Interior Dept. Says Conservation Trumps Access

The Interior Department reverses a proposed policy that would have eased restrictions on snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles in national parks. A draft of the new policy stresses that when there is a conflict between preserving and using natural and historical places, conservation will remain the parks' predominant mission.

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In less than a week, the Bush administration has come out with two environmentally friendly initiatives. Last week, it announced the creation of the world's biggest marine sanctuary. Yesterday, the Interior Department said it supports the idea that conservation comes first at national parks.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren has the story.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN reporting:

The new Secretary of Interior, Dirk Kempthorne, stood on the roof of his D.C. headquarters with the hazy Washington Monument behind him, and he summed up a new proposal for managing national parks.

Secretary DIRK KEMPTHORNE (Department of the Interior): Its straightforward message is this: when there is a conflict between conserving resources unimpaired for future generations and the use of those resources, conservation will be predominant.

SHOGREN: Kempthorne is talking about the debate between conservation and access - like letting ATVs on a trail, or giving approval for building a cell phone tower on a mountaintop. To understand how revolutionary his comments are, you have to understand that there's been an intense battle going for six years over whether access or conservation should be the guiding principle at the national parks. And most of the time, access has won.

Senator Ken Salazar from Colorado says last year, the Bush administration was trying to give access a lasting advantage by re-writing the National Parks Management Policy.

Senator KEN SALAZAR (Democrat, Colorado): When there was a conflict between how the park was to be conserved, or whether it was to be used for motorized vehicles or other kinds of things - that there would be a balancing of the interests. And so, we would have endangered our park system, because conservation would have been given a secondary role.

SHOGREN: Salazar says the new proposal is 180-degrees from the administration's previous ones. Even the crowd at the Interior Department's rooftop press conference was different. Environmentalists outnumbered industry representatives. Ron Tipton from the National Parks Conservation Association was there.

Mr. RON TIPTON (Senior Vice President, National Parks Conservation Association): Secretary Kempthorne has talked from the day he was nominated about how much he loves the national parks, and how much he wants to help the parks, how much he would like to get the National Parks Service more money, and how much he wants to protect the parks. Honestly, you'd have to say that this represents a different set of priorities, and maybe a different point of view from his predecessor.

Mr. GREG MUMM (Executive Director, Blue Ribbon Coalition): Unfortunately, it's a sad day for recreation if what we're seeing is actually true.

SHOGREN: Greg Mumm is the executive director of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, which represents people who ride snowmobiles and four-wheel drive vehicles. He's a big fan of Kempthorne's predecessor, Gail Norton. She kept Yellowstone open for snowmobiles and let jet skis back into Utah's Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. He says the new policy seems to abandon one of two major purposes of national parks: recreation.

Mr. MUMM: They failed to adhere to the twin mandates to conserve - not preserve - to conserve resources and provide for visitor use and enjoyment. So it's the whole point of a national park.

SHOGREN: Ron Tipton from the National Parks Conservation Association says the real test of whether the Bush administration has a new commitment to conservation at the parks will come when businesses start asking for favors.

Mr. TIPTON: The next time that someone comes in and says, we'd like to start a program for scenic over flights over Glacier, or over the Great Smoky Mountains. Will the Park Service say no?

SHOGREN: He says that the Park Service follows the new proposal, that's what the answer should be.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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