People like to toss around numbers. We celebrate birthdays and new years, keep track of personal fortunes, and constantly calculate how much we'll need to retire and wonder how soon we'll reach that number.
At the National Park Service, the number that for me spawns the most fascination is tied to the agency's maintenance backlog. Built partly of late on an estimated $600 million annual shortfall between what the agency needs and what it spends, it's quite an incredible number, ranging somewhere between $4.5 billion and $9 billion.
That's right. There's a $4.5 billion black hole of uncertainty right smack in the middle reflecting the unknown of just how financially bad off the agency is.
To get a better understanding of this deficit, I called Bruce Sheaffer, the comptroller of the National Park Service for better than three decades. And what he told me was very interesting.
"There have been over the years many different definitions of what a backlog is," Sheaffer answered when I asked how much the agency is in arrears. "Now it's being defined as work that should have been performed, or should have been corrected, or work that should have been done on a facility this fiscal year but did not get done.
"Therefore it becomes part of the backlog maintenance. That's kind of a recent definition," he said. "But for the most part, over the years the backlog has been defined as lists of projects that need to be done. How useful it was, I don't know, but it's kind of what Congress asked us to do."
But what about that wide range, $4.5 billion to $9 billion? Shouldn't the agency have a better, more exact, grasp on how much work its visitor centers, headquarters buildings, hotels, museums, roads, boardwalks, docks and restrooms need to remain in sound operating condition?
"I'm required to put a number in the annual financial statements, and I've been using those numbers that are based on lists for some time because nothing else has been available to me," replied Sheaffer.
In other words, that number -- the one bandied about by the National Parks Conservation Association when it decries the financial state of the national park system, the one that surfaces as Congressman Mark Souder roams the country to hold hearings into the financial stature of the National Park Service, the one that President Bush, during his first run for president, said he'd wipe out in four years -- that $4.5 billion-$9 billion number, is one big guesstimate.
Not only that, but no one really knows when the Park Service didn't have a deficit.
"I can't imagine that there was a time when we didn't have some backlog in maintenance," said Sheaffer.
Now, as for the range of the current guesstimate, Sheaffer explained that the actual number could be inflated by park personnel who might not be the best estimators for calculating the cost of repairs to historic structures. Or it could be the result of rehabilitation projects that grow beyond the initial scope of the projects. Another factor behind the big, hard to pin down, number could be that some park estimators might be shooting for the sky when they calculate the cost of repairs, while something a tad simpler and less costly might suffice.
"I even question the superintendents: 'Do you have a good, credible estimate of what it would take to do the deferred maintenance on any particular facility out there? And by the way, when you give me an estimate on a building, say $3 million that your maintenance guy came up with to rehab, does it include making it bigger because your visitation has outpaced its size, and if so, is that a reasonable part of the deferred maintenance backlog?' said Sheaffer.
"Most would argue it's not, it's not fair to do that."
In an attempt to rectify this situation, the Park Service is developing what it calls a "Facility Condition Index." Park Service personnel around the country are assessing every facility on the agency's far-flung properties to calculate what condition they are in and what it would take to bring them up to snuff. Average snuff, by the way, not excellent snuff.
"Once we refine the number, there will be costs of what it will take to get the facility, on average, to an acceptable condition," said Sheaffer. "There is not the notion that every facility in the Park Service ever has to be perfect. You'll never attain that. It is reasonable, based on the work that's being done, to assume that there is an average condition that we're willing to accept, and so our goal would be getting to that average condition."
Over at the NPCA, Steve Bosak, the group's point person on efforts to see Congress pass the National Parks Centennial Act that is intended to wipe out the backlog by 2016 when the Park Service marks its centennial, agrees the maintenance backlog number is slippery. However, he pointed out that the backlog problem arose, and continues to grow, from Congress's unwillingness to adequately fund Park Service needs.
"Conceivably, if you did not have the annual operating deficit, you wouldn't have a backlog," Bosak said. "That goes to Congress and people wanting to build things and not take care of them. For instance, the Going-to-the-Sun Road (in Glacier National Park), they've always drainage ditches underneath it, they never put in the maintenance time to clean them out, so over time you had sediment build up, which caused moisture to get caught in there, and would stay there during the winter time, and freeze and expand, and over time broke up the
"...So now you've got a more than $100 million project to rebuild a road on the side of a mountain. If you'd just taken care of it over time, there might be repairs that need to be made, but it might be a lot less costly," said Bosak. "And there's a lot of other examples like that, where there's something broken. It's like they can't afford to change the oil in the car so they buy a new engine."
So not only is the backlog growing at a steady clip -- in Grand Teton National Park, for example, officials know their backlog totals at least $60 million, but it could go has high as $100 million -- but efforts to rein it in are complicated by the uncertainty swirling about what exactly the number is and budgetary decisions made by the White House and Congress.
While President Bush pledged to wipe out the deficit during his first term in office, he never came close.
"The rate of investment that they (the Bush administration) would have had to adhere to to meet $4.9 billion wasn't there," said Bosak. "And we just know from looking at parks that there's still a lot of backlog items there, still some major ones. Has the rate of investment increased? Yeah, but actually not so much more than the rate of investment that was occurring before the Bush administration.
"The Clinton administration was increasing their investment in the backlog before the Bush administration came along," Bosak pointed out. "And for Bush to have said, wag his finger and say, 'Our parks are falling apart and more needs to be done,' most people I think got the distinct impression that new money was going to be put into the parks. That's not what happened."
Back at NPS headquarters, Bruce Sheaffer tells me the agency's financial fortunes have ebbed and flowed with the passage of administrations. "Because of competing priorities or national goals or budget constraints or deficits, whatever reason, you can go through periods where we struggle," he said.
"If you look at the history of our appropriations, you see some pretty sizable boosts in one year, and then a leveling off. And then in the capital accounts, you'll see high swings and then a dropping off and so forth and so on," said Sheaffer. "Long range, years down the road, I don't think there's any question, with the popularity of the Park Service, that we'll be fine. I really do.
"But that doesn't mean in the short run that we're not going to have to be very, very careful as to how we're allocated. We're not going to be able to do everything we want to do."
(Photo Courtesy of Glacier National Park)