How badly is the National Park Service short of money?
The staff at Grand Canyon National Park, home to one of the broadest, deepest, oldest and, frankly, grandest, geologic wonders on the earth, doesn't even include a geologist. Nor does the staff at Bryce Canyon National Park, home to another hallmark of geology.
And at Zion National Park, the park's interpretive staff counts eight full-time employees and ten seasonals. That translates into a ranger-to-visitor ratio of one interpreter for every 105,000 visitors.
Those were some of the tidbits delivered on October 13 to a congressional subcommittee collecting testimony to bolster legislation designed to get the Park Service out of hock.
By the time Congressman Mark Souder of Indiana wraps up his roadshow, which already has taken him from Washington, D.C., to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Boston, Seattle and now Flagstaff, Arizona, he'll have enough convincing testimony to fill a raft. Hopefully the rest of Congress won't push that raft down the Colorado River and forget about it.
Just How Bad Are Things In the Parks?
I hope Representative Souder had his tape-recorder running, because there were some real gems tossed his way. For instance, the National Parks Conservation Association pointed out that the parks are being financially drained by homeland security issues...that are not being funded by the Homeland Security Department.
Did you know that security-related operating costs throughout the national park system have reached roughly $40 million annually? Or that construction costs tied to improving security at five parks in the Southwest, including Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a place where researchers go out with armed guards, have amounted to $48 million since 9-11? And that every penny came out of the Park Service's budget?
Beyond that, Grand Canyon National Park officials say they have $238 million in unfunded projects on their books. And that's just one park.
The Integrity of the Parks Is at Stake
Deborah Tuck is president of the Grand Canyon National Park Foundation, a non-profit group that supports the park as best it can. She told the House subcommittee that these are troubled times in the park system.
"The establishment of the National Park Service in 1916 reflected a national consensus that the natural and cultural resources contained within America's parks must be protected -- held in the public trust -- and preserved for future generations," she said. "Congress and the American public need to recognize that there are real threats to the integrity of our national parks."
Bill Hedden, executive director of the Grand Canyon Trust, was even more blunt.
"Today's chronic underfunding of basic upkeep, visitors services and protection of the park resources themselves reveals modern Washington's crippled vision of a country that cannot afford to honor the past or take care of our rich heritage for the future."
For an idea of the funding problem, drift over to Northern Arizona University's web site for a listing of Grand Canyon National Park's unfunded projects.
National Parks are Economic Engines
In his testimony to the committee, Professor Robert Keiter, who heads the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources and the Environment at the University of Utah, told the committee that national parks generate big bucks for the states in which they're located. For instance, he noted that national parks generate about $11 billion for local and regional economies each year.
They also generate about 226,000 tourism-related jobs, Keiter added.
Testimony Didn't Stick Just to Park Economics
The day's testimony wasn't focused solely on budgetary matters. You wouldn't expect it to, what with all the red ink flying around in Washington over the National Park Service's Management Policies.
Professor Keiter took a few minutes to address the handiwork of assistant Interior Secretary Paul Hoffman, who believes parks should be open to more motorized recreation, perhaps mining and logging, and not get caught up in the whole debate over evolution.
"Thus far, the process being used to rewrite the policies is unprecedented in the history of the Park Service," said Keiter. "Revisions to the management policies should not be politically driven."
Furthermore, he added that, "Mr. Hoffman's effort to rewrite the Park Service's Management Policies would undermine the very essence of the National Park System and jeopardize its legacy."
Corporate Sponsorships for Sale?
Also testifying was Rick Smith, who started his NPS career as a seasonal ranger in Yellowstone and retired in 1994 as the associate NPS regional director for natural and cultural resources. He warned the subcommittee that a proposed rule change by the Interior Department could open up the parks to corporate sponsorships.
"This revision opens the door to increased donor recognition opportunities -- for a big enough donation, I can now have the Richard Smith bench placed in a park -- and eliminates the 'prohibited source' provisions, opening the way to donations by corporations that generate profits through tobacco and liquor sales," he said.
"The march toward privatization continues apace. What is particularly disturbing about these moves toward privatizing the park system and depending increasingly on fees is that they significantly increase the probabilities that the system becomes less 'national' and less open to the 'common' American -- and more open to commercial, special and regional/local interests, and to Americans who can afford to pay the ever-increasing entrance and user fees."
What will be very interesting to me, and hopefully to all who love the parks, is what message Congressman Souder returns to Washington with...and whether anyone listens closely enough to stop the withering of our national parks.