Fran Mainella, head of the National Park Service since 2001, said Wednesday she will resign from the agency that has often been at odds with environmentalists and Westerners.
Critics have said the agency put too much emphasis on recreation, shifting its focus from conservation. Mainella recently oversaw a controversial rewrite of management policies for the parks under its care.
A Park Service release said Mainella is leaving her position to devote more time to her family.
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne told Mainella that perhaps her most important contribution was her “effort to foster a culture of partnership within the National Park Service,” according to a letter released by the Interior Department.
Mainella has not always been popular with members of Congress, many of whom denounced a draft management proposal that would have placed more emphasis on recreation and expanded the use of snowmobiles and ATVs on federal land.
A new draft of the plan that Kempthorne released last month retreated from that proposal, winning praise from environmentalists including the National Parks Conservation Association.
That group’s president, Tom Kiernan, said Wednesday that the policy rewrite “protects the national parks for future generations” and he praised Mainella for being a “passionate, enthusiastic advocate for our parks.”
In 2004, Congress questioned Mainella about travel costs.
Lawmakers who oversaw the Park Service 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.
Agency 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 also guided the agency through controversy over the use of snowmobiles. For years, snowmobile access to park trails was largely unrestricted. That ended before the 2003-04 winter, when the Park Service moved from a Clinton-era plan that called for phasing out snowmobiles in favor of mass-transit snowcoaches to one 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, and business owners in park gateway towns complained it kept tourists away. 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., one of several Western senators to express concern about the emphasis the park service put on recreation over conservation, 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 on 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.
Mainella did not say when she will be leaving her post. An agency release said she will serve through the completion of the management policy overhaul.
Associated Press writers Jennifer Talhelm and Matthew Daly contributed to this report.