Ethics and the Health of Public Park Systems: Sharing Best Management Practices with the Public Is the Future for Our Parks

By LaPage, Will | Parks & Recreation, February 2005 | Go to article overview

Ethics and the Health of Public Park Systems: Sharing Best Management Practices with the Public Is the Future for Our Parks


LaPage, Will, Parks & Recreation


Park administrators are much less likely to get caught up in an ethical debate if they are sensitive to the distinction between ethical and legal guidelines. If a broadly based outdoor ethic existed, there would be little need for such stop-gap ethics as "Leave No Trace," "Carry in-Carry Out," "Tread Lightly," or any of a dozen other remedial surrogates for generations of poor outdoor training. Building a comprehensive outdoor ethic--one that is as accepted as an education or a savings ethic-should be the concern of every parks-related professional and the recreation equipment industry whose products need public lands.

Whereas in arenas of high public trust, where financial accounting is not sufficient, the public expects a higher standard than simple compliance with the law The public has every right to expect that its park assets are being managed in an "extra-legal" manner. As owners, they might logically assume their parks, historic sites and natural areas are being managed at the cutting edge of science for the benefit of future generations. And, if not exactly at the cutting edge, the public at least would like to believe that its parks are not damaging the environments they were created to protect.

Credibility is the linkage between the ethics of park visitors and those of park administrators. Visitors may not know the name of the disease, but they know when their park looks starved and tired. Visitors may not be able to prescribe the right medicine, but they can sense when their park's health is declining. And visitors should stop having to bear the burden of blame for "loving their parks to death." There needs to be an assumed contract between visitors, land managers and equipment suppliers. That contract is a shared outdoor ethic--the foundation for a meaningful partnership.

It can happen in some remote future, taking the form of a legislative mandate provoked by a crisis in park conditions. Or enlightened self-interest on the part of the stakeholders in our public lands can produce an ethic. It can grow over many generations by focusing exclusively on education. Or it can emerge "full-grown" as an implied "visitor contract" subscribed to by everyone who uses our public lands, as a condition of that use.

Such an agreement might address responsibilities for stewardship, avoidance and acceptance of risk, subsidized use, equity of access, resource accountability, participation in planning and management, limits and restrictions on use and responsiveness to changing public demands. While a reversal of the tragedy is implicit in such an agreement, its goal is a modest redefinition of "stewardship"--one that links rights and responsibilities with the use of public lands.

The natural resource management professions are the logical places to encourage such an ethic. In "Hidden Hierarchies: The Professions and Government," author Corrine Gilb describes the professionals in agencies as people wielding considerable (though often inconspicuous) power. It seems reasonable that park management professionals should take the lead in developing ethical guidelines and help resolve ethical dilemmas in the field. These are the people most likely to experience the challenges and to have the strongest needs.

So universal as to be almost invisible, ethical values cling to every aspect of park administration. Ethics provide an unseen guide to the development of partnerships, the setting of fees, the enforcement of rules, the priorities of the budget, the implementation of plans, the role of volunteers, the level of reporting candor, closures, contracting, maintenance scheduling, information services, publicity, interpretation and every kind of personnel action. Given their pervasiveness, it is remarkable that formal ethical training is largely absent in most park systems, and ethical guidelines are reduced to periodic, routine, form-letter reminders.

The assumption of shared values seems cavalier when public assets are at issue. …

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