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Wednesday, 27 September 2006 00:00

New leadership could bode well for Smokies

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Each time the president and Congress choose a new leader for the National Park Service, those of us in Western North Carolina are left to hope for the best. If the right leader with the right political skills comes along, perhaps they will be able to address the chronic funding shortage facing America’s national treasures, including the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

 

President George Bush has tapped Mary Bomar, a 16-year Park Service veteran, to head the NPS. Bomar is a naturalized U.S. citizen born in the United Kingdom who fell in love with our parks while visiting them as a young child. If confirmed, she’ll replace Fran Mainella, who is leaving the Park Service to spend more time with her family.

Mainella leaves a somewhat mixed legacy. While her admirers credit her with creating partnerships within the system, the controversial attempt to re-write the Park Service’s management policies under her watch will likely be what is best remembered. The proposal originally favored increased recreation — especially more snowmobile use — over conservation. When news broke that an Interior Department Bush political appointee wrote the draft, the debate turned controversial. Park Service employees, environmentalists and many members of Congress attacked the plan.

The management plan eventually was re-written to restore what many viewed as the most important mission of the national parks —long-term preservation and protections for park air quality, wilderness, natural quiet, and other resources.

But many challenges and problems remain. As Bomar was undergoing confirmation hearings last week, the National Parks Conservation Association announced that the system is being under funded to the tune of $814 million per year. That’s up from the annual estimated shortfall of $600 million just a few years ago. This translates to a huge need in our wilderness areas, along with too little funding to maintain some of this nation’s most precious monuments.

For the Smokies, the problems are particularly challenging. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., asked Bomar if she was going to give special attention to the park that straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina border. Alexander reminded her that it is the nation’s most visited park, and that it is not allowed to charge entrance fees due to agreements made when the park was created. Bomar acknowledged the park’s challenges and praised Superintendent Dale Ditmanson’s abilities. She stopped short of promising any special treatment for the Smokies.

While it appears Bomar will be confirmed, newspapers around the country have been researching her past and assessing her qualifications. The Philadelphia Inquirer described her as having “an outgoing personality and ability to navigate through bureaucracy.” The Fresno Bee wrote that Bomar “really does create an environment of partnership.” Bill Wade of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees told several news outlets that she “has been a very good regional director in terms of supporting park needs and park resources, and I think that gives us reason to believe she would be quite an improvement’’ over Mainella.

The bottom line in all this is that our parks, including the Smokies, need to be fully staffed, facilities need to be maintained and in many cases improved, and visitor services must be sustained at a high level. This means more money must be directed to our national parks. It is no small chore to protect these treasured wilderness areas while at the same time making them accessible to millions of visitors a year. We hope Bomar can help the politicians in Washington appreciate the great responsibility they have to preserve and protect these jewels.

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