A few weeks ago, a colleague and I were discussing the financial plight of the National Park System and I wondered aloud how it possibly could be improved. After all, this country has enormous bills, starting with those from the Iraq war and running on down to Social Security and the national infrastructure, just to name the most obvious.
And then there are the investments we should be making, such as paying down the national debt and investing in alternative energy and a cleaner environment in general, not to mention providing a better health-care system for the country.
Up against those needs and commitments, how could we expect the federal government to be able to adequately fund the national parks, which are being dragged down by a staggering maintenance backlog last estimated at around $8 billion as well as an annual shortfall the National Parks Conservation Association pegs at somewhere between $750 million and $800 million?
Well, Dr. Dwight Pitcaithley has some ideas. They’re ideas that are not terribly radical and which should be given wider review and serious consideration. And they’re rooted, quite simply, in how we – that’s you and me – view the parks today and how we’d like to view them tomorrow.
Dr. Pitcaithley is a former chief historian for the National Park Service, and so knows a little something about the agency and government funding. Now a history professor at New Mexico State University, he outlined his funding ideas a couple of months ago at a Park Service conference for Comprehensive Resource Stewardship and granted me permission to relay them here.
Regular Traveler readers might recall an essay of Dr. Pitcaithley's that was highlighted on this site last fall. In it he argued that the Park Service’s budget, currently running at about $2.3 billion, should be at least $5 billion or $6 billion to adequately meet the agency’s needs. In justifying that investment, Dr. Pitcaithley points not just to the recreational value of the National Park System, but to its educational, scientific, and preservation missions. Cast another way, when we fund the National Park Service we’re not just investing in trees and mountains and gorgeous landscapes, but in both this country’s past and its future, in both its culture and its knowledge base.
Unfortunately, we seem to have lost sight of those values and possibly have begun to take the national parks for granted, figuring they're well taken care of now and will be tomorrow.
“The chronic under-funding of the National Park Service is not now and has not been for the past 50 years a matter of money – it is a matter of priorities!” Dr. Pitcaithley told those who attended that conference back in April. “Five billion dollars amounts to 0.002 percent of the president’s 2008 proposed budget.”
For the sake of comparison, while the National Park Service slogs along with its insufficient budget, the Defense Department is funded at roughly $550 billion, the professor points out. Just one B-2 bomber costs $2 billion, he adds for emphasis.
“Do you really think the American people would notice if this country’s military industrial complex held one less bomber than it does today and that those funds were transferred to the National Park Service?” he wonders. “The president and Congress took less than ten minutes to determine that the economy needed an economic stimulus package totaling $150 billion. Do you think anyone would have complained if it were $148 billion? And the resulting $2 billion saving were given to the National Park Service?”
Over at the U.S. Marine Corps, Dr. Pitcaithley points to the Osprey aircraft that cost $110 million apiece. “They are currently being sent to Iraq even though military analysts believe they don’t work as designed,” he says. “Here’s the punch line: Several branches of the military are planning to purchase 400 of these flawed aircraft! Four hundred times $110 million equals $44 billion!”
The money is there. The problem, though, is we let Congress get away with more than a few decisions that are terribly misguided. The problem is that there are not enough advocates for the National Park System.
“It’s not a matter of money, it’s a matter of priorities and the National Park Service over the years has not developed a constituency that will lobby on behalf of it. The National Park Conservation Association is simply not enough and clearly no match for other park interest groups. If you doubt that in any way, consider the recent … effort by the National Rifle Association to change decades-long NPS policy on guns in parks,” says Dr. Pitcaithley. “A goofy idea by any measurement, but one that went unopposed except by a handful of editors.
“In the world I envision for the National Park Service, the 50 congressmen who endorsed the (gun) proposal would have been instantly balanced by 50 congressmen and women who opposed it – delegates in Congress who had been cultivated over the years to support various pieces of legislation that benefit the national parks and, through the parks, the American public. Where are those congressmen and women? Why don’t we do that? The Department of Defense passes up no opportunity and spares no expense in cultivating congressmen to support its programs. Why doesn’t the National Park Service do the same?”
When you realize that a single B-2 bomber retails for $2 billion, is it really far-fetched to want to believe that the National Park System with its 391 units stretching from Acadia National Park to Zion National Park is worth at least three bombers?