So, getting ready for your national park summer vacation? That's great. But there are some things you should know before you pile your family into the car and head off down the highway.
For starters, there aren't as many rangers in the parks as there used to be, so don't count on too many interpretive programs. And definitely don't find yourself in a bind, 'cuz help might take a little longer than in the past to reach you. Oh, and things might look a bit shabby in the parks, as the agency's maintenance budget just can't keep up with the aging facilities.
How can all that be when National Park Service Director Fran Mainella earlier this spring told a congressional subcommittee that the Park Service will do just fine on its budget (which is incredibly paltry in view of the agency's needs)? And why, when Fran had time earlier this week to tell her friends over at the American Recreation Coalition that Americans need to understand how they can stay physically fit with a park vacation, can't she tell the rest of us that the park system really is ailing and in need of not just more loving, but more money?
Those are some good questions. If Fran ever grants me an interview I'll run them past her. In the meantime, though, I'll share with you some more data that show just how the national park system is deteriorating.
For starters, as the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees told a group of reporters today, the parks are trying to make ends meet with a mandate from Washington that they get by with 85 percent of their budget dedicated to fixed costs, things like personnel and utilities, and just 15 percent reserved for discretionary items, such as, oh, supplies and training.
Now, that mandate comes at a time when the individual parks already don't have enough money to meet their needs. In discussing the plight of the Park Service with the reporters, coalition members trotted out a survey of 37 parks to highlight how bad things are getting through the park system.
"The budget crisis in our parks is real and it will be felt keenly by park visitors this summer," says Bill Wade, a former Shenandoah National Park superintendent who now chairs the coalition's executive council. "Nearly all surveyed parks will have fewer law enforcement rangers on the job this summer to protect park visitors and park resources. Our intention here is not to be alarmist, but to ensure that American citizens and lawmakers know the facts:
"Forget about cutting the flesh or any 'fat;' we are now cutting deeply into the sinews and bones of our national parks."
Here are some of the survey's "highlights":
* At Apostle Islands National Lakeshore there will be no proactive law enforcement operations this summer, nor any proactive resource protection operations. There will be no bear management operations, a reduction of patrol hours, and safety radio dispatch hours have been cut back to a limited number of hours per day and only five days a week.
* Olympic National Park officials have cut their permanent contingent of rangers to 18 this year, down three from two years ago, their seasonal ranger force to 10 from 17.
* At Acadia National Park roadside mowing will be done once a year, they've done away with annual cleaning of ditches and culverts, and trail-side restrooms are being shuttered during the winter.
* Gettysburg National Military Park is delaying painting of historic structures as well as cannon carriage repairs. The park's staff has lost 13 permanent positions since 2001 and currently lacks exhibit specialists and preservation experts.
* Up at Glacier National Park officials have decided, in the name of budgeting, to shut off potable water at three of their campgrounds and discontinue trash service.
* At Shenandoah National Park budget woes have forced officials to shut a visitor center and curtain interpretive nature programs in a major section of the park, a move that forces visitors interested in such programs to drive 50 miles to take part in some of the remaining programs.
That's just the window dressing, folks.
"It is important to understand that there is more to the problems this summer in national parks than a higher level of risk posed to visitors and resources," Bill Supernaugh, former superintendent of Badlands National Park, told the reporters. "Effectively, there is no meaningful preventative maintenance program today in the NPS because very few parks now have the resources to carry out such a program.
"Unfortunately, today's preventative maintenance deferral turns into tomorrow's increase in the already multi-billion-dollar NPS maintenance backlog," he added. "Reduced seasonal employee hiring contributes directly to increased maintenance backlogs, increased resource crimes, and the increased prevalence of the already shameful number of shabby and ill-kept national park sites and facilities."
You can read the coalition's entire report on the state of the parks here.
Now, the Park Service is aware of many of these issues. Earlier this year, after the stink arose from the Government Accountability Office's review of Park Service funding needs, the agency issued a set of talking points to guide its field personnel through encounters with visitors curious about reduced services and shabby looking facilities.
What's the solution? More pressure on our congressional delegations to stand up for the parks and see that they're adequately funded would be a good start.