Is this how we want the National Park Service to operate?
Back when Fran Mainella was the Park Service director, there was a battle over whether Park Service jobs would be outsourced to private contractors. That battle eventually was beaten back.
Or was it?
After all, there seems to be a serious drive in the Park Service to use more and more volunteers out in the field, at Gateway National Recreation Area the superintendent supports the leasing of aging structures at historic Fort Hancock to commercial interests because the Park Service can't afford their maintenance, and the Presidio of San Francisco is run more like a business than a unit of the national park system.
So what are we to make of the news that Dinosaur National Monument is whittling its staff of three paleontologists down to just one?
"They're cutting out the heart of the paleo program," Margaret Imhof, a private contracting paleontologist in Vernal, Utah, tells the Salt Lake Tribune.
Superintendent Mary Risser, however, tells the newspaper that the monument's remaining paleontologist, Dan Chure, can accomplish the monument's mission by working with academic and museum researchers. Perhaps that's true. After all, academics were responsible for discovering the site that's cut in half by the Green River. The current cost-cutting just brings matters full circle.
But do we want units of the national park system run by groups -- whether they're for-profit or non-profit -- other than the National Park Service? And if that's OK, why should the units remain part of the system? In the case of Dinosaur, the state of Utah runs a first-class paleontological museum in nearby Vernal. Why not simply give the state the national monument? That'd save the cash-strapped Park Service some money.
Once upon a time, some held a dream of seeing Dinosaur become a full-fledged national park. Can that still be possible with its research effectively outsourced? More importantly, is the cost-cutting at Dinosaur emblematic of what's transpiring across the national park system? Should we be surprised by such cuts engineered by the Bush administration? Is this good government at work, or a garage sale?
Back in 2006 when I raised the question of whether a national park becomes less of a national park when pieces of it are handed over to commercial interests under the guise of leasing, a superintendent lamented the lack of fiscal resources to do his job.
"The problem is not Park Service neglect, in my experience," the superintendent told me. "It's the excruciating dilemma of not having the tools to protect the resources, no matter how much we want to do. If the choice is to allow the resources to degrade significantly or work with partners to arrest or reverse it, I don't know any superintendent, current or past, who wouldn't look very hard at the partnership option.
"I think the problem right now is that all the rhetoric and organizational and political incentives favor the partnerships, overshadowing the policy statements that tell us these are public resources and the public benefit should always come first."