Housing Complex

D.C.’s National Parks: “It’s Really About Changing the Rules”

All your parks are belong to NPS. (Lydia DePillis)

On Saturday, all of D.C.'s grievances about the National Park Service's treatment of D.C.'s parks finally got a hearing, in the form of a town hall meeting of top Park Service brass convened by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton. And it looks like the feds at least got the message that people are unhappy.

"We have occasionally heard that we are difficult to work with," said new-on-the-job National Mall superintendent Bob Vogel. "And I apologize for that, because we really do want you in the parks."

Vogel has a job ahead of him to persuade Washingtonians he's for real. One after another, the handful of people who had made it to Judiciary Square on a weekend complained about negative experiences with Park Service bureaucracy, from Soccer in the Circle to neglect of Fort Circle parks east of the river.

On a few issues, it sounded like they'd been listening: Vogel said that they were exploring options for different forms of transportation in a post-Tourmobile world, that they would scrap the inconvenient-but-historic fence on a Dupont Circle triangle park, and even that they were considering the possibility of turning the sidewalks on Pennsylvania Avenue over to the District, which would make all kinds of difference.

That's all very well and good. But towards the end of the forum, Joe Sternlieb—who worked at the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District before decamping to developer Eastbanc—got up to make a larger point. Sternlieb has wrangled with the Park Service for decades now, whether over starting the Circulator or trying to get wayfinding signs on the Mall. He recalled touring in Alaska and hearing about how parks in that state had their very own set of regulations, and recommended that the same be true of NPS' largest and most complex urban park system, such that D.C. residents take priority over some nebulous "federal interest."

"I recognize that three hundred years from now, a President of the United States will be born in a state that hasn't even been named yet, and that will be something extraordinary, and we will need a piece of land somewhere in the city to memorialize that in the year 2379," Sternlieb said. "And I recognize that we need to maintain a federal focus in any planning that we do. But at the same time, you're not going to need that land for another 300 years. And we need some system to make it easier for you to communicate with us and us to communicate with you. But it's more than communication. It's really about changing the rules, so that the parks are used for the people who live here now, until they're needed for some other federal purpose."

For the first time that afternoon, people in the audience clapped.

Well, it turns out that the National Capital Region does have its own place in the law. But that section of the Code of Federal Regulations mostly deals with permitting demonstrations, and is otherwise more proscriptive than anywhere else, forbidding everything from swimming to ice skating to flying model planes, on top of blanket prohibitions on things like food vending outside a concession contract. Even with progressive plans like CapitalSpace—which was approved by the National Capital Planning Commission last year but has yet to be implemented—those are the kinds of rules that will prevent D.C.'s parks from serving D.C.'s citizens.

In response to Sternlieb's plea, National Capital Region director Stephen Whitesell said he thought we'd probably need an act of Congress to change the rules for the District's parks. That's not necessarily true; the administration can change regulations without legislative approval. The prospect of congressional resistance sure is a convenient excuse for inaction, though.

  • Anon

    However, the lawyers at the NPS, who may either be making a convenient excuse for inaction or making a determination based on the law, will advise NPS and the Administration to the extent with which they can change the regulations under the existing law.

    What a lot of people do not understand is that while the Administration writes regs, those regs are written in order to comply with the law that was enacted. They dont get carte blanche on any issue and they dont get near it on more than .0001% of issues. My bet is there is an underlying statute that the Administration is relying on to make this determination. They want, because of years of regulatory precedent, direction from Congress that they should do otherwise. See, the Administration, any administration, doesnt want to rock the boat on something unless a.) its very clear that they have leeway under the law or b.) its a top line issue with the resident of 1600 PA Ave. B is not going to be true in this instance and I dont know enough to determine whether A is true. If neither A nor B are true, and they dont want to do it, they will still claim A and there's nothing anyone can do about it until it becomes B and the President, or his appointees, start firing people.

    So, all of this is a long winded way of saying, that Whitesell was right on - it will take an act of Congress to get this fixed.

    I hope you understand.

  • CCCA Prez

    Great article. Sorry I missed the forum.

  • http://tsarchitect.nsflanagan.net/ цarьchitect

    Lydia, I don't know if you saw the Parks for the People competition. One of the sites is the Civil War Defenses of Washington, and it's sponsored by the NPS.

    I would imagine that either UVA, UMD, or Catholic will enter studios for the competition. I hope they are encouraged to think outside the box.

  • http://greatergreaterwashington.org/ David Alpert

    The fence isn't historic. It was a proposal to add a new fence, which wasn't there before (and is a bad idea).

  • neb

    One important fact is that even within DC's "National Capital Region" there are actually 3 distinct park units within the District - Rock Creek, Anacostia and the National Mall. Each is run by its own superintendent and they are essentially run as their own separate park agencies, though all under NPS rules. So Bob Vogel has nothing to do with the Fort Circle. That is actually the responsibility of two different park units.

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  • John

    This is all very nebulous to me . . what things do people want to do in NPS/DC parks that they can't do now? Which rules do they want changed?

    It's not exactly correct to say that Alaska NPS units "have their own rules". I think this statement probably refers to the fact that most National Parks in Alaska have associated/adjacent National Preserves where subsistance hunting, OHV use, and other activities not permitted in most national parks are sanctioned.

  • Eric

    John, I suggest familiarizing yourself with the many issues that have cropped up over the last few years pertaining to relations between the city and the NPS. Lydia already mentioned a few things that are absolutely ridiculous: the "section of the Code of Federal Regulations...is otherwise more proscriptive than anywhere else, forbidding everything from swimming to ice skating to flying model planes, on top of blanket prohibitions on things like food vending outside a concession contract." Start there. Why shouldn't a 10-year old be able to fly a model airplane in one of the dozens of tiny parks in DC that are controlled by the NPS? Why shouldn't a restaurant be able to open on Mount Vernon Square? Why shouldn't an ice skating rink be opened in the winter in Dupont Circle? Why is it so difficult for a neighborhood group to arrange to paint some deteriorating benches (for free!) in Lincoln Park? The list goes on, and on, and on, and on....