Funding the Parks: A Mixed Bag

OK, I've discussed the need to reinvent the National Park Service. Now I'm curious to hear what you think, and I know an awful lot of you spent time yesterday checking out "the traveler," so I know the post didn't simply vanish into cyberspace once I posted it.
But while you're working on a response, let me take you back to one of the reasons why we need to rethink how the NPS carries out its mission: the slow, but steady, deterioration of our national parks.
Back in December I wrote a post dubbed Slowly Starving the Parks in which I questioned Congress's support for the national park system, as well as the Interior Department's motives in seeking more corporate dollars to help fund bits and pieces of the National Park Service's mission.
Since then, the Bush administration has proposed a fiscal 2007 budget that slashes $100 million from the agency's budget. Of course, the president's budget proposal has a long way to travel before it gains Congress's approval, and I'll be surprised if that $100 million cut remains.
U.S. Senator Craig Thomas, a Wyoming Republican who chairs the Senate's parks subcommittee, has voiced his disapproval with the Park Service's maintenance backlog, asking the agency to produce "a clear vision for overcoming our maintenance backlog." And once the agency generates that vision, I don't see how it would gain any traction under the president's current funding proposal for the NPS.
Beyond that, if you take a close look at the parks, you'll see that they're hurting in many areas, not just maintenance.

Macadome_copy Over at Mammoth Cave National Park officials told me that while the park has received annual increases over the past decade, "the increases were not adequate to keep pace with inflation. The park produced a Business Plan in 2003 which showed a 38 percent funding shortfall for basic operations of the park, similar to the findings of other parks."
Up north in Denali National Park and Preserve, the park is using "visitor use assistants" instead of park interpreters to handle interpretive programs because it can't afford the better skilled interpreters. Plus, the park has turned over the maintenance and operation of its Wilderness Access Center to a concessionaire. And the park, which has endured a number of vacant positions for a long time, is re-evaluating what its "core" needs are, employee-wise.
"There are a couple of resources positions and a couple in maintenance that haven't been filled for years due to lack of funding," I was told. "But there are several other current vacancies that are not being filled until the park completes a comprehensive position management plan. Once we have determined the most effective organization, the positions needed to carry out the park's core mission will be filled."
As for Denali's current list of vacancies? It includes the chief of interpretation, the superintendent's secretary, and the park safety officer. Plus, there are shortages in the park's ranger ranks.
Oh, as for Denali's maintenance backlog? At last count it was approaching $55 million.
Things seem surprisingly well down at Mesa Verde National Park, where visitor center hours have not been reduced, nor have interpretive programs. And the park, which marks its centennial in June, has even added interpretive programs to help with the celebration.
On top of that, Mesa Verde added a vegetation management staffer last spring to address vegetation resource issues, and the staff has found money to tackle more maintenance projects than in recent history.
"There are several positions that are currently vacant and will be filled this year," I was told. "All positions have been prioritized, and when vacant will be filled in order of their priority position."
Things sound so good at Mesa Verde that the cynic might say the park is getting the dollars it needs because of its centennial. If that's the case, perhaps more parks should move up their milestone birthdays;)
Mvbalcony_houseweb_copy Sadly, I do think the situation at Mesa Verde is the exception and not the rule. As federal dollars become more scarce, maintenance is put off, positions go unfilled, and park staffs are forced to look for outside help, or outside funding sources, or both.
"Over the past 5-10 years, Mammoth Cave has sought out partners, grants, and volunteers to boost operations/research, and has implemented sustainable methods/materials wherever possible," park officials said.
As you can see, things are not as rosy as some Interior Department and NPS officials would have you believe. I think it's a good thing that parks are closely scrutinizing their operations, looking for fat, if you will, and developing a priority list.
Tough decisions do need to be made. However, I do not believe that the solution is to outsource the Park Service. Once that is done we chance losing control over it, and the national park system is too precious to lose control of.


Comments

A local park has 50 permanent vacancies. They are hoping that retirements will occur so that they can keep the remainder of the staff. Meanwhile the appearance of the park is worsening because of a decimated maintenance staff. Parks should quit trying to keep services at "normal" level and shut down facilities commensurate with the parks ability to maintain them properly. Sure, it would cause a furor, but trying to do the impossible to please WASO will have an adverse effect on the resources of the parks.
Having worked as a seasonal ranger at Mesa Verde relatively recently, I doubt that Mesa Verde is any better funded than any other park. The summer I worked there, the park administration saved money by not leasing government vehicles and requiring interpreters to drive their own vehicles to and from tour sites. Although we were reimbursed for mileage, having to drive our own vehicles was not mentioned during the interview process. Our schedules were also so tightly written that we sometimes only had a 20 minute lunch break, if that. If a tour ran over, as it often did due to straggling or curious visitors, that meant no lunch break. There were numerous other little quirks within the schedule that resulted in a fairly significant amount of unpaid overtime. Although some rangers complained about the unpaid overtime towards the end of the season and the schedule was changed, we were never reimbursed for the overtime we had already worked throughout the season. Most parks go to great lengths to conceal from the public how thin the budget is stretched. When I was at Mesa Verde, rangers only gave tours of the cliff dwellings and evening campfire programs. All of the other five National Park Service sites at which I have worked offered a wider range of talks and walks than did Mesa Verde. Other parks (including Mesa Verde) save money by employing both summer and winter "seasonals." Seasonal jobs cannot last more than 6 months, and by hiring two sets of seasonals rather than one permanent, year-round employee, parks avoid having to pay benefits such as health insurance. Although parks are not supposed to hire both summer and winter seasonals, I have worked in at least 3 that do. Regarding Denali's use of visitor use assistants instead of "better skilled interpreters," most seasonal rangers are at a GS-04/05 level, whether their title is visitor use assistant, park guide, or park ranger. Perhaps your use of the term "better skilled interpreters" refers to park rangers at GS-07/09 level, but you will find very few parks who are using their GS-09 rangers in the field, particularly during the summer months. Most GS-09s will be sitting behind a desk, despite the fact that they most likely ARE "better skilled interpreters." Most of the interpretive programs are given by seasonal GS-04s and GS-05s who may have spent only 2-3 weeks learning about a park before beginning to give programs. Although GS-04/05 seasonal rangers often have a passionate interest in their park and a desire to share that passion with visitors, the lack of permanent positions within the National Park Service means that very few interpretive rangers truly have the depth of knowledge that visitors expect from park rangers. Although I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to live and work within several incredible national parks, reasons such as those listed above are why I am not currently working for the National Park Service. Despite 2+ years of full-time year-round employment with the National Park Service, I had no health insurance, and decided to take a job in another field that would provide those benefits.