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Yellowstone Chief Leads a Rebellion Over Park Funding

Finley thrives amid criticism from politicians

By his own assessment, it has been a tumultuous year for Michael Finley, the embattled superintendent of Yellowstone National Park.

Earlier this summer, the chief caretaker of America's premier nature preserve was excoriated by Montana Gov. Marc Racicot (R) for openly condemning a gigantic gold mine proposed for Yellowstone's back doorstep.

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Soon thereafter, during the height of the tourist season, Mr. Finley again fell upon political ridicule, this time from Wyoming's congressional delegation for shutting down a popular Yellowstone campground and threatening to close the park early because of inadequate federal funding.

Nowhere have the consequences of downsizing government been more apparent than in the country's national parks. And no bureaucrat wearing a Smokey the Bear hat has cultivated a more maverick reputation for taking on budget-cutting politicians and resource plunderers than Finley.

But often it has been at his own peril. Finley's pleas of poverty prompted freshman US Rep. Barbara Cubin (R) of Wyoming to call for an audit of Yellowstone's financial records, and US Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming recently accused Finley of "terrorizing" merchants and motel owners in Wyoming whose lifeblood is the tourism industry.

If that wasn't enough, numerous conservative Republican lawmakers are upset with the superintendent for bringing back wolves to Yellowstone over the objections of the Western livestock industry.

But Finely isn't without supporters. Stacks of fan mail have appeared from citizens across the country in recent weeks urging him to stand his ground against political intimidation.

Some of the envelopes even include cash to keep the park running. Among the supporters is a Montana congressman who believes that Finley, a biologist by training, is on a trajectory to become the next director of the National Park Service, provided that he survives ongoing attempts to keep him muzzled.

"If Finley's career isn't scuttled by high-handed political pressure from Washington, D.C., he is likely to be remembered as one of the best superintendents in the history of Yellowstone, which is a remarkable accomplishment given the kind of gratuitous bashing he's faced in recent weeks," says US Rep. Pat Williams (D) of Montana.

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"Bureaucrats like Finley have been beaten up so often over the last 20 years they have become a very easy target for bullying politicians," he adds. "To me, a politician beating up on a dedicated bureaucrat in order to procure votes is akin to a stand-up comedian dropping his pants for a cheap laugh."

Finley says he realized that by taking the helm of Yellowstone in 1994, he was being sent into a storm. Known for his unflinching advocacy of park protection, he has survived in part because his outspoken views have given him a degree of untouchability.

"Mike Finley represents some of the best characteristics of a superintendent of America's national parks," Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt says. "He guards the best interests of Yellowstone like his wolf packs guard their young, fearlessly taking on anyone, no matter how powerful, who poses a threat."

On numerous occasions, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, Finley has received telephone calls from angry congressmen demanding that he tone down his environmental advocacy or face the consequences.

"If I'm presented with a choice that is unethical or illegal or not in the best interests of the park or the American public - irrespective of whether it is framed as an opportunity for 'career advancement' or presented to me as a threat - I won't do it," Finley says.

That doesn't mean he won't use political factors to his advantage.

In 1988, when Finley was superintendent of Everglades National Park in Florida, he helped federal prosecutors file suit against sugar cane growers to force them to stop polluting the famous 'River of Grass' with fertilizer runoff.

The suit infuriated the Reagan administration, but it was filed four weeks before the 1988 presidential election. The timing forced then-candidate and Vice President George Bush to support the suit. Finley took the same firebrand style to Yosemite, where, to combat overcrowding, he began limiting the number of people allowed in the Yosemite Valley.

Senator Simpson criticizes Finley for suffering from the so-called "Washington Monument Syndrome," in which a public land manager threatens to close down a popular attraction to engender public support and force Congress to appropriate more money.

In response, Finley has invited Simpson and the rest of the Wyoming delegation on a planned tour of Yellowstone next month to discover for themselves why the park is besieged by a record number of complaints relating to its potholed roads and lack of rangers.

Already, he has been forced to make dramatic cuts in essential services. He has deferred maintenance on highways and buildings, left more than 100 necessary ranger positions unfilled, and slashed his own travel budget by 60 percent to serve as an example to other park divisions.

"Only after we pared down everything to its ... minimum were we forced to begin cutting visitor services," Finley says. "If you take something away from the public you ought to be able to stand and take the red-face test. I'm willing to do that. Congress just doesn't want to hear the reality of the message so they kill the messenger."

Simpson insists that Finley is playing the role of fiscal pauper to score political points for the Clinton administration - a charge Finley denies. "I have always believed our national parks should be managed in the national interest not at the behest of local governments or political interests," he says. "Let the American people be my judge."

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