Photo by Dale Sundstrom on Flickr.

The National Park Service’s difficult and sometimes inscrutable regulations for events in parks may have claimed another victim: Long-running summer concerts in Fort Reno. The same day, Park Police also cracked down on food trucks along the Mall.

The organizer of the Fort Reno concerts, Amanda MacKaye, announced yesterday that the concerts are canceled for this year. She says that’s because the National Park Service and the US Park Police changed their requirements at the last minute in a way that would double the cost to host the free concerts.

The park, located in Tenleytown in upper northwest, had hosted the concerts since 1968 and was always a showcase of regional talent for a wide variety of bands. The shows were put on by volunteers and are generally low-key affairs even if the bands themselves are loud.

But in a note on the series’ website, McKaye said instead of receiving the expected permit like in years before she was told that organizers had to pay for an extra US Park Police Officer to be at every concert. She says,

Park Police cited differing reasons as to why this had come up after all these years. The reasons felt vague and when asked for specifics, none were given.

I requested a sit down meeting with NPS and USPP with the hope that our long standing (very good) relationship with NPS coupled with people seeing that we are just folks having a small community related event would bring about a better understanding and resolution.

Two messages to schedule went unanswered and when I did reach someone, a meeting was scheduled for the next morning (yesterday). The meeting happened but none of the invitees attended except myself and one extremely kind NPS employee who works in the office where meetings are held but despite being familiar with the park and the concert series as being an annual event, knew nothing about why the permit was being stalled.

She went on to say that she was not aware of any announcement of a policy change over the past year that would have alerted her to this.

There are valid reasons for requiring measures like extra police presence at events. Large crowds can potentially be dangerous, and many different venues require them all the time. But organizers deserve to know about these requirements up front, and hear well in advance if something has changed from one year to another.

In a statement, NPS spokesperson Jennifer Mummart said,

Today, the National Park Service (NPS) was notified by the permit applicant for the Fort Reno concert series that she intended to postpone the concerts. The United States Park Police (USPP) reached out to the applicant today. The NPS and USPP are reviewing the details of previous permits and previous law enforcement needs related to the concert series. Our primary goal is public safety. Both the NPS and USPP recognize the importance of the concerts to the community and look forward to further discussions with the permit applicant.

If McKaye’s account is accurate, this wouldn’t be the first time NPS’ bureaucracy has created confusing policy or frustrated volunteers trying to use parks for community gathering spaces. The Dupont Festival is a group of people who volunteer their time to organize many kinds of events in the Circle. Just yesterday, they packed the circle to watch the US men’s World Cup team play Germany (they lost, but the US did well enough to advance out of its group anyway).

Photo by John Jack Photography on Flickr.

The Dupont Festival folks have gotten a handle on navigating NPS’ arcane and complex permitting processes as well as built relationships with permit officials, but when they were getting started they ran into many obstacles that sound a lot like the Fort Reno ones. Besides requirements for police, NPS also imposed last-minute requirements like insurance, didn’t get the details of their permit until the last minute, and yelled at an organizer for showing up early.

The Park Service has been making many big and positive strides to be more responsive to residents and more open to making DC’s parks, from the Mall to ones in neighborhoods, actually serve the functions of urban parks, such as including playground or welcoming people for special events.

Though food remains a problem. Yesterday, Park Police also drove away food trucks which park along streets like 7th Street as they cross the National Mall. While DC gives permits to the food trucks, NPS officials claim that trucks parking along streets with federal property on both sides is subject to federal rules rather than local ones.

This is a different issue than concerts in local parks, and it’s no sudden revelation — NPS has been saying this for years, though it’s not clear why there was a sudden crackdown yesterday. Hopefully NPS can find ways to accommodate food trucks, perhaps in select zones as DC has done downtown. They are a tremendous asset for hungry tourists.

Recently-retired NPS National Capital Region director Steve Whitesell said that the agency used to make “no” the default answer, and is evolving to work with people to find a way to “yes.” Music fans will have to hope that the organizers and NPS can resolve their issues by next summer, while tourists on the Mall can wish for some solution to offer better food.

Canaan Merchant was born and raised in Powhatan, Virginia and attended George Mason University where he studied English. He became interested in urban design and transportation issues when listening to a presentation by Jeff Speck while attending GMU. He lives in Burke.