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The Vail Agenda [1990s]

View from a suspension bridge on the South Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon National Park
Strategies for the 21st Century:

In 1991, the National Park Service marked its 75th anniversary. By that time, annual visitation to the parks had surpassed 250 million and was continuing to rise. However, NPS leadership was facing many challenges including budget concerns, falling morale among employees, and difficulties in managing a widening range of park units and programs. In October of that year, the NPS held a symposium in Vail, Colorado, titled "Our National Parks: Challenges and Strategies for the 21st Century." In attendance were almost 700 experts and interested individuals, of whom nearly half were from outside the NPS, from organizations and institutions such as universities, businesses, interest groups, or other government agencies.

Photo:View from a suspension bridge on the South Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon National Park

A park ranger, 1990s
A pledge to preserve:

The result of the symposium was the Vail Agenda, a document that spelled out six strategic objectives to restore the vitality and efficiency of the NPS. The first objective reasserted the agency's commitment to preservation: "The primary responsibility of the National Park Service must be protection of park resources from internal and external impairment." The other objectives pertained to five subjects: access and enjoyment, education and interpretation, proactive leadership, science and research, and professionalism. The report represented an unprecedented effort to tackle longstanding problems and questions that had persisted for many years, some even dating back to the agency's inception.

Photo: A park ranger, 1990s

Overhead tree cover
Limitations to success:

The Vail Agenda was published in 1992 amid high hopes for its impact, and indeed the NPS underwent some changes as the decade went on. Recommendations for action were included for each objective in the report, and the agency was restructured based on some of these recommendations. However, the recommendations were sometimes imprecise or derivative of previous work, and none included an accounting of the costs of implementation. Even before the report was published, one NPS historian called the agenda "a wish list of 90 distinct recommendations." In the end, the kind of major changes that some had been hoping for did not materialize. Nevertheless, the Vail Agenda served as an important strategic vision to help guide the NPS into the new millennium.

Ryan White
Culture and the political climate:

In the 1980s, Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) infection and Acquired Immunity Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) were new diseases that confronted the nation and the world. HIV weakens the body's ability to fight other infections, and AIDS occurs when the white blood cell count drops below a specified level as a result of HIV. The virus is spread from one person to another when an infected person's bodily fluids enter the bloodstream of another. In the 1980s and 1990s there was a lot of misinformation about how it spread. Many feared that simply touching an infected person or sharing a bathroom or drinking fountain would spread the disease.

A better understanding of how HIV and AIDS spread came after a teenager, Ryan White, who was a hemophiliac, contracted the disease through a blood transfusion. After doctors confirmed that he had the disease in 1985, his Kokomo, Indiana public school would not allow him to attend for fear of spreading the disease to other students. After a court battle allowed him to attend school, he was taunted at school by other children, eventually leading him to transfer to another school. White's plight helped educate the nation about the AIDS virus, dispelling many myths about how it was transmitted and calming fears that it could be spread simply by touching an infected individual. Many politicians, including President George H.W. Bush met with White to help dispel the stigma of the disease. During the remainder of his life White helped raise awareness about the virus. On April 8, 1990, Ryan died of complications from AIDS at the age of 18.

Photo: Ryan White