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National Park Service director Mainella resigns

7/27/2006

WASHINGTON — The head of the National Park Service said Wednesday she will resign, ending a five-year tenure at an agency often at odds with environmentalists and Westerners.

Critics have said the agency put too much emphasis on recreation, shifting its focus from conservation. Fran Mainella recently oversaw a revision of management policies for the parks under the agency's care.

A Park Service statement said Mainella was leaving to spend more time to her family. Mainella did not say when she will be leaving her post. An agency release said she will serve through the completion of the policy overhaul.

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said in a letter to Mainella that perhaps her most important contribution was her "effort to foster a culture of partnership" at the Park Service.

Many lawmakers denounced a draft management proposal that would have placed more emphasis on recreation and expanded the use of snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles on federal land.

A new draft that Kempthorne released last month retreated from that initial proposal and won praise from environmentalists.

In 2004, Congress questioned Mainella about travel costs.

Lawmakers who oversaw the Park Service's budget called her to Capitol Hill after records showed she and other agency employees had spent $94 million on travel in the previous two years. In one case, an official took a $9,315 trip to Africa.

Park Service officials later said they had reduced travel costs. They also defended Mainella's domestic travel, saying she was the first director to ever visit many smaller and lesser-known national parks.

Mainella guided the agency through scrutiny of the use of snowmobiles in parks. For years, snowmobile access to park roads was largely unrestricted. That ended before the 2003-04 winter.

The Park Service, in the Clinton area, had a plan that called for phasing out snowmobiles in favor of mass-transit snowcoaches. Then came the shift to a plan that limited the number and types of snowmobiles allowed in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.

Legal challenges led to confusion about rules that winter; business owners in nearby towns complained the plan kept away tourists. The Park Service then developed temporary rules that would allow 720 snowmobiles per day to enter Yellowstone and 140 per day to enter Grand Teton.

The agency also was criticized, starting well before Mainella's tenure, for a growing maintenance backlog. Library of Congress researchers estimated in March 2005 that clearing up the backlog would cost between $4.5 billion and $9.7 billion.

Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., was one of several Western lawmakers to express concern about the emphasis the Park Service put on recreation over conservation. He said he had disagreed with Mainella on the agency's direction but he believes much of it was directed by administration officials "at a pay grade higher than Fran Mainella."

When it came to reworking the management plans, he said, "I think Fran was a positive agent in terms of helping us move to a positive conclusion."

Wyoming Sen. Craig Thomas, the Republican chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee on national parks, criticized Mainella about the original draft of management policies and the persistent maintenance backlog. But he praised her efforts to work with state and local officials on park problems.

"By encouraging partnerships with friends groups and gateway communities, she was able to further the goals of the Park Service," he said.

Washington Rep. Norm Dicks, the top Democrat on the appropriations committee that oversees the Park Service, said he hopes her successor can work better with the administration to pay for parks.

"They have to put in more money or we're going to continue to see deterioration of services," Dicks said.