Sit back and get comfortable, as the following is one of the longest posts I've made. It hinges on the present state, and the future, of our national park system, and whether current forces in Washington and the private sector are conspiring to drastically redesign the system.
Those who believe a drastic change is under way point to, among other agencies, the U.S. Forest Service, which has problems -- such as funding woes and huge maintenance backlogs -- that are very similar to those of the National Park Service.
Back in 2002, the U.S. Forest Service began work on a plan to sell off parcels of its 191 million acres with the intent of using the revenues to help reduce the agency's massive maintenance backlog, which stood at $1.2 billion roughly a year ago.
Dubbed the "National Facilities Working Capital Fund and Conveyance Plan," this program has seen the Angeles National Forest in Southern California sell two houses for $1.7 million while the Kootenai National Forest in Montana sold 78 lakeside acres, complete with bunkhouse, for $850,000. The folks at the Property and Environment Research Center, a non-profit that strives to see environmental quality improved through markets, think these types of sales are just what the country needs.
In addition to the land-sale program, the Forest Service is in the midst of analyzing its campgrounds and other recreation facilities in an effort to prioritize what it should hold onto, what it should shut down, and what it should sell.
Could something similar happen to the National Park Service? That's a good question.
Keep in mind that it was the Forest Service's enormous maintenance backlog that forced the agency to get into the land-sale business.
"Forest Service buildings falling into disrepair due to age or deferred maintenance, coupled with the escalating cost of repair and maintenance, led to the formation of a National Facilities Review Team," reads the internal Forest Service document that outlines a communications strategy for explaining the land disposal.
"The Team's responsibility was to find mechanisms for funding the cost of maintenance and repair as well as identify approaches to buildings that needed to be replaced because they have become unsafe and hazardous to the health of employees and visitors, or simply because they no longer meet the needs of the Forest Service."
The NPS Has An Enormous Maintenance Backlog, Too
Now, if you've been paying attention to the plight of the NPS, you know that its maintenance backlog most recently was pegged by the Government Accountability Office at $5 billion, or roughly five times the Forest Service's backlog. And while there hasn't been any formal announcement that the Park Service is heading to the auction house, the agency has been tightening its belt in ways that many find distressing.
Visitor center hours have been cut back, restrooms have been shuttered at times, staff positions have been eliminated or gone unfilled, more maintenance has been deferred, law-enforcement needs have suffered, interpretive programs have been lost. Against this backdrop, the NPS has issued a set of talking points to help its field personnel discuss budget problems with visitors. Attached to that memo was a brief explanation of the Park Service's Core Operations Analysis program, in which individual parks are closely examining their spending to determine what is necessary and what isn't.
"Core operations is designed to assist park managers in making fully informed decisions on staffing and funding alternatives based on realistic funding projections that tie to core mission goals," the memo reads
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility looked at that memo and issued a release of its own this week, claiming that the Bush administration has a "secret plan" to cut national park funding by 30 percent during the next five years.
Under Core Operations Analysis, the group says, "park superintendents decide which visitor services or other functions can be jettisoned. Whatever shortfalls in support for essential operations that remain must be made up for with fee hikes, cost shifting, or increased reliance on volunteers."
Some cash-strapped parks are turning operations over to concessionaires, such as Grand Teton officials did with some of their campgrounds last year. Down at Canyonlands National Park, officials have completed their core analysis and come up with $200,000 worth of savings for use elsewhere within its budget.
How did Canyonlands officials do it?
They abolished the position of deputy superintendent when he retired in January 2005, a savings of roughly $122,000; did away with a heavy equipment operator's position after he retired, a savings of $42,600; did the same with a part-time equipment operations position when he retired, a savings of $26,600; saved another $6,700 through vehicle fleet reductions, and; decided they didn't need a contractor to haul water to the remote Hans Flat ranger station, a savings of $2,800.
While many of the deputy superintendent's responsibilities were distributed among the remaining staff, the financial "savings" were used to pay for rangers, keep visitor centers open, and ensure that restrooms are cleaned.
Paul Henderson, the park's chief of interpretation and administration, tells me the cuts weren't draconian and that, all things considered, life goes on.
"While all of us certainly had full-time jobs before the deputy superintendent retired, I think we've made the transition quite well and nothing seems to be falling through the cracks," he says. "We do have some outstanding vacancies that we have chosen to backfill with temporary employees for the time-being. We are in the midst of developing a sustainable organization chart and once we've accomplished that, and after further cost-saving measures have been realized, we will fill the vacancies.
"Bottom line in my mind is that the park is open, the facilities are being maintained, and the resources are being protected," Henderson says.
Is This A Proper Bottom Line for the Park Service?
There are many who are concerned by the administration's tack with public lands in general and the national park system specifically.
When I asked Bill Wade, chair of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, whether his group was worried that the administration intentionally was inflicting financial pain on the NPS with hopes that volunteers, non-profits, and private donations would take on a larger share of financial and operational responsibility for the national park system, he replied that, "It certainly has crossed our minds more than once."
"I'm not a particular believer in conspiracy theories," Wade continued, "but there just seem to be too many 'coincidences' being piled on by the administration and folks like (Rep. Richard) Pombo, in Congress to ignore the possibility.
"Also, it's one thing to keep 'starving the beast' and quite another to continue to misinform the American public about the condition of parks so they won't get concerned, and that seems to us what has been happening as (NPS Director Fran) Mainella and others continue to beat the drum about the parks being find."
At the National Parks Conservation Association, Legislative Director Blake Selzer wouldn't go so far as to say the Bush administration is intentionally trying to wean the NPS from federal funding. But he added that, "They're obviously not putting national parks as a priority."
"What I've seen more recently," Selzer said, "is they're using things like Core Operations Analysis and volunteerism as a panacea for this incredibly inadequate budget request."
Back at PEER, Executive Director Jeff Ruch said the administration shouldn't be allowed to get away with downsizing the park system through its Core Analysis efforts.
"If our national parks are going to be reduced to performing only to the bare minimum of 'core operations,' the public ought to be given some say as to what is considered essential," he said.
Talking Points and Management Plans
The release of talking points by NPS headquarters was not a landmark move, nor is the effort to search for operational efficiencies. Most recently, back in 2004, the agency also sent talking points out to the field. At the time, the agency talked about "Business Plan Initiatives," not "Core Operations Analysis," when it focused on streamlining operations.
"The Business Plan Initiative helps superintendents document the need for additional resources to meet their goals for the park. To focus only on operational shortfalls, however, is misleading and does the program an injustice," part of the 2004 memo read. "Any superintendent in the national park system will tell you that he or she needs more money. The business plans are designed to help superintendents undertake a process that engages all of his or her managers in a financial management overview of the park's programs; it is an accounting tool to help them identify how funds are being spent and how funds can be maximized or spent more efficiently."
Apparently that plan didn't work too well, as now park managers are being asked to cut even deeper into their budgets.
Today the parks are being asked to raise fees to help cover costs (Denali National Park is considering a hike in climbing fees, many parks are hiking their entrance fees) and to reach out even more to private groups. Along that line, the Park Service has created a "senior level office of partnerships....to help parks establish partnerships to protect cultural and natural resources -- with friends groups, cooperating associations, corporations, local communities, the tourism industry and so on."
So where is all this leading? What will next year's talking points stress?
Some say it will lead not just to more commercialization of our public lands, including the national parks, but privatization. While the national park system might not be sold off bit by bit as the Forest Service currently is, that doesn't mean attempts won't be made in the future to identify parks with relatively little visitation and decommission them.
"Last year Pombo tried to sell off 15 entire park units," points out Scott Silver, executive director of Wild Wilderness, an advocacy group based in Oregon. "I would not be totally surprised if similar attempts are made in the future.
"...I do expect that the NPS will go through similar evaluations (ie, Forest Service) regarding the use and prioritization of specific sites within parks. I fully expect that at some point 'experiences' will be identified, cataloged and measured against the range of experiences that some higher authority believes should be available within each national park unit," he adds. "Those experiences that are missing from the list will, I suspect, be flagged for inclusion and concessionaires will be asked to present proposals for how best to add those missing experiences to the range of products available."
As for prioritizing recreational outlets in the national parks, could you soon see the day when your favorite little spot, say the Carbon River Entrance to Mount Rainier National Park, or maybe Catalooche in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is closed because it doesn't attract large, cost-efficient, crowds?
Kempthorne to the Rescue?
Demanding more from the Park Service, with less federal dollars, actually is not a new idea. It's been discussed for better than two decades.
"What's happening was described a quarter-century ago," says Silver. "(President) Reagan's budget director, David Stockman, coined the name, 'Starving the Beast.' The Libertarians have been pursuing this goal for ages -- and they are poised to succeed. In the early '80s, Reagan's OMB introduced the first NPS fee legislation that called for fee-retention and an immediate 25 percent reduction in the NPS budget. The bill called for eventually phasing out the NPS budget totally and replacing congressionally allocated money with retained user fees."
Soon to stride into this landscape is Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne, who has been nominated to succeed Gale Norton as Interior secretary. If confirmed, Kempthorne no doubt will find his in-box overflowing with demands that he champion the national parks, something Ms. Norton did not do.
In fact, according to CNPSR's Wade, "Norton established an objective early on to lower the status of the NPS in the DOI and to homogenize the NPS and parks with other public lands in DOI. They've carried this out by eliminating a specific NPS strategic plan, eliminating National Parks Day and combining it into Public Lands Week, all along with efforts to expand recreation and use (especially motorized) on NPS lands.
"As I say, it's hard to ignore all these things as being intended to reduce parks to some less special group of lands administered by DOI," he said.
The NPCA's Selzer holds a measure of hope that Kempthorne will reverse that course.
"We are hopeful that with the new secretary of Interior coming in that he will pay more attention to the national parks, because we have not see that attention paid to them the last several years," he says.
What we're grappling with here are public lands, lands owned by each and every American citizen.
Are there Forest Service parcels that are of no use to the agency? Perhaps. But in their current condition, those questionable parcels are doing a great job as open space, space that won't be developed, space that provides a measure of habitat.
Some parcels, such as that one piece of lakeside land sold by the Kootenai National Forest, possibly could be transformed into a resort, an upscale vacation retreat, or a private in-holding no longer open to the public. Is that in the best interests of all Americans? Or would it be better off undeveloped, a great slice of quasi-wilderness where you could pitch your tent?
Could this process escalate to the point where all Forest Service lands are sold off and the agency put out to (leased) pasture? That's a dose of hyperbole. I think.
National parks were intended to be preserved, not allowed to slowly wither away due to administrative neglect or indifference.
Yet if left unchecked, the current bent to demand more from our public lands, while providing less financial support, could forever doom these majestic landscapes and, in doing so, lessen their value. Without public notice, and even outrage, the national park system will be starved, its performance threatened, its magic forever lost.