Word has it that Mary sailed through her confirmation hearing with the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee today, as expected. No date's been set for the full Senate to vote on her nomination as National Park Service director, but that, too, will surely sail through without a hitch.
That's the good news for Mary.
The bad news is that Fran is leaving her in the hole to the tune of nearly $815 million.
That's how much the Park Service is underfunded on an annual basis, according to a new analysis by the National Parks Conservation Association. Just five years ago the parks advocacy group estimated that the Park Service's annual shortfall was right about $600 million.
"Park budgets are falling further behind," says Ron Tipton, NPCA's senior vice president for programs. "The good news is that Congress and the administration can do something about it."
They can, but will they?
Let's not forget that the Bush administration is proposing a $100 million cut in the Park Service's 2007 budget. Now, U.S. Senator Craig Thomas of Wyoming has been circulating a letter among his colleagues that asks the president to make a greater financial commitment to the parks. And I hear that Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne has been visiting the White House to discuss the parks' funding situation, but it's too soon to say how either of those efforts will pan out.
As for the NPCA's latest calculation, it's based on the annual appropriations Congress has doled out to the Park Service the past five years and the agency's fixed costs and annual Cost of Living Adjustments for park staff. NPCA also took into consideration cost-saving measures some parks have initiated, including the use of volunteers for jobs previously performed by staff, and park donations, such as the $15 million donated to Yellowstone for a new visitor center at Old Faithful.
A prime driver of the agency's financial woes is the annual Cost of Living adjustments that are mandated by Congress. For example, the NPCA review shows that in Fiscal 2005 the increase amounted to a 4.1 percent hike in a park's costs, but the administration provided only a 1.4 percent budget increase to offset that COLA bump. Other financial drags include the unfunded Homeland Security tasks handed the Park Service and year-to-year maintenance.
Nice economics, eh? That's one of the reasons parks are forced to cut back on manpower, reduce interpretive programs, and rely more and more on volunteers and the private sector to handle jobs previously performed by rangers.
"In national parks from Yosemite to Apostle Islands to Gettysburg, insufficient annual funding is causing park managers to cut public education programs, science, and research; reduce visitor center hours; postpone road, trail and historic building maintenance; halt cataloging and preservation of historic and cultural artifacts; limit work to combat invasive species and poachers, and; even clean park restrooms less frequently," says NPCA.
In a nutshell, come September 30, the last day of Fiscal 2006, NPCA figures the Park Service's annual budget shortfall will total $814,674,000. Oh, and by the way, that figure does not include the cost of running the Park Service's Washington headquarters or the regional offices.
Not exactly the best welcoming present for Mary, is it? Let's hope Congress will be kinder.