John Winkelman

John Winkelman

While I don’t think he specifically used the phrase “politicians do not make good park managers” in his book, Gil Lusk referenced it more than once in a conversation I had with him after I read his analysis of our National Park Service system.

Lusk retired from “the service” in 1997 after a 35-year career. Earlier this year, Gatekeeper Press published his story, “National Parks Our Living Treasure” with the subtitle “A Time for Concern.” The book outlines his extensive experience before getting into the perils that loom in the future.

Spoiler alert: It’s people that are the biggest problem. Funding, or lack thereof, is certainly a gigantic elephant in the room, but the real trouble begins when we start loving these treasures to death, and it ends with irreplaceable resources being managed with only short-term concerns as a guideline.

The highest ranking officials in the National Park Service are increasingly political appointments, and too often decisions about park management are being made for political expediency or in response to the loudest shouts, he said.

“Political correctness has no place in our national parks,” Lusk said. “Politics will be the noose around our necks.”

I don’t have a bucket list or even a strategy, but I have been marking off visits to some of these national treasures. I have seen them close to home and in all corners of our country including Maine, Florida, Washington state and southern California. Later this year I plan to visit Yellowstone in Wyoming and Zion in Utah.

So when I got a copy of Lusk’s book I was eager to absorb the subject. He began his career as a college intern and included stops as superintendent at Glacier and Big Bend National Parks, two of the top spots on the service’s location map.

“We have an organization with 103 years of experience. We have learned to manage parks and deal with new parks,” Lusk said.

But what needs to happen before it’s too late is for the parks service to begin planning for the future. It is not good enough that we have these great places to see and visit. We need to make sure our grandchildren’s grandchildren can experience them too, he said.

“We should be in the mode of rethinking where we are, and how we got here, and what is it going to take in the future,” Lusk said.

Available funding barely sustains what we already have, and when new places are designated, they are usually supported by diminishing available resources for existing parks. The back- log for infrastructure maintenance in our National Parks is more than $12 billion.

Even though these places provide tremendous economic engines for the communities that surround them, they are increasingly being identified as areas for exploitation rather than restoration and preservation.

“How many people can walk across the ruins at Mesa Verde before they are doing irreparable damage?” Lusk asked. “There have to be limitations. There have to be restrictions.”

But if someone shows up with a petition filled with signatures, and some of those names are congress members, management decisions are made without input from the natural resources themselves.

“The Smithsonian is run by professionals, and the National Parks Service should be, too,” Lusk said. “We should be training our professionals, but we are not. They are not able to think about the future. We are mired in the past and present. We need to move the National Park Service to a point where they can think about the future.”

The assignment is overwhelming, but Lusk said he believes there are enough people to carry the message forward.

“We can do it. It’s going to be a very hard task, but we can do it,” Lusk said.

It’s why he wrote the book, but it’s not for the sales that he speaks so passionately about the subject. The book is just the messenger. The website provides a full introduction to the book.

“Most books about the National Parks are coffee table books with beautiful pictures of beautiful places that need to be protected. This is not one of those books,” Lusk said.

“National Parks Our Living Treasure” is a call to action, not just for those of us who want to see these places later this summer, but for everyone who wants to make sure future generations can find the exact same experiences when we are just a memory. 

John J. Winkelman is community engagement manager at Mercy Hospital Jefferson. If you have news for the Leader’s Outdoor News page, e-mail and you can follow John on Twitter at @johnjwink99.