Let's put the national park system on the auction block and sell it to the highest bidder.
Yessiree, let's just relieve the federal government of the entire 84 million-odd acres of parkdom. I mean, there doesn't seem to be a lot of interest in the current administration or in Congress to see that the National Park Service gets the funds it needs to adequately run and maintain the parks. All Congress wants to do is keep adding park units and short-changing the Park Service when it comes to balancing the books, and all Dubya wants to do is wage war and cut taxes.
Hell, for years there's been talk about the agency's annual $600 million backlog when it comes to maintenance. Dubya even mentioned it during his first campaign for president, saying he would wipe out that backlog in four years flat.
Right. Been there, hasn't done that.
But back to that $600 million number and my suggestion. That's a pretty nebulous, faceless number. I mean, yeah, it's a 6 followed by a bunch of zeroes, but can you really get your hands around it?
And it's been bandied about so often I fear it's become meaningless, kinda like that kid who cried wolf one time too many. And the result is that it seems we as Americans and Congress as, well, as Congress, has become numb to that number and what it truly means. And in the meantime places like Gateway National Recreation Area are ready to turn over a good chunk of historic Fort Hancock to a private developer because the NPS can't afford the upkeep.
Fortunately, more and more superintendents are taking the lead of Death Valley Supt. J.T. Reynolds in refusing to let Dubya and his friends run roughshod over the parks and they're speaking out specifically about the problems they struggle with day to day. Problems caused by inadequate funding. And they're hoping we're listening.
There was a story the other day in USA Today about Gettysburg National Military Park and the problems it faces courtesy of a maintenance backlog of roughly $50 million. That number has grown nearly 40 percent since 2001 when Dubya arrived in the White House with his pledge to wipe out the Park Service's maintenance backlog.
"You start to look around, and there's work everywhere that needs to be done," Marc Pratt, Gettysburg's acting chief of maintenance, told USA Today. "We just don't have the money or people to do those things. It's a red flag that we're getting behind, and it appears to be getting worse.
Back in Washington, Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for the House Resources Committee, told the newspaper that parks are suffering because of the ever-present costs of the Iraq war. Never mind the wasteful spending that goes on in Congress, war or no war. That probably doesn't deny the parks some of the funding they need. Nooooo.
Up in Wisconsin at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Superintendent Bob Krumenaker was as blunt as he could be about his finances in a newsletter laying out options for the park's next General Management Plan, the document that drives the day-in, day-out mission of the park.
"Costs are rising faster than budgets, and despite our best efforts at reducing costs, increasing efficiencies, and focusing on the most important things our service levels have been declining in recent years," Supt. Krumenaker wrote. "Like many parks, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore staff is unable to do all that it has done in the past (e.g., monitor resource conditions, maintain visitor facilities, provide visitor services, staff visitor centers, etc.).
"Maintaining existing conditions will require more funds than what the park now receives. There is little reason to expect that this funding environment is likely to change over at least the next ten years."
Ouch! Ten years of below-level funding?
To find out how bad things are at Apostle Islands, I called Supt. Krumenaker and listened as he laid out the cards he's been dealt:
* In the past five years, his full-time staff has been cut from 44 employees to one or two over 30.
* His budget has gone from $2.33 million for Fiscal 2001 to $2.56 million for the current fiscal year. Factor in inflation and that drops to $2.23 million in actual buying power, or a cut of $100,000, which buys a lot for a park the size of Apostle Islands.
"These numbers are relatively flat," he told me, "so I think the message is in this five-year period ... we're basically treading water. And in the meantime, the cost of everything goes up, so we're able to do less."
* Apostle Island's maintenance backlog is roughly $9 million, a considerably big number for a park its size.
* The lakeshore's six lighthouses, which "represent the largest and most diverse collection of light stations in the United States and are collectively listed in the National Register of Historic Places," are fortunate not to be crumbling to pieces.
"We're doing the absolute minimum," says Supt. Krumenaker. "We've been fortunate to get project money to put roofs on and re-do the windows. All six are in at least fair condition in terms of keeping the elements out."
However, all need paint jobs, all but Raspberry Island Light Station need structural stabilization and/or rehabilitation work, and weathering and erosion "have resulted in deterioration of the light stations and associated resources, threatening the long-term structural and historical integrity of these properties."
Fortunately, Supt. Krumenaker was able to secure $1.5 million to restore Raspberry Light to its "1920s splendor."
However.... "Do I have any more money for staff to maintain it at that level? No, and that's really scary," he quickly added.
It's so scary that perhaps we'd be better off auctioning off the whole lot of parks and let the private sector pay for the upkeep. And if we Americans, who currently hold the keys to these places, want to visit them, well, we'll just have to dig deeper into our pockets to pay whatever fees they ask.
At least that way Congress won't have to keep coming up with excuses when folks wonder why the Park Service can't do what Congress long ago directed it to do: "Conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."