Washington, DC — Three of the six National Scenic Trails operated by the National Park Service (NPS) will be denied recognition as “units” of the park system, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This stealth demotion will cost the North Country, Ice Age and New England Trails funding opportunities, program support and public recognition.
The North Country National Scenic Trail (NST), the nation’s longest, stretches 4,600 miles from New York to North Dakota. The Ice Age NST, located in Wisconsin, is 1,200 miles long. The New England NST spans 220 miles of Massachusetts and Connecticut.
The three other NPS National Scenic Trails, the Appalachian, Potomac Heritage and Natchez, already have unit status within the 397-unit national park system. The basis for the disparity is unclear as all the trails have superintendents and staff, line-items in the NPS budget and liability coverage for volunteers.
The effect of denying unit status, however, relegates these excluded trails to second-class status costing them the same partnership support from the National Park Foundation and other support groups. Further, they are not included in NPS brochures or promotions and their statistics are not even tallied on the NPS website. Similarly, the 16 NPS Historic Trails do not have park unit status.
On October 1, 2009 before the New England NST became fully established, the NPS Midwest Region Director Ernest Quintana issued a comprehensive issue paper which concluded:
“There are no clear or consistent reasons, legal or policy-wise, for why these two trails are not units, but the other three NSTs are. Every rationale that has been offered for this difference, every filter that has been used to try and explain it, is shown in this paper to be unfounded…”
The issue paper prompted several Members of Congress to write NPS urging that it grant unit status. On May 27, 2010, NPS Deputy Director Peggy O’Dell responded:
“We are convening a work group…unit designation… will be discussed and considered by the work group. The work group plans to have recommendations to present to the National Leadership Council of the National Park Service this fall.”
In fact, the work group was never allowed to produce recommendations. Instead, the NPS Director made an unannounced decision to deny unit status to the three trails. Further, NPS is now trying to write the non-unit status of the trails into law, as part of a supposedly non-substantive Office of the Law Revision Counsel effort to create a separate new U.S. Code title (Title 54) for national parks. If the language relegating the three trails to “related areas” sneaks through, it will effectively end all debate as the status decision will be frozen into statute.
“Petty internal politics precluded a reasoned decision flowing from a discoverable process on these trails,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, arguing that the NPS Director should not unilaterally dispose of or classify national park assets without public review. “It takes some nerve to use a congressional code revision as a vehicle to fool Congress.”
PEER is urging concerned members of Congress to intervene and stop the NPS trail downgrade gambit.