. The chief antagonist is tenure: The NPS promotes from within disciplines, usually based on time served, to fill supervisory roles. These time-servers are then given responsibilities over employees, budgets, and operations with exactly zero training in how to be proficient, let alone outstanding, at this job. Okay, they get a week of training a year. But tenure and a week of training do not generally yield the most effective, dependable, and talented supervisors. Supervision is not about the supervisor, as if some reward for sticking it out. Supervision is about the employee first, and the mission second. The NPS has forgotten this along the way.
  5. Along with improved supervision, move toward more interdisciplinary supervisory structures. A park doesn’t need a distinct supervisor for resources, facilities, planning, interpretation, and so on. A general model should see a park with a strong superintendent and a few talented, well-trained supervisors under him/her to manage the entire park staff. The larger the staff, the more general supervisors. The NPS desperately needs to break from the division mentality, where a supervisor from maintenance leads the maintenance employees, and so on. The entire supervisory approach, again, needs to abandon disciplines in exchange for a holistic and interdisciplinary understanding of park operations.
  6. My final point; allow employees to float between federal land management agencies. If a park needs a hydrologist, and the forest next door has a hydrologist, let the park temporarily employee that individual without going through the cumbersome federal hiring process that, these days, may take a year or longer. Only the federal government could make it so difficult for a federal employee to move between federal agencies.

So, dear future president, these are some of my internal reforms to save the park service from the slow, painful, demoralizing death of so many bureaucracies. The NPS is too important – the parks too important – to allow the government to slowly, layer by layer, build another monument to inefficiency in the form of the park service. Simple steps, simple reforms, and we can make the National Park Service a model federal agency for the new century. Frankly, if we can’t save the National Park Service, then it is time to cash it in.

The President’s Agenda: Mountaintop Coal Mining

Mountaintop coal mining is a great case study in the complexities of American environmental policy. Very few environmental issues seem so clear cut as ending mountaintop mining, yet the debate over this practice rages. It’s a jobs vs. environment debate in an economically depressed region. It’s blue collar vs. environmental crowd. It’s neighbor against neighbor, corporation against community, and local politicians of both parties against national political groups. It’s a President who has done very little to clean up this practice because he needs to win the swing state of West Virginia, and a Presidential contender who promises coal jobs forever.

In my opinion, mountaintop mining is an extreme environmental harm that is completely unnecessary, and I believe the next President should prohibit this practice immediately.  

First, what is mountaintop mining? Mountaintop mining is a surface mining technique used to remove coal located below the surface in hilly and mountainous regions, most notably the Appalachian region of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky.  Without getting overly technical, the practice of mountaintop mining works like this: once a coal seam has been located, the mountain/hill will be stripped of its vegetation. Explosives are used to loosen the earth above the coal seam. Heavy equipment will removed this loose material and deposit it in the valley floor or another fill area. A dragline then removes the layer of rock to expose the coal seam so that the coal can be mined. There may be multiple coal seams within one mountain (think of a mountain as a layer cake, with layers of coal contained between layers of sedimentary rock), so this process may be repeated. Once the coal is removed, the coal companies are required to reclaim the mountaintop.

Somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of our coal production comes from mountaintop mining. But mountaintop mining represents 40 percent of the mining activity in Appalachia. In that region, it is the most cost-effective way to remove the coal. Mountaintop mining represents a lot of jobs, income, and relative prosperity in an historically economically depressed region.

Any reasonable person would feel compassion for the people and communities affected by mountaintop mining. No one wants to see the economic lifeblood of a region shut down. But I think we need to do it, shut it down.  Ending mountaintop mining will be costly to the region, as there will be a steep economic transition. But ending the practice will have very little impact across the nation’s energy markets, but will eliminate a tremendous environmental harm.

The legacy of mountaintop mining is one of permanent destruction; somewhere around 1,000,000 acres and 470 mountains have been changed forever. Over 2,000 miles of stream have been buried under the waste product, called fill, which remains after the coal is removed. The environmental harms are numerous and enormous: loss of soil productivity, loss of wildlife habitat, the destruction of headwaters and the introduction of heavy metals in the streams that do survive this practice, the occurrence of floods and the destruction of communities, and the end of a way of life for many who once sought sustenance from the mountains and streams and valleys of the region. Man has grotesquely and permanently altered the landscape in the pursuit of a small percentage of our nation’s electricity needs. I think the time for questioning is over: it’s time to end mountaintop mining forever.  

For more information and a great 20-minute video on this topic, see Yale’s Environment360 blog. Image courtesy US EPA.

The President’s Agenda: Legalize Industrial Hemp

Today’s subject for the next President of the United States is hemp. At Free the Commons! we have no fear that legalizing industrial hemp would turn our nation into a population of Doritos-munching slackers. On the contrary, we believe that industrial hemp is an eco-friendly agricultural product that could prove a boon to local agri-economies across the United States. Hemp should find a place on our next President’s agenda.

Hemp has been grown for thousands of years all around the globe for a variety of purposes, and was a popular cash crop in the United States until made illegal in the 1930’s. Hemp is most often used for its high quality fiber to produce paper, rope, and fabrics. Hemp can also produce food – the seeds are high in protein and good fatty acids. The seeds can also be used to produce oil. Hemp is of course most well-known for its medicinal and hallucinogenic properties.

Hemp is regarded as an eco-friendly crop because it’s very fast growing, uses little water, and generally does not require the application of pesticides or herbicides. The benefit of hemp is that it is a versatile, high yield crop; as a result, you get a productive, multiple-uses crop that doesn’t require harmful inputs and needs a comparatively small footprint of land to grow. This Slate article from 2011 provides a pretty good summary of how hemp stacks up against competitive crop substitutes, such as organic cotton, which is a good but very water-intensive crop.

I understand very well the politics of hemp, but I view most of the concerns as a smokescreen. There are some 2,000 varieties of hemp plant, and many of them are quite low in the THC compound from which marijuana is derived. The plant varieties grown as a crop are far different in appearance and potency than are those varieties cultivated for drug use. We need to get past the fear of agricultural hemp.

Currently, China is the world’s leading producer of industrial hemp, followed by Canada and Australia. America, as the world’s agricultural superpower, could easily overtake the world market in hemp production. From my point of view, we’d do ourselves and our planet a huge favor if we dumped the growing of corn for ethanol and legalized the growing hemp for fabric, paper, clothing, and food.

The President’s Agenda: R.S. 2477

I understand that Mitt Romney yesterday wrapped up the required number of delegates to call himself officially the Republican candidate for president. The occasion gives me an excuse to offer another installment to my series of posts on The President’s Agenda.

On today’s agenda, I urge the next president to finish what the Federal Land Policy and Management Act began in 1976 and end the misery of R.S. 2477! A relic from the age of President Andrew Johnson, R.S. 2477 is the source of incredibly costly and potentially limitless political drama, legal warfare, and bureaucratic hand-wringing.

A product of the 1866 Mining Act, R.S. 2477 is nothing more than a right-of-way grant. The exact language is: “The right of way for the construction of highways over public lands, not reserved for public uses, is hereby granted.” That single sentence – and that is all there is to the R.S. 2477 text – has spawned three decades of unrelenting conflict, beginning with the Sagebrush Rebellion in the 1980’s, as predominantly western counties and states fight the feds for control over every wagon rut and footpath, imagined or real, that could possibly have existed since the dawn of time. The reward for the states? Access and control: unrestricted access to public lands and their untapped natural wealth, and control over the management of these lands by exercising their R.S. 2477 rights-of-way.

In a past job, I spent an inordinate amount of time dealing with R.S. 2477. I could offer you an analysis worthy of the finest legal journal of every R.S. 2477 legal treatise and court case if it would do any good. But it would not do any good. For you see, there is no resolution to the R.S. 2477 mess. There will never be a resolution to the R.S. 2477 mess until the law is repealed in totality.

You must understand: R.S. 2477 claims are the hammer with which the western states seek to break the federal government’s grasp on the public lands and all those valuable but locked up natural resources harbored therein. Each blow of the hammer loosens the grasp and pries the fingers open a little more. Massaging that hand, restoring its vice-like grip of federal authority to govern the public lands are the environmental groups (and others) who have no interest in roads, let alone the new mining claims they may lead to. And even though the federal government’s authority over public lands tends to wax rather than wane when R.S. 2477 cases go to court, the tide of R.S. 2477 claims is never ending, and no court case will ever result in an ultimatum that ends the political strife. For you see, no matter what the courts decree, no matter the administrative process put in place, no matter the political will of the parties involved, there will always be another road to fight over, to use as leverage, to swing as a hammer, to keep the conflict alive. End R.S. 2477 now.

The President’s Agenda: Timber

The federal timber wars have been raging for decades. I say the next president should end them.

The U.S. Forest Service manages millions of acres of forest plantations: artificially established monocultures that were hand-planted following clear-cuts or natural disasters. These areas should be aggressively managed for optimal timber production, and all other federal lands should be off-limits to timber production.

Like grazing, timber harvests are a tremendous source of conflict. No matter the objective, and there are valid conservation reasons for harvesting trees, someone will object. Someone always objects. The next president could remove all the costs, uncertainty, and conflict involved in timber production on federal lands.

My proposal is simple: inventory all plantations on federal lands; determine the level of board feet needed over a set period of time by timber type – the Obama administration wants three billion board feet a year – and then; establish a rotation schedule of sustainable harvests. Remove these areas from all environmental oversight and appeal and political nonsense. All that is left is a brief fight over which plantations would be selected for the program.

Even in northern spotted owl range, environmentalists support thinning in plantations. This is because plantations have limited wildlife value. I support plantation harvests because this policy would remove the uncertainty from future timber harvests, returning some sense of security to those timber communities that win the plantation raffle. My plan would also save the taxpayers’ money by removing these projects from endless and expensive environmental analysis and litigation.

At first, I though some level of environmental review would be required, just to make sure some sensitive species hadn’t decided to take up habitat in a plantation. But then I recalled all of my experience with “clauses” like this in environmental law, and the obnoxious lawsuits and pathetic federal responses that are the result of such wishy-washy thinking, and the really obvious solution to ending the timber wars once and for all is to state unequivocally that these plantations are set aside for nothing but timber supply.

Simplify. Free the Commons.

The President’s Agenda: Grazing

If I were to advise the next president on rewriting America’s public land laws, without hesitation I’d begin with the Taylor Grazing Act. A needless source of animosity between environmentalists and ranchers, corruption at the local level, and destruction of biodiversity, grazing is the vestigial tail of our western identity.

The litany of problems with public lands grazing is long, but a short list might include damage to riparian areas, pollution to water sources, destruction to soils and vegetation, introduction of invasive species, and the overall displacement and destruction of native biotic communities. Add to this the boondoggle that public land ranching is, with ranchers paying far below market rates for their leases  – currently at $1.35 per AUM – and the federal government playing a supporting role at a cost of between $135 million and $500 million annually to administer the leases, perform the environmental analyses, and control predators.

And it’s all so unnecessary. Public lands ranching contributes a minimal amount to the nation’s beef supply, somewhere around 4 percent, and economic studies show that ranching has a nominal impact on local economies. One is hard pressed to make an intelligent utilitarian argument to continue this abuse.

The problem with using the commons for grazing is that it is neither sustainable nor ecologically sound. Remember Leopold’s land ethic: grazing destroys the stability, integrity, and the beauty of every biotic community upon which it is practiced. And those who believe public grazing practices can be made sustainable are naïve. The bureaucrats, the courts, the non-governmental community, our willfully negligent congress, all have proven impotent or unwilling to resolve the problems.

Public lands ranching is an extravagant use of 235 million acres of the commons, and the next president ought to make it a priority to end this abuse as soon as possible.

Conversations in Conservation

Romney takes Wisconsin tonight and looks to be the presumptive GOP nominee. Whatever you might make of that, the occasion provides an opportunity to consider what a Free the Commons presidential platform would look like. So over the next few weeks I’m going to write a series of presumptuous posts on what the next president should do to rewrite America’s environmental and public land laws.

A few ground rules before we begin: First, these recommendations are not in any sort of order. I’m just going to list them as I feel like writing them. Second, I’m not going to spend a lot of time distinguishing between authorities vested in the legislative and the executive branches, let alone political opposition; I’m just going to write as if the president has the power to enact his agenda. Third, low hanging fruit is fair game. And fourth, I reserve the right to revise and extend! (That’s legislative humor).