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National Park Privatization - An Open Letter to Bruce Babbitt

The Bush Administration's privatization agenda is out of control. Recently, former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt pointed an accusing finger at Mr. Bush for his efforts to privatize aspects of the National Park Service. But Babbitt didn't go far enough. The treats are much greater that Babbitt suggested and he himself was a big part of the problem. Here's the rest of the story.

Dear Bruce,

As one of your more vocal critics from within the environmental community, I must truly thank you for accomplishing with a single press conference what several hundred grassroots organizations had failed to accomplish after years of effort. You put the National Park Privatization issue upon America's radar screens. You told America that Corporate interests were looking to turn recreation and tourism upon their public lands into a cash cow. And you raised the level of awareness for what America stand to lose if we permit our National Parks and forests to become Outdoor Disneylands. For this you've done us all a great service.

But Bruce, from your overly-narrow description of the problem, the uninitiated might come away believing that the most severe threat our Parks face comes in the form of "outsourcing", i.e., the replacement of federal employees with private-sector contractors. One might think that the selling out of America's National Parks to commercial interests is a new problem, rather than an ongoing process begun with the Reagan Administration and perpetuated by each subsequent administration, Republican and Democrat alike. One might very incorrectly assume that until you issued your fine warning, the tourism industry's efforts to privatize recreational opportunities on America's public lands had gone unnoticed and unchallenged.

Perhaps you never read the April 27, 1998 special edition of High Country News in which publisher Ed Marston pronounced "The old West is going under". Marston said, with reference to the kind of Industrial Tourism and wreckreation that flourished during your tenure as Secretary of the Interior, "Indications are that this new extractive industry, which carries with it user fees and increased motorized activates, isn't going to be a huge improvement over the natural resource industries." How right he was.

And how right was I, when my efforts to expose what I had begun calling "the trend toward commercialization, privatization and motorization of the public lands" were prominently featured in that same edition in a feature article titled, "The latest 1,000-pound gorilla".

So while outsourcing is certainly an important issue, it is far from the biggest threat associated with the Corporate Takeover of Nature and the Disneyfication of the Wild.

As far as we who have been on the front-line fighting privatization are concerned, the sweetheart deals that were made between the Department of Interior under your leadership and a handful of National Park concessionaires such as Delaware North and Amfac (now renamed Xanterra) effectively turned our National Parks into mere theme parks. Likewise, the contracting out of the National Park Service Reservation system to the Canadian firm Spherix commodified the park experience and turned the process of booking a campsite in Yosemite into something analogous to booking a seat at a rock concert.

Then there's the Recreation Fee Demonstration program that was so favored by Al Gore and was so strongly opposed by the conservation community. Did you know that as early as 1999, 83 national and grassroots organizations signed onto a letter sent to the President that warned:

"Charging user fees for recreation on National Forests is likely to encourage the overdevelopment of recreational facilities and programs on National Forests and the ensuing degradation of ecological resources. User fees may also act as a step toward the privatization, commercialization and motorization of the National Forests" ?

The issue is not the outsourcing of federal jobs and the villain is not George W. Bush, though he and your replacement, Gale Norton, are pursuing privatization with a special vengeance. The problem is that twenty years ago, a group of powerful individuals latched onto the concept that outdoor recreation on America's public lands was an untapped gold-mine that, if properly developed through public-private partnerships, could make some people a great deal of money. These people have names. They are represented by the American Recreation Coalition which is composed of some 150 companies and trade associations including The Coleman Company, Walt Disney, International Snowmobile Manufacture's Association, Kampgrounds of America, American Hotel and Motel Association, Yamaha Motor Corporation and many more. The problem is that today these corporations have extraordinary influence within the Bush Administration when it comes to public land management decisions. And the problem is, they fully intend to commercialize, privatize and motorize our nation's public lands.

Bruce, when you were still in Interior did you get to read the America Recreation Coalition's manifesto titled "Outdoor Recreation in America, An Agenda For the Clinton-Gore Administration", signed by Richard Nunis, President of Walt Disney attractions on behalf of the Recreation Roundtable and offered to President Clinton on February 15, 1993? The Agenda Item I'll never forget is titled "Luring International Visitors to America's Great Outdoors", something the National Park service came to treat as a kind of mantra. It reads, in part, "the U.S. has a blend of natural and cultural attractions which can be honed and utilized: our wide open spaces; our watchable wildlife; our 'cowboys and Indians' lore; our rivers and mountains."

One last thought, Bruce. Can you remember reading "The Agenda of the Wise-Use Movement", written by Ron Arnold in 1989? If so, you might recall Agenda Item #11, which is one of very few agenda items that have yet to be fulfilled. It read: "Reorganize the National Park Service. This includes the implementation of Mission 2010, a 20-year construction program that would maximize concession stands and accommodations in national parks, and remove entry limits and bring in private firms experienced in people moving, such as Walt Disney, to manage the parks."

At the rate things are now moving under President Bush, the Agenda of the Wise-Use movement should be completed very soon, on time and within budget. So while I thank you at this eleventh hour for first raising the issue of public land privatization, perhaps the next time you speak out on this topic you might either present the rest of the story or be so kind as to send folks to those of us capable and willing to do so.

This document was prepared by Wild Wilderness. To learn more about ongoing industry-backed congressional efforts to motorize, commercialize, and privatize America's public lands, contact:

Scott Silver, Executive Director,
Wild Wilderness
248 NW Wilmington Avenue, Bend OR 97701
Phone (541) 385-5261 E-mail: ssilver@wildwilderness.org

homepage: homepage: http://www.wildwilderness.org
phone: phone: 541-385-5261
address: address: Bend, OR