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Park protector

LR resident comes out of retirement to defend the national parks.

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OUT OF RETIREMENT: Don Castleberry.
  • OUT OF RETIREMENT: Don Castleberry.

When Little Rock resident Don Castleberry appeared before the Senate Subcommittee on Energy and National Resources last November, he laid it out straight: Changes proposed by the Bush administration to National Park management policies would place some of America’s most pristine places in jeopardy. “This is a time when this nation may decide,” he told the committee, “whether to retain the benefits painfully won over 130 years of National Park history, or risk losing them to narrow, short-term and private interests.”

Castleberry is no armchair quarterback. During his 32-year career with the National Park Service, he rose through the ranks to become Midwest regional director, with control over 45 parks in 13 states. He retired in 1994, but he’s back in action because of what he calls “unprecedented” assaults on the mission and methods of the Park Service by the Bush administration. One of seven directors of the 450-member Coalition of Concerned National Park Service Retirees (, Castleberry is helping lead the charge against attempts to open the parks to what he sees as damaging commercial and recreational use.

Penned by Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior Paul Hoffman, a Bush appointee who frequently clashed with the administration of Yellowstone National Park while the head of the Cody, Wyo., Chamber of Commerce, might seem subtle to the layman. Castleberry and his group, however, see political machinations and lobbyist payback.

Specifically, Castleberry said, many of the changes were included to benefit the “recreation industry” — manufacturers, renters and sellers of motorized toys like snowmobiles, ATVs, RVs, off-road vehicles, boats and jet skis — who have long sought more access to the national parks.

“The parks have up to now been pretty well insulated from that,” Castleberry said. “... But this industry has lobbied this administration, and has basically been pushing them to open the parks up more and more to that kind of use.”

Another Little Rock resident who is concerned about the rules changes is Sierra Club spokesman Glen Hooks. While preservation has been the Park Service’s top priority since its founding in 1916, Hooks said that actions by the Bush administration are trying to change that. The Sierra Club says the rules changes would:

• Delete, from the section on management of air quality, lines that outline a duty to protect “clear skies” and “scenic views,” calling clear air only an “associated characteristic” of protection of the parks. This would potentially allow for more emissions-producing vehicles like RVs and snowmobiles in the parks.

• Redefine the word “natural” to include changes made to the environment by humans. This would allow things like reduced visibility caused by emissions from coal-fired power plants to be considered “natural.”

• Delete language from the 1916 law that created the NPS defining the need to “conserve park resources and values” as one of the primary missions.

• Delete language outlining the NPS mission to protect the “soundscape” of national parks, potentially allowing for more noise-producing vehicles.

• Delete the phrase: “The Service will not allow visitors to conduct activities that unreasonably interfere with … the atmosphere of peace and tranquility, or the natural soundscape maintained in wilderness and natural, historic, or commemorative locations within the park.”

• Delete phrases that discourage use of off-road vehicles.

• Delete provisions that discourage livestock use of parks.

Coupled with recent directives issued by National Park Service Director Fran Mainella requiring park superintendents to “cooperate” with the wishes of industry and government interests in communities surrounding the parks — and with some superintendents fearing that their carreers might be adversely effected if they don’t — Castleberry said the proposed rule changes have had a “chilling effect” on daily management.

Not every park superintendent is worried about the changes, however. Josie Fernandez is superintendent of Hot Springs National Park. She was still reviewing the proposed changes when we spoke, but said she hasn’t seen anything so far that causes her concern. She said that it’s premature to think that a change in a management policy is going to get people to act in any way that they otherwise wouldn’t be compelled to act.

“I feel very comfortable in the system that is in place and has always been in place for National Park Service employees to input and participate in the review process,” Fernandez said. “I’m a person that by nature speaks her mind, and I don’t feel that I’ve ever been adversely affected for doing so.”

Still, Castleberry and his group fear that won’t be the case for many park superintendents.

“It’s basically [the Bush administration] saying, ...‘We want to open it up to more of these motorized toy type activities and deemphasize the natural protections. The way we’re going to do that is by attacking your policies and [the way] we’re going to keep you quiet about it is we’re going to intimidate you and keep you from speaking out too loudly if you’re an employee because we can influence whether you get promotions and transfers and things like that.’ ”

There are currently seven areas in Arkansas overseen by the National Park Service: Arkansas Post National Memorial; Buffalo National River; Central High School National Historic Site in Little Rock; Fort Smith National Historic Site; Pea Ridge National Military Park; Hot Springs National Park; and Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, which runs across Arkansas and eight other states.

The National Park Service is accepting public comment on the proposed policy revisions until Feb. 18.

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