I spent most of this week in Washington, D.C., a trip that blended business with pleasure. I saw the capital's cherry trees in full blossom, the mongering that's rampant at the city's waterfront seafood market, the beauty of the U.S. Botanic Garden, and a museum or two.
I also spent a couple hours watching the House Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies hash over the National Park Service's budget woes with NPS Director Fran Mainella and her staff.
While the director handled herself well and stayed upbeat, if deep down inside she really is an incredible advocate for the national park system, that presumed advocacy is being muffled by politics.
Washington, of course, is a city stoked by politics, and you won't last long in an appointed position if you sway too far from the party line. But every now and then a reality check is needed. For all parties involved -- the NPS leadership and members of the subcommittee -- reality arrived in the form of the Government Accountability Office's report on national park funding.
It was a damning document, one that cited case after case where a lack of funding is impeding national parks from carrying out their duties in terms of preserving the resource, facilities maintenance, and providing for the education and enjoyment of the general public.
* "At Grand Teton National Park, park officials told us that to operate the same number of facilities and assets, costs for fuel, electricity, and solid waste removal increased from $435,010 in 2003 to $633,201 in 2005 -- an increase of 46 percent, when adjusted for inflation. Officials told us that, as a result, their utility budget for fiscal year 2005 was spent by June 2005 -- three months early. In August, the park accepted the transfer requests of two division chiefs and used the salaries from these vacancies to pay for utility costs for the remaining portion of the year."
* "In 2003, Yellowstone National Park constructed The Heritage Center with line-item construction appropriations to house 5.3 million artifacts of natural and cultural significance. In 2001, the park officials requested but did not receive an additional $250,000 that they estimated was required to pay for the center's costs for power, water, sewer, and information technology. A Park Service headquarters official told us that while there is a need to replace old facilities with new construction, it is unlikely -- given the overall fiscal demands on the federal government -- that park units will receive corresponding increases in funding for daily operations necessary to operate new facilities."
* "Grand Canyon National Park reduced interpretive programs available to visitors from 35 in 2001 to 23 in 2005."
* At Bryce Canyon National Park, law enforcement officials told us that, since 2001, in order to maintain patrols in high-visitor-use areas, they reduced backcountry patrolling. As a result, the park has very little backcountry resource protection capability. For example, while park officials are aware of poaching in the park, they told us that they do not have the capability to prevent or investigate this illegal activity."
The examples go on, touching Acadia, Shenandoah, Zion, Yosemite national parks, as well as Gettysburg National Military Park, which "has lost one of its key preservation specialist positions responsible for the technical repair and restoration of cannon carriages."
I'm sure the GAO could have rummaged up even more examples, but its staffers visited just a dozen parks for this report.
Even though Director Mainella knew the contents of the report before it was presented to the subcommittee --the GAO ran a draft past NPS officials to get their reaction -- she told the subcommittee that President Bush's $2.156 billion FY2007 budget request for the Park Service "supports the goals of protecting park resources, continuing improvements in asset management, and achieving efficiencies in the management of park programs within the administration's goal of cutting the federal budget deficit in half by 2009."
How can she possibly believe that a budget that saw a $100 million cut from current funding levels can support those goals, when current funding isn't even coming close?
"There always will be challenges," she told the committee after Rep. Norman Dicks, D-Wash., cited numerous failings attributed to inadequate funding.
Was that an example of the director's stiff upper lip? Did she take a page from Nero, Rome's emperor in 64 A.D. who, urban legend has it, played his lyre while the city burned down about him?
What's needed from the NPS director is a true parks advocate, one who will agree that the current plight facing the national park system is unacceptable and then challenge not just her staff but also the Interior secretary to find solutions that don't involve cutting through muscle and into the bone of the agency. Perhaps the reportedly strained relationship between former Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Director Mainella made that impossible.
But now Ms. Norton is gone and perhaps Director Mainella can work with her successor to improve the plight of the parks. It need not take a direct rebellion against those above her to further the Park Service's best interests. And the salvation of the park system should not require turning it over to the concessionaires, staffing it with volunteers, summoning more sponsors, or shutting down facilities and interpretive programs.
Rather, acknowledgment of the existing problems, both those cited by the GAO and those not, would be a good place to start. Face up to the shortcomings, for only by doing that can one build a groundswell of support for the parks.
Building allies in Congress would help as well, as there is a solid core to start with, as evidenced by the outrage that grew up around the proposed revisions to the Park Service's Management Policies and the outrage that was vented during this week's House subcommittee hearing.
Of course, those in Congress should pay better attention to the parks, particularly when they are so willing to spend millions of dollars on projects that aren't needed or lack priority in today's fiscal climate. Rep. Charles Taylor, R-North Carolina, chairs the House Interior subcommittee and was one of those pointing out to Director Mainella the Park Service's budget woes, yet at the same time he's pushing the Park Service to get behind the $600 million "road to nowhere" in Great Smoky Mountains National Park when few believe that's the best option, and just the other day he was preening at the dedication of a $10 million "destination center" for the Blue Ridge Parkway.
If the NPS can't pay for the utilities at Grand Teton or Yellowstone, or afford law enforcement to prevent poaching at Bryce Canyon, how is it going to find the $365,000 it's expected to cost to operate and maintain that new facility?
There's no question the federal government is pressed for dollars, what with the Iraq war, hurricane recovery efforts, and tax cuts. At the same time, hundreds of millions of dollars are being wasted by Congress via misguided appropriations.
If our appointed and elected officials just sit back and accept things as they are, we'll only sink further into the morass.