National Geographic : 1994 Oct
Service requests that had worked their way into the top tier of the agency's priority list, then put in 45 projects of its own, as it had done to varying degrees in previous years. These substitutions generally come off the bottom of the service's priority list or have no priority whatsoever among service profes sionals. To Washington insiders, such proj ects are known officially as congressional add ons. Outsiders speak a different language. They call it park barrel politics. THE AGENDA hoger Kennedy, the National Park Service director, was speaking of priorities, and getting construction projects in the right order was only a part of one of them. I had doubled back from my westering tour to talk with the director just 120 days into his new job. I wanted to discover, if I could, where this former boss of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History might be planning to take the Park Service and the system, before taking myself on one last sortie to California, where Kennedy's agency would soon be facing one of its toughest tests at the edge of the Golden Gate. We sat in high-back rocking chairs in his office in Washington. His priorities, he said, were people, places, and partnering-the latter being Park Service jargon for its increasing dependence on part nerships with state, municipal, and private entities to help preserve significant resources. "Doing right by the people in the Park Ser vice-that's the first job," he said. "Do it, and other good things will flow from that." In my peregrinations around the park sys tem, I had encountered rangers, naturalists, cultural specialists, and resource managers totally dedicated to their individual tasks and collective mission, yet they were acutely uneasy, if not downright unhappy, about their working and living conditions. Almost half the full-time rangers, for example, have to make do on salaries under $27,000 a year, and even that comes only after five years' service. "It is now no secret," complains the nonprofit National Parks and Conservation Association, "that most rangers cannot afford to 'take their pay in sunsets.' Instead they are taking their leave. There is an exodus of experienced park rangers to ... the Bureau of Land Manage ment and the U. S. Forest Service." BLM and the Forest Service offer higher starting salaries and faster career tracks. Grand Canyon Chief Ranger Ken Miller told me: "We've become a training ground for other agencies-and it's costing us." Kennedy said he wants to upgrade the rang ers' housing as well as the pay scale. "We have some of our people living in shacks and tents-the kind of conditions lawmakers would legislate migrant farmworkers right out of. It's a national disgrace, and it's been a national disgrace for a long time." Turning to the sorry physical condition of so many of the national parks, Kennedy told me: "We've got to catch up with the rot. The irony is that as the nation focuses on paying down the mortgage, the walls are falling in and there are holes in the roof. And it isn't a matter of just doing it next year. We've been 'just doing it next year' for too many years."