Well, there's some good news today for Yosemite National Park.
The non-profit Yosemite Fund is giving another $3.5 million to the park for trail repairs, visitor service improvements and habitat restoration.
The bad news is that there are another 3.5 million reasons why Congress can ignore the fiscal plight of the national park system. After all, if private groups can hand over $3.5 million, why should Congress bother meeting all the needs of the park system? It can just wait until some private group comes to the rescue, as The Yosemite Fund has done to the tune of $35 million since 1985.
Sadly, if that mentality sets in the park system will continue to wither.
This is not to throw cold water on The Yosemite Fund's efforts, or
those of any other park advocacy group. But look at what The Yosemite
Fund's latest donation tackles:
* Part will go toward restoring 33 miles of the John Muir Trail;
* Some of it went to the $1.6 million restoration of Omsted Point;
* Some helped restore the Valley trails, and;
* Some went towards new exhibits at the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center.
"Throughout the park, many projects made possible by The Yosemite Fund greatly enhance cultural sites, wilderness areas, and park wildlife," Yosemite Superintendent Michael Tollefson said. "The visitor experience in the park is changing for the better in part because of the generosity of these private contributions."
Read those two sentences over again. Shouldn't at least some of the projects being underwritten by The Yosemite Fund be the Park Service's responsibility?
The National Park Service Organic Act charges the Park Service with conserving park resources for future generations and the enjoyment of visitors, and it certainly sounds like Superintendent Tollefson is admitting that the fund's donations -- not solely Park Service dollars -- are doing just that.
I tried to reach Yosemite officials yesterday to ask what would have happened to the park's resources had The Yosemite Fund not contributed several million dollars, but never heard back. But I think the answer is obvious.
Back in March I told you about the financial struggles at the Blue Ridge Parkway, about how the parkway's superintendent lamented that "we're cutting just about everywhere." In that same post, I noted a letter-to-the-editor from Houck Medford, the executive director of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, a group that exists very much for the same reason as The Yosemite Fund: to support the parkway and help it in any way it can.
However, Mr. Medford is very concerned about the role more and more park foundations are assuming in these days of paltry congressional support. Here's a snippet of his letter:
"Some in Congress and the National Park System have suggested that there needs to be a greater contribution from the private sectors to support the operational budgets of our national parks.
"Operational funds are those moneys that pay salaries of employees who run our parks, that take care of ongoing maintenance, that keep our parks beautiful, healthy and safe. Contributed funds should provide a margin of excellence, not a margin of survival. Philanthropy cannot and should not be used to pay a federal employee's salary. Our parks are one of the reasons citizens pay taxes, and we rightfully have an expectation that those funds will be used for that purpose."
Again, the philanthropy of park foundations should be applauded. However, they should not be funding core operations of the parks, which I would argue some of The Yosemite Fund's monies are going toward.
But the parks are being squeezed by higher utility bills, higher personnel costs and Homeland Security tasks that they were never funded to handle. So superintendents are cutting corners, doing without key personnel, and being asked by Washington to figure out how to get by on 80 percent of their budgets.
Here's what the Philadelphia Inquirer had to say earlier this year about the Park Service's financial plight:
"Superintendents are running out of tricks, and visitors will eventually notice. Beyond basic services, long-term needs are ignored. Some parks cannot catalog or restore precious artifacts. Most cannot preserve habitat. Invasive species are taking over.
"The Park Service is putting on an inexplicable happy face. It issued toe-the-line seasonal talking points, emphasizing such inanities as 'it's not the quantity of visitor programs but the quality that counts.' So, if one school group that visits has fun, it doesn't matter that four others were turned away.
"While the Park Service has made needed strides in strategic planning, it's running out of efficiencies. It cannot continue to cover up to $600 million in annual shortfalls without seriously harming the nation's treasures. Congress needs to step up."
The Yosemite Fund ended 2005 with a cash balance of nearly $10.9 million. That's a sizable chunk of change, folks, one that could pay for a whole lot of things at Yosemite. Over at the Yellowstone Park Foundation, a group I annually give to, its coffers showed a nearly $14.9 million balance at the end of 2004. Those are just two examples of the financial wherewithal of these groups.
According to the General Accounting Office, between 1997 and 2004, parks' friends groups such as these gave more than $300 million to the national park system. $300 million!
Is Congress taking notice of these contributions when it votes on funding the Park Service? Could that be part of the reason the Park Service annually runs an operations shortfall that the National Parks Conservation Association says is more than $800 million?
The Yosemite Fund's latest contribution is evidence that Mr. Medford's fears are coming home to roost, that, more and more, funds contributed by charitable groups are providing parks with a "margin of survival," not "a margin of excellence."
And that's not right.
If park foundations come to bear a greater load in funding the parks, they'll feel more entitled to say how their dollars are spent. At the same time, parks will continue to boost their entrance fees, and to search for fees for other previously free activities, that slowly but surely will place the parks out of reach of some Americans.
At the same time, the Park Service will be pressured to find new ways to generate funds, whether that be by allowing more motorized recreation inside the parks or by privatizing more operations, such as campgrounds, moves that will not be in the park systems' best interests.
And they certainly will not be in America's best interests.