University of Utah law professor William J. Lockhart calls for "substantial independence" for the National Park Service in the lead essay of a new book.

The book, "Our Common Lands: Defending the National Parks," advocates better protection of the national parks. It was released Tuesday by Island Press of Washington, D.C., and Covelo, Calif. The project was sponsored by the National Parks and Conservation Association.Lockhart's chapter is 72 pages long, including footnotes. As the book's first essay, it sets the tone for the volume.

"The reality is that our parks are being impaired, and are increasingly threatened with impairment, by a wide range of activities and projects occurring both within the park and on other public or private lands," Lockhart writes.

As an example, he cites Canyonlands National Park in southern Utah. He says that in recent years, the park faced proposals for a next-door nuclear waste repository, proposals for mass oil sands development nearby, demands for new roads, unrestricted oil and gas leasing on the park's boundaries, man-made haze, and the potential construction of an adjacent airport for scenic flights.

Particularly in the West, some parks are threatened by the activities promoted by other federal agencies, he writes.

However, the service's ability to protect its parks is severely handicapped by its reluctance to confront the sources of external threats and by political restrictions within the Interior Department. Lockhart says the department has conflicts of interest.

In one of his most serious accusations, Lockhart charges that the department "weakens park protection by permitting sister agencies to disregard or minimize any legal priority for park protection."

He says anyone who tries to protect parks by suing is almost certain to run up against a defense that the Interior Department itself won't assert protective laws.

When the legal standards are so badly undermined, even the best management programs aren't likely to protect parks from external threats, he writes.

Lockhart says the Park Service submitted a request to the Bureau of Land Management for park protection from potential external threats. The BLM replied, "The public lands surrounding the national parks are managed for multiple use."

The Interior Department's failure to protect its parks demonstrates that the Park Service must become a substantially independent agency, free from the department's political machinations.

Otherwise, Lockhart writes,"in seeking to accommodate its competing bureaus and missions, it is inevitable that the department will continue to dilute the high statutory priority that Congress intended for park protection."

The question is whether the Park Service should become fully independent or remain affiliated with the department. He concludes there are advantages in "a continuing, though modified, relationship with the department."

He warns that if the Park Service became fully independent, that might seem to be a signal that the remaining Interior agencies were to be in favor of unrestrained development.

Therefore, any new arrangement should ensure that the department's secretary would continue to have legal and institutional responsibility for protecting parks and other land, he says.

Lockhart writes that if Congress is serious about the policy of protecting parks in an unimpaired condition, "only restructuring to confer adequate authority can send the kind of clear legislative message that will be heard."

The book's editor, David J. Simon, paid particular attention to Lockhart in his preface.

"His steady guidance and impeccable sense of moral purpose about the importance of the parks shaped the entire book," Simon said. "He stands in the front ranks of the friends of the national park system."