Washington Neighbors of the nation's U.S. parks may speak louder under new management policies signed this week.
But after wading through 45,000 often-angry public comments, park service officials backed off earlier plans that could have opened parks to more motorized vehicles. It's a retreat that environmentalists score as a victory.
"Enjoyment is a part of our mission," National Park Service Director Fran Mainella said, "but where there is a conflict, conservation is predominant."
Several years in the making, the new management policies will guide park superintendents. While lacking the force of law, the policies point in clear directions.
So-called "gateway communities," for instance, are supposed to get more of a say when parks consider new fees or other changes. In the past, nearby towns have complained their commercial concerns go unheeded.
"The gateway communities will probably see more of an outreach effort," Mainella said.
Derrick Crandall of the American Recreation Coalition called the enhanced gateway community outreach "praiseworthy." It's likewise long been a priority for conservative lawmakers who represent towns bordering California's mountainous national parks.
"These gateway communities are impacted by decisions made by managers of our public lands," Rep. George Radanovich, R-Calif., noted late last year.
It wasn't the gateway community question, though, that incited controversy and a mass outpouring that included some 6,000 postcards submitted on behalf of the National Parks and Conservation Assn. An early draft of the policies, drafted by a Bush administration political appointee who since has been sidelined, would have made it harder for park managers to ban snowmobiles and off-road vehicles.
This earlier proposal would have allowed a ban only if officials could show the recreation activity would "permanently and irreversibly adversely affect a resource or value." That had been welcomed by the American Recreation Coalition, whose financial backers have included the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Assn. and Recreation Vehicle Industry Assn.
The park service backpedaled under intense political fire, and officials took pains this week to distance themselves from the earlier effort.