There was a conference call today with Dirk and Mary to go over the president's proposed Park Service budget for 2008. At one point Dirk, obviously having seen my first two posts about the budget proposal, asked if I couldn't be a little bit more positive. And perhaps he has a point. Reporters are bred to be cynical, not to accept anything on face value.
So after going over pieces of the budget I've been able to get my hands on, and talking to others with more intimacy of the Park Service, and listening to Dirk, Mary and other NPS officials, I'll have to admit that much of the administration's proposal looks very bullish for the Park Service.
Superintendents are going to have more money to address on-the-ground problems, they're going to have more rangers to interface with visitors, and there will be more funds for interpretation.
"The idea that there is a significant increase in operations, operational funding, is great news," Rick Smith, who sits on the executive council of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, told me. "It's the very thing that we've been pointing out for the last couple of years.
"When people go to parks, they need to see real live rangers, go to real clean restrooms, stay in well-maintained campgrounds, have confidence that real resources management is going on, and participate in interpretive programs where the real, compelling stories of the park are told."
To recap, the administration has requested $2.4 billion for the Park Service for Fiscal '08, which starts in October. Of that, the park operations budget, the one that funds all those on-the-ground tasks ranging from visitor center operations to campground cleanup, is proposed to go up $258 million from FY06, the barometer most folks use since the president's FY07 budget never went anywhere.
Additionally, there's a request for an extra $100 million in discretionary funding, dubbed the "President's Centennial Commitment," that would provide $35 million for maintenance across the park system; $40.6 million for 3,000 seasonal rangers spread across interpretative, law enforcement and maintenance, and; $20 million for, I'm told, 20-25 parks to use in addressing noxious weeds, landscape restoration work, and cultural collections and buildings.
Another $1 million would go towards expanding the Park Service's Junior Ranger/Web Ranger programs, and $3.4 million would be targeted for the Volunteers in Parks program, funding officials say will enable them to add 11,000 VIPs over the next three years (2008-2011).
"You're going to see that there's a new era of productivity and connection by the American people with the national parks," Dirk told those on the conference call.
And Mary, who I'm hearing has injected an optimism and esprit de corps in the Park Service that was sadly missing under Fran, added that, "the focus has certainly been placed on this FY08 budget on looking at park operations, and fixed costs, and that has happened."
Superintendents from Yellowstone and Glacier who participated on the call were equally optimistic because the budget, if approved by Congress, would give them more badly needed resources.
"I don't think we've had a day like this in a long time to be happy to say that the most tangible, visible result of this budget, if it's enacted, is you're going to see a lot more green and gray (uniforms) and a lot of flat hats in Yellowstone National Park," said Suzanne Lewis, the park's superintendent. "We're going to have an opportunity to reach out and connect with families and visitors, more of that. We do a good job of that. We're going to be able to do a greater job with this money.
"We're going to be able to put more money into maintaining our assets through the maintenance seasonal money that are most frequently used during the summer, whether that's being able to clean bathrooms more often, repair trails quicker. We're just going to be able to get out there and let the visitors see what the Park Service does best, and that is connect with our public through our employees."
OK. That's the good news. Unfortunately, I can't jump 100 percent on this bandwagon. And there are others who are concerned, as well, about the ramifications about the president's proposal. Their concerns? Well, one area is the way the NPS operations budget was pumped up.
"It's disturbing that so much of this money is coming at the expense of other National Park Service programs. Historic preservation, land acquisition, major maintenance, construction are the ones that are really taking the big hits," Smith tells me. "Depending on whose calculator you've got, those cuts represent somewhere near $200 million."
Indeed, the construction account alone is proposed to take a hit of at least $114 million and perhaps as much as $134.6 million. And I've heard, though haven't entirely nailed down, that funding for the agency's historic preservation accounts is proposed to take a $51.5 million hit, a drop of nearly 45 percent.
Now, it's certainly true that as the years come and go budgeting priorities and philosophies change. But is it possible that that big of a swipe at construction, which pays for things such as visitor centers, restrooms, trails, ranger stations and campgrounds, could come back to bite the Park Service? It's hard to tell, because nobody's been able to tell me what pending projects are in line for construction funding.
And what about that centennial campaign, the one where the administration hopes to raise $3 billion to help polish the national park system in time for the Park Service's centennial in 2016? Not only does the president need Congress to authorize the program, something that certainly is not a given, but is the private sector willing to contribute $100 million a year for the next decade?
The National Park Foundation, the major charitable arm for the Park Service, raised only about $16 million in "contributions and gifts" during the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2005, the last year data is available for. True, another $21.8 million was generated in "goods and services," but it's not clear whether such giving would be matched under the president's proposal. Even if it is, the total for FY05 in those two categories was $37.8 million, a far cry from $100 million. Can all the various "friends groups" that exist to support the park system bridge the gap to $100 million?
In November 2005 the Park Service's partnership office reported that the 150 friends groups scattered around the country that are affiliated with 160 parks raise $17 million annually. Another 65 Cooperating Associations, which have more than 1,000 sales outlets, chip in $26 million.
That moves things closer to that $100 million private-sector goal, and Dirk is optimistic that under the banner of the Park Service's centennial that goal will be met.
"Is it overly aggressive? I don't think so," he told me. "There is an awakening of these national parks again, and I think the president, by highlighting this, by making this a key part of his message ... the fact that we will be prepared to match, up to $100 million, we've already had discussions with different philanthropic groups, with foundations, with corporations, that have made inquiries, and I really believe that you will see momentum continue to build on this. I think it's very realistic, and I'm very proud to be part of this because I think this is going to build to one of the greatest accomplishments.
"... We have an opportunity to really demonstrate what these national parks mean to America and to American families."
Indeed, philanthropy has played a key role in creation of the national park system. An earlier park philanthropist, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., spent roughly $25 million of his own wealth on national parks. He personally provided the land that today comprises the bulk of Grand Teton, led the way to create the carriage paths that wind through Acadia, and contributed greatly to Great Smoky, Shenandoah, Yosemite, and many others.
Other examples of giving can be found at the National Park Foundation.
In fact, I wonder if the Park Service has considered borrowing some of Rockefeller's rhetoric when discussing private-sector contributions. Back in 1941, during a radio broadcast on behalf of the USO and National War Fund, he had the following to say:
"I believe that the rendering of useful service is the common duty of mankind and that only in the purifying fire of sacrifice is the dross of selfishness consumed and the greatest of the human soul set free."
Of course, there are some big downsides with seeking to fund one-third of Park Service projects with private funding: What happens if and when the money disappears, how will you pay for operations and maintenance if Congress doesn't underwrite that bill, and will private groups be interested in contributing to non-sexy items such as water and sewer systems?
Additionally, one other question that was raised during the conference call, but which oddly wasn't answered, was whether anyone was philosophically concerned "about relying more on private money to help pay for government operations in national parks."
It's a question that certainly deserves an answer.