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What's Your Vision for the Centennial Initiative?

National Park Service Centennial Logo

National Park Service Centennial Logo

How do you think the National Park Service's Centennial Initiative (or Challenge, depending on whom you ask) should be funded? And how do you think those funds should be spent? There were quite a few suggestions tossed about in Washington today as both the House and Senate held hearings on legislation proposing ways to fund the Centennial Initiative.

One thing everyone seemed to agree upon: The Park Service needs more money, and not simply to celebrate its centennial in 2016.

We can only hope Congress can get it figured out before the birthday arrives. But there are a few impediments.

For starters, there are at least two versions of legislation that aim to provide $1 billion or more for the National Park Service to spend in commemoration of its centennial. A main difference between the two bills pending in the House of Representatives is that the administration's proposal calls for upwards of $100 million a year for the next decade -- but only if $100 million is raised annually from private sources -- while the version introduced by Representatives Nick Joe Rahall of West Virginia and Raul Grijalva of Arizona would provide $100 million a year without the need for a match.

And the Bush administration is not at all happy with the billion-dollar funding proposal laid out last month by Misters Rahall and Grijalva.

"We have serious concerns about the funding mechanisms and certain other provisions contained in H.R. 3094," NPS Director Mary Bomar told Rep. Grijalva during a hearing his House subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands held on that legislation and the administration's proposal, H.R. 2959.

And then there's big business, which was represented at the hearing by Gary Kiedaisch, the president and chief executive officer of The Coleman Co. His testimony made it quite clear that the parks should be run more like a business, like destination resorts probably not too far removed from Disney World, than as national parks, touchstones of America's natural, cultural, and historic treasures.

"Imagine recruiting executives from the country's most successful entertainment companies, health-care companies, travel companies, outdoor companies and auto companies, as well as countless others, and setting them to the task of repositioning the national parks as destinations, not just places to visit," said Mr. Kiedaisch. "I ran a four season ski and golf resort and know, all too well, the painful difference. Marketing is what drives business and marketing, along with park revitalization, will be the driving force behind this campaign's success."

Marketing, marketing, marketing. Just imagine the possibilities.

Unfortunately, I couldn't attend the meeting nor listen to it on the web, but I wonder if Mr. Kiedaisch volunteered that his company is a sustaining member of the American Recreation Coalition, which would love to see more ATVs and other motorized toys in the parks?

"Coupled with the right park offerings, visits and length of stay will increase," he said at one point. "By identifying and funding new activities that will attract today's consumer to the parks, participation rises and everyone wins."

Everyone? I wonder what "new activities" The Coleman Co. would like to see in the parks? Perhaps the survey by the Outdoor Industry Association, the one in which two-thirds of the respondents said they preferred a national park vacation filled with solitude, not motorized toys or even bikes, failed to reach Mr. Kiedaisch's desk.

Fortunately, there were others who offered testimony at the two hearings.

Thomas Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association, made it quite clear that while the current funding attitude in Washington is nice to see in terms of the parks, Congress has a looonnnggg way to go.

"Let me emphasize at the outset ... that this proposal alone will not solve the problems and address all the long- and short-term needs of the parks which have resulted from decades of funding shortfalls during many administrations and Congresses," Mr. Kiernan told the subcommittee. "It must be thought of as one part of a concerted, comprehensive, multi-faceted, multi-year effort to restore and adequately fund the nation's parks. Substantial increases in park funding, particularly for operations in addition to this bill, sustained over many years, will be needed to make the parks whole."

For those who believe the national park system is hurting for visitors, perhaps, just perhaps, a better-funded Park Service could not only buff up the park system but create interpretive programs and activities within the agency's mission statement that would attract more visitors and so do away with the need to turn the Yosemites, Yellowstones, Shenandoahs and Everglades of the system into destination resorts.

"It is essential that the Park Service focus ... on how it needs to evolve in order to fulfill its mission in the next century and to integrate the parks into the lives of more Americans and keep them relevant to the communities in which we live," said Mr. Kiernan. "If that occurs, Congress can be fully justified in making a ten-year commitment to enhanced park funding."

While some folks are concerned that the the philanthropic component of the Centennial Initiative will be tainted by commercialization, Vin Cipolla of the National Park Foundation tried to allay those fears.

"I can assure you that both the foundation and its partners understand and share the concern that corporate support for parks not become confused with and not lead to commercialization," he said. "We will work carefully within Director's Order 21 to ensure that corporate involvement adheres to this guideline. Over the last number of years, we have looked at this issue far too conventionally. Today's media environment creates multiple opportunities for donors and parks to work together in new and creative ways that do not lead to the commercialism of parks."

At the same time, Mr. Cipolla told the subcommittee that corporate partners and philanthropy in general can do wonders for the national park system.

"This renewed interest in encouraging park philanthropy and partnerships creates many opportunities. First is the opportunity to connect and strengthen the fabric of support for parks on a national and local level," he said. "Our parks offer the best investments in the areas of youth-enrichment, education, health, and volunteerism, yet philanthropic potential on a grand scale and in line with contemporary thresholds has not yet been realized."

However, philanthropy should not be viewed as a panacea, cautioned Bill Wade of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.

"While we strongly believe in the concept of philanthropic support to national parks, and note the huge values and benefits accrued to the national park system since its inception, we have been very skeptical of the administration's proposed efforts to generate additional funding by including a matching provision in the proposed legislation," said Mr. Wade. "Given what we've all witnessed over the past decade or so relative to the increase in greed in the corporate sector and declining ethical behaviors by both corporate and government officials, it is hard not to be suspicious about the motives of the 'giving' organizations -- especially commercial and some special-interest organizations -- and the quid pro quo expected from, and sometimes provided, by the recipient organizations.

"When coupled with the increased pressures placed on park managers to take advantage of the incentives offered by private money to offset declining budgets, we are very concerned about keeping national parks public and national."

This game is just in the first half, folks, and it will be quite interesting to see how the two pieces of legislation are squeezed, prodded and poked as they move through Congress. Will the politicians be persuaded that the parks should really be operated as destination resorts, complete with all the "marketing" that entails, or will they agree the parks should continue to operate -- hopefully with better funding -- to preserve the unique tapestry of America's natural, cultural and historic resources?

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I think that one very important point needs to be made: NPS is severely underfunded, and cannot have the same number of interpretive programs that it did in the past, hence the visitation declines. I know that Great Smokies used to have day-long, ranger-guided hikes every Saturday in the summer. Now, it's once or twice in a season 9and this year, the summer interp schedule didn’t even start until the 3rd week of June!) I would go to the park just for those hikes, but they've stopped offering them, so I've stopped going as often.

It's direct cause and effect. Give NPS the money it needs!
President, CHS SPEAK (CHS Students Promoting Environmental Action & Knowledge)
Founder and President, CHS Campus Greens

I'm not so sure throwing more money at a non-responsive bureaucracy will help. It didn't help with public education; post WWII, spending doubled every 20 years, average class sizes fell, and the proportion of teachers with master's degrees increased, yet public schools are in a terrible mess.

The NPS, instead of looking for more money, should do more with the money it has.

I just found out a very interesting fact about Eugene O'Neill NHS. In 2004, the park's budget was $358,000 and hosted 2684 visitors. After doing the math, I realized the NPS spent $133 PER VISITOR to run the site. Would any of you pay that much to go the site? Yet the government does, because it's wasteful. The NPS should trim the fat; how many of the 390+ units are like O'Neill? How many of them spend an outrageous amount per visitor?

I just checked Yosemite, and the cost per visitor is about $7. Guess most of the $20-$25 entrance fee is going to fund the war and to subsidize other parks. Trimming the fat would lower the cost of visiting Yosemite for everyone and allow the NPS to manage what it has far more effectively!

Your anecdotes and numbers are fascinating but don't begin to present the whole picture. The idea that Yosemite entrance fees are funding a war in the Middle East is ridiculous. That war funding will likely be taxed from your great grandchildren who aren't even born yet. And the fat you'd want to trim to make visiting Yosemite cheaper would wipe an existing historic site from the map so you could save a penny or two, if that. EUON is difficult to visit because there's no parking next to the house, and that's as it should be. We don't need to keep adding asphalt so we can get the $133 number down and make it so much more convenient for people to see the place. At EUON you make a reservation, in advance, you park elsewhere in Danville, and get a shuttle up to the house. Controlled visitation -- what a concept. It's what you do sometimes when preservation is a high priority. The park is also closed two days a week, and many parks that found themselves in the position of having to make maintenance the highest priority (thanks to this administration) have been forced to cut back their hours. You don't find the park worthwhile while thousands and thousands of others do.

-- Jon

Your anecdotes and numbers are fascinating

No anecdotes here. Just numbers. And they aren't my numbers; they're the fed's lifted from the NPS Green Book.

Funny that you never answered my question (would you pay $133 to visit EUON?). I'll take your non-answer as a no.

EUON is just one example of the wasteful pork barrel spending attached as riders to major legislation.

Take Steamtown NHS for another example. In a NYT article:

a number of historians and museum curators around the nation call Steamtown a second-rate collection of trains on a third-rate site. They say that while such historic recreations have a place, the Federal Government should not be financing them simply because influential members of Congress want them for their districts.

And officials of the National Park Service, in interviews over the past week, said Steamtown and other such Congressionally mandated projects were diverting the agency from its historic mission of preserving and maintaining great national parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone. "It is the most serious problem we face in the next 10 years," said James M. Ridenour, director of the Park Service. "We're spending lots of money creating new parks, which may or may not be of national significance."

Steamtown's budget is over $5 million a year to administer a 62 acre site that is suffering from drastically declining visitation. By comparison, Crater Lake administers a 183,000 acre site that receives half a million visitors a year and does it with $1.5 million LESS and 10 more employees than Steamtown. Does Steamtown really need a superintendent making over 100k a year? What about an assistant superintendent? A public affairs specialist? An IT specialist? A chief of visitor services and public affairs AND a supervisory park ranger? Lava Beds, which received about 40,000 more visitors in 2006, managed to serve visitors and preserve the resource with 40 less employees. And sadly, this isn't just an isolated case. There are hundreds of leaches bleeding the national park system, sucking its lifeblood. Scrape off enough parasites, and you'll saved more than just a few "pennies".

The park is also closed two days a week, and many parks that found themselves in the position of having to make maintenance the highest priority (thanks to this administration) have been forced to cut back their hours.

You insinuate that declining budgets are forcing EUON to cut its staff and operation hours, but if you look at the Green Book, the site received a budget increase every year except one since 2000, and the increases seem at a glance to be in line with inflation.

You don't find the park worthwhile while thousands and thousands of others do.

Yes, about 3000 visitors from California enjoy this park a year. I'm not saying the park isn't worth saving; I'm saying let California or a private trust save it.

Again, selective numbers to bolster your argument. I didn't visit EUON last year or the year before. I still find it worthwhile. If I remember correctly, they had recent (meaning the past ten years) earthquake damage to repair yet didn't receive a budget increase to specifically deal with that issue. Why is acreage an important number to bring up as though that's some measure of a place's worth, value, or bang for the buck? Let's see the acreage numbers for Ford's Theatre as a comparison. Acreage is meaningless unless you're just trying to sensationalize to make some sort of point. If you want to go down that road, let's give back all the useless acreage at Yosemite where people don't actually hike. All they do is look at it, why should the feds own that land, eh? How much is a view worth anyway? Heck let's just replace all the National Parks wth Imax theatres... Why should we keep all that land in the national trust just so people can stand there and look at it? Sure sounds like a waste of money and lost business opportunity to me. I'm all for consolidating positions and marrying up nearby parks with a single superintendent and other roles as well. That's a good idea. Those North Carolina outer banks seashores could easily be one big park under a single name (U.S. Grant and Truman in Missouri, Fort Raleigh and Wright Brothers in North Carolina, Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt sites in New York -- the possibilities are endless).

Interior IS experimenting with new arrangements for ownership and upkeep of new park entities (Chesapeake in MD/VA, Pinelands in NJ, Valles Caldera in NM to name a few). Once places like that are evaluated for efficiency, effectiveness, accessibility, and any other criterion you wish to examine, then perhaps it's time to consider changing the formula for existing parks. You don't jump into that sort of thing just because it feels right or props up your political leanings, because once you go down that road it's very difficult to undo.

Your $133 dollar question is a bogus question. The park has no admission fee and the shuttle is also free. Now factor in the same figures for Yosemite or another park with high entrance fees and your extreme example isn't so extreme any more. Again, selective numbers and an incomplete picture to support your argument. And as Eugene O'Neill probably would have pointed out to you if given the opportunity, it's 40 fewer employees, not less.

-- Jon Merryman

And as Eugene O'Neill probably would have pointed out to you if given the opportunity, it's 40 fewer employees, not less.

About the critique my writing (a low blow and a diversion from weaker arguments): Modern standard English practice does not reflect the between less and fewer. When not followed by than, fewer is more frequent only in formal written English, and in this construction also the use of less is increasing: This year we have had less crimes, less accidents, and less fires than in any of the last five years. As for formality, old practice forbids starting a sentence with a conjunction. And I'm here to write colloquially, not formally. Enough with this trifling.

Here are some selective numbers for you (all from 2006):

The approximate amount (I may have left out a park on accident) spent to operate all the "national park" national parks (not seashores, monuments, historic sites, etc.). Note that it's about 8% of total NPS budget that year ($1.7 billion). It's also about 14% spent operating NPS units.

The amount spent on NPS support programs (bureaucracy) including multiple field offices. Note that it's twice as high as what was spent on maintaining national parks.

The approximate amount (again, with possible error) spent to operate all the national monuments. (When NPs and NMs are added, it amounts to about $350 million for places like Joe Blow National Historic Site and Fear Island National Seashore that in my opinion could be managed more effectively at the local level. Again, this number is not "pennies".)

The cost to operate all units.

NPS budget for FY 2006.

Bottom line: NPS is bureaucracy heavy, and decentralizing management (in addition to helping parks adapt to local needs and being more responsive) would eliminate the "need" for multiple service centers, saving hundreds of millions of dollars. These are not pennies.

But I see no point in continuing this thread. There are those who see no problem with waste and bureaucracy and will continue to use slippery slope arguments to defend inefficiency and calcified government.

After 15 years in the NPS I have come to the conclusion that the NPS in it's entirety should be abolished and all sites, monuments, ect, returned to state control. We are a wasteful fraud. WE are the biggest threat to most of these national treasures.

I don't know if PT is really a 15-year veteran of the NPS but I had a 10-year career and agree with his sentiments 100%.

Unfortunately most supporters of continued federal control of the national parks are just like the folks who blindly support the warlords in the military, corrupting agricultural subsidies and welfare dependency of every kind. They cynically believe in their hearts that without the use of force the mostly ignorant mass of common folk would not act in the best interests of humankind or the environment. They seek redress through the iron hand of government to wield the power neccesary to do the things that would not occur through voluntary free choice and cooperation.

If PT is truly who he says he is his words should ring in all of our ears "WE (the NPS) are the biggest threat to most of these national treasures." Sad but VERY tue.

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