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Park Service inflexibility draws criticism from Congress

Last night, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) brought up the pervasive problems with the National Park Service through an Interior Appropriations amendment. It was withdrawn as an unpermitted earmark, but Reps. Jim Moran (D-VA) and Mike Simpson (R-ID) both expressed support for ending the Park Service's "one size fits all" approach to urban parks.

You can watch the exchange here:

Norton said:

The National Park Service should develop flexible standards that take into account the unique circumstances and population of individual parks and changing conditions throughout the country, in keeping with Congressional recognition of both conservation and recreation as primary reasons for our parks. The neighborhood parks in the District of Columbia serve a very different function from Yellowstone. Dont Circle park is a central urban community meeting place in the District ...

I have come to the floor because I have tried unsuccessfully to get the Park Service to make small adaptations. perfectly compatible with their mission, to allow for the people in the parks in my own district, and I am certain that other members have found similar roadblocks. For example, the Park Service won't allow bikeshare stations on or near federal parks, and they are not permitting the 3 golf courses in the District of Columbia to be run as a public-private partnership.

Both of these examples have run into the same one-size-fits-all concession concerns. Yet the National Park Service could negotiate concession agreements that accommodate bikeshare in the future. And inflexibility in Park Service insistence on concession contracts that do not allow capital investment, resulting in an astonishing deterioration of invaluable, capital-intensive golf courses in the District, could give way to other approaches, such as public-private partnerships operating under long-term leases that would allow private funding to assist the Park Service with upgrading and maintain these public assets which taxpayers can't possibly by themselves maintain.

Inflexible, one-size-fits-all policies keep Americans from using our parks for compatible purposes such as bike stations or worse, condemn unique iconic resources to inevitable decline.

Moran, whose district includes Arlington, Alexandria, Reston, and southern Fairfax, endorsed the principles behind the amendment, and referred to my Post op-ed:
I think we ought to have a consideration by the Park Service of whether they are sufficiently flexible in dealing with local communities. There was a recent article written in the Washington Post talking about some of the opportunities that exist to bring the community in to local parks, urban parks, where far more people could be involved, people could participate, people could enhance the enjoyment of things that take place. ...

We could find ways to discourage automobiles and encourage bikes. Have bike sharing, for example, on the National Mall so that people could rent bikes and bike around the mall. It wouldn't cause any environmental damage; in fact, it would preserve some of the lawn on our National Mall and I think some people would enjoy it more. They'd get a little exercise.

However, Moran also noted that the amendment could be considered an earmark, which Congress is now not permitting. Simpson, too, said he felt this was an earmark, but that he agreed with Norton's objective and pledged to work with her "in conference" to accomplish this end.

On bike sharing, DDOT has wanted to have a station around Archives Metro for a long time, and in fact maps currently show a planned station there. It's a big hole in the downtown coverage. However, DDOT's Chris Holben said the area is controlled by the Park Service, preventing a station from going into this area.

More broadly, many communities would love to be more involved in local parks, perhaps through a public-private partnership involving local businesses and residents pitching in money and time to help maintain the parks, run events, and bring in concessions that enhance the park for residents and tourists alike.

Such steps would even save money, but require more flexibility by the Park Service on its policies and its concession contracts. So far, the Park Service has resisted efforts by residents and even, apparently, by Congresswoman Norton to make progress. Perhaps with more members of Congress joining in, they'll see the light.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC)

That's "Del.," not "Rep." She's not a "Representative" in the sense in which it's being used here; rather, she is a "Delegate."

by Rich on Jul 27, 2011 1:39 pm • linkreport

Besides the NPS treatment of urban parkland as tiny dots of pristine wilderness, we should also be holding them to task on their mismanagement of the parkways (no complete streets policy or practice, witness the GWMP or Maine Ave near Jefferson Memorial), their treatment of mixed use trails as solely recreational facilities (no snow clearance, shoddy signage and maintenance practices), and of course, the Park Police (no comment).

by darren on Jul 27, 2011 1:56 pm • linkreport

Maybe DDOT and Grey could use this as an opportunity to fight back for DC autonomy. Put a Dock at archives, dupont, and lincoln park. Should NPS threaten to move them, put them under guard by DC police. NPS will sue, DC will lose, but the standoff draws much more attention to DC's general inability to govern much of the land within its boundaries and is corollary to DC's lack of autonomy.

by jay on Jul 27, 2011 2:00 pm • linkreport

Actually, the title Norton uses is "Congresswoman".

by David C on Jul 27, 2011 2:29 pm • linkreport

Was that a humblebrag by DA?

by jj on Jul 27, 2011 2:56 pm • linkreport

What interest does a Republican from Idaho have in all of this?

by JS on Jul 27, 2011 3:19 pm • linkreport

Again, why can't DDOT put bikeshare stations in the roadway, removing one or two parking spaces? Using this strategy we could have bikeshare practically all over the Mall (4th St., 7th St., 15th St., etc.)

For the record, NPS has done the crappiest possible job and took way too long to complete the renovation of Meridian Hill/Malcolm X Park. Then they put up an evil sign saying "No Team Sports" on the grass that used be enjoyed by soccer and frisbee enthusiasts. There are plenty of sensible turf management strategies that don't require an outright ban, not that the five years and millions of dollars resulted in anything that can be called turf.

by Ward 1 Guy on Jul 27, 2011 3:42 pm • linkreport

I agree with Ward 1 Guy about putting a bicycle on the street. DDOT put a bike rack in the street at 8th and D and no parking spaces were lost. I'd rather have a CaBi station there.

by Christine on Jul 27, 2011 4:16 pm • linkreport

@ Ward 1 Guy,

Thats because, despite the clear sign saying "no team sports", I haven't been by that park once this summer where there weren't team(s) of soccer/kickball players playing on the field.

The grass gets destroyed because people ignore the signs.

And Norton is another tax avoiding waste of time. Not only is her position completely symbolic and inneffectual, but she doesn't even try. I see her name in the paper about twice a year with "things" she is trying to do for the District. She has had her office for 20 years, and has been "phoning it in" for about 18 of those years.

by freely on Jul 27, 2011 4:17 pm • linkreport

DDOT does not have the ability to place things on roadways crossing the Mall, so that is not an option.

by David Alpert on Jul 27, 2011 4:35 pm • linkreport


What's the source of the rule on the roadways crossing the Mall?

I feel like I've heard before here that DDOT has control of the roads crossing the mall, and there are DC parking meters on those cross streets.

Or, are the cross streets still NPS property, but for which they've given DDOT license to do only a few listed things there?

by Joey on Jul 27, 2011 5:22 pm • linkreport

Maybe DC should maintain the parks and clear snow from NPS parks and then sue NPS for reimbursement. Or fine NPS in the double-digits for its lack of maintenance of sidewalks, etc.

by lou on Jul 27, 2011 5:39 pm • linkreport

So Del. E.H. ("Representation Without Taxaction") Norton has weighed in. I'm sure, as usual, that she is "outraged." Beat the drum and chant it a few more times, "I am outraged." There, don't we all feel better now?

by Bob on Jul 27, 2011 5:42 pm • linkreport

"Maybe DC should maintain the parks and clear snow from NPS parks and then sue NPS for reimbursement."

Wouldn't it be good if DC actually removed snow from the parks and sidewalks for which it is already responsible? That would be a good start!

by Bob on Jul 27, 2011 5:45 pm • linkreport

Oh, how I love EHN

by thedoc on Jul 27, 2011 8:05 pm • linkreport

JS, It turns out Idaho has National Parks as well.

by David C on Jul 28, 2011 12:00 am • linkreport


What interest does a Republican from Idaho have in all of this?

"Local control of federal land" is also a huge issue for a lot of western states. Not only for land management issues (e.g. mining, ranching, etc...) but because a lot of local voters tend to want to do things like drive ATVs on hiking trails, or ride snowmobiles around in wilderness areas...

Strange bedfellows.

by oboe on Jul 28, 2011 10:38 am • linkreport

@freely NPS putting up a "no team sports" sign is about the stupidest turf management strategy I can think of. The rest of the country uses a system of rotating fields in and out of service so they can be used instead of just watched, and recover in between uses.

Secondly, the sad condition of the turf today is not the fault of the users (soccer, kickball, frisbee, or whatever). The turf looked like that when NPS pulled the fences that had been up for two or more years installing and redoing the still non-functioning drainage system.

The upper level of Meridian Hill Park is indeed a monument in the nation's capital... a monument to the National Park Service's incompetence.

by Ward 1 Guy on Jul 28, 2011 1:31 pm • linkreport

@David Ditto @Joey's question about the source of the rule that says NPS controls the roads crossing the Mall. If there is such a rule, we should expose it and lobby for changing it. Just like the triangle parks and other patches of grass and street (Penn Ave. sidewalks!!) that the unaccountable NPS controls.

There are so many ways in which we need to get the federal government off our back, but some of the ways are more concrete (literally) than others. I can see why this is an issue where EHN can find common ground with libertarian Republicans from Western states.

by Ward 1 Guy on Jul 28, 2011 1:36 pm • linkreport

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