LIKE MILLIONS of Americans, I am an enthusiastic explorer of our magnificent national parks.
On a recent vacation, I spent a week hiking with family and friends around Mt. Rainier National Park in Washington. Mesmerized by meadows shimmering with blue lupine and magenta paintbrush, I overheard a park employee gently explain to boisterous teenagers why we need to protect fragile wildflowers by staying on the trails. Near glistening glaciers partly covered by snow fields, I saw a maintenance worker, hauling human waste from the back country, point out hidden crevasses to a group of amateur climbers. In the evening, a ranger at Paradise Lodge (an appropriate name) explained how Mount Rainier's "perilous beauty" masks a tremendous volcanic force that could, in a heartbeat, spew lava and ash into the air, spreading mudflows as far as the suburbs of Seattle.
There may be a National Park Service employee who's testy, impatient or ignorant, but after decades of hiking in our national parks, I simply haven't met one. They always seem unfailingly gracious, eager to interpret the geologic landscape, dedicated to preserving the wilderness and, to put it mildly, madly in love with the natural world in which they work.
That's why I'm so appalled by the Bush administration's plan to privatize some 1,700 positions in the park service. Determined to run government like a corporation, eager to privatize and dismantle public services, the administration believes that private business could more cheaply do the same tasks now performed by some rangers and scientists, maintenance workers and other park employees.
In typical Bush doublespeak, money saved by replacing experienced park employees with privately contracted workers (paid lower wages and provided fewer benefits), would be used to "improve the parks."
Park employees, whose morale has been crushed by this policy, counter that replacement workers are unlikely to have the expertise or professionalism of career park service staff, who are highly skilled and cross-trained to assist each other with many different kinds of tasks.
Their opinion is shared by Bruce Babbitt and Stewart Udall, two Arizona Democrats who served as former secretaries of the Interior. Last week, they issued a scathing condemnation of the administration's proposal to privatize portions of the National Park Service and called the policy "radical," "reckless" and an "attempt to dismantle the National Park Service."
"What we would have is not national parks but amusement parks," said Bruce Babbitt, who served during two Clinton terms. Stuart Udall, who served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, was equally indignant: "This is the first administration in the last century that is clearly, even admittedly, anti- conservation. I never thought I would see this. The national parks are not shopping malls to be privatized."
Some Republicans also find the idea repugnant. "There are times and places where competitive outsourcing is a good thing to do," said Craig Thomas, a Wyoming Republican and chairman of the Senate National Parks Subcommittee. "But we have to recognize the uniqueness and peculiarities of the park service. "
Right now, the House has attached a rider to the Interior funding bill that would block privatizing national parks jobs. In response, the White House, has threatened to veto the bill.
How this will all end, no one knows. This much is clear: The National Park Service is woefully under-funded. Visitors have increased 50 percent while the department's budget has declined by 25 percent. Still, like the Smithsonian museum, these wilderness areas are part of our country's heritage and must be protected and preserved for future generations.
But privatizing the National Park Service is not the answer. The reason there is a scarcity of public funds is that tax cuts for the wealthy have starkly reduced money for government services. That is why the Bush administration says we are too poor to support what we used to call, not so long ago, the common good.
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle