Don't be overcome by the spin coming out of the Interior Department. The National Park Service is locked in a mighty struggle with its finances, one that has left the agency essentially juggling between addressing its immense maintenance backlog or attending to its daily operations.
The result is that the agency is slipping backward in trying to meet its obligations to maintain and preserve the national park system.
In a report issued today to the House Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, the Government Accountability Office noted that many park units simply do not have the funding necessary to attend to ever-growing operating costs. The result, Congress's accounting arm reported, is that parks are either eliminating or reducing services or have raided other accounts that traditionally have not been used to pay for daily operations.
While NPS Director Fran Mainella told subcommittee members this morning that her agency is coping thanks to her great management team, Representative Norman Dicks replied that that answer was a "euphemism for cuts."
As I sat in Room 309 of the Raybourn House Office Building while Director Mainella fielded the committee's questions, I had to admit that the director was fairly adept at maintaining a positive spin on the bleak scenario painted by the GAO report. But time and again committee members -- from both sides of the aisle -- refused to agree with her that all is well with the Park Service.
"I think the budget ... is a disappointment," Rep. Dicks said candidly of the Bush administration's plan for the Park Service, adding that he didn't think it was "responsible."
"We've got a problem on our hands," the Washington State Democrat continued, going on to say that the committee would try to find a way "to save you guys again."
Rep. Charles Taylor, the North Carolina Republican who chairs the subcommittee, added that, "We seem to be losing ground in this budget."
The problem is not new. Indeed, it's been festering for years. The GAO report, which analyzed financial data from 2001 through 2005, didn't discuss how NPS funding fared under the Clinton administration, although even under the Democrat the agency's maintenance backlog wallowed in the billions of dollars. While past estimates have placed that backlog somewhere between $4.5 billion and $9 billion, today's GAO report settles on $5 billion, a figure that likely is a tad soft.
Still, what's just as distressing as the backlog is how quickly the NPS budget is losing ground to inflation and inadequate funding, something Congress is just as, if not more so, responsible for. Indeed, according to the GAO report, while appropriations to the NPS's Operation of the National Park System account increased from FY2001 through FY2005 in nominal dollars, from about $1.4 billion to almost $1.7 billion, or roughly 5 percent per year, when adjusted for inflation the increase equated to about 1 percent per year, which isn't enough to keep up with the cost-of-living and rocketing energy prices.
Overall, the report said, "about 56 percent of the individual park units and about 74 percent of the more highly visited parks experienced an overall decline in their allocation for daily operations when adjusted for inflation during this period."
President Bush's FY2007 budget proposal doesn't come close to reversing that trend. Indeed, not only does it recommend a $100 million cut for the agency, testimony presented at today's hearing stated that present funding addresses only 70 percent of the agency's fixed costs, which heightens the proposed budget's actual cost to the Park Service as park managers cut some corners to mend others.
"So you have to eat 30 percent of the fixed costs at the parks?" Congressman Dicks asked Director Director Mainella.
"Yes sir," she replied.
Additionally, the subcommittee's staff has calculated that in the past five years the NPS has had to absorb $100 million in operational costs that were not directly paid for through annual appropriations. That task was accomplished, the GAO report stated, by park managers who "made trade-offs among the operational activities which, in some cases, resulted in reducing services in areas such as education, visitor and resource protection, and maintenance activities."
Specifically, the report said visitor center hours have been reduced in some parks and there have been cuts in "basic custodial duties" as well as backcountry patrols. And when superintendents opted not to fill full-time positions so they could shift that funding over to maintenance projects, they often turned to volunteers to fill their roles. At Badlands National Park, for example, the GAO notes that roughly "65 percent of visitor contacts in 2004 were provided by employees of the park's nonprofit partner...compared to 45 percent in 2001."
Over at the National Parks Conservation Association, President Tom Kiernan greeted the GAO report with a call to action.
"The national parks were treading water last year. This year, they are in danger of sinking," he said. "The time for action to protect our national inheritance is now."