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Updated: NPS Director Jarvis Ends "Core Ops" Budgeting Across The National Park System


In a brief, four-paragraph memorandum, National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis has brought to an end a budgeting process that stripped arguably key positions from parks. Dubbed "core ops" for its approach to analyzing a park's core operations, the process failed to produce wise budgeting decisions, the director said in a letter to his regional directors.

"Core ops" was instituted during the Bush administration by Intermountain Regional Director Mike Snyder. Intended to save precious dollars by eliminating operations that were not central to a park's core operation, the process forced superintendents to make tough, and at times questionable, decisions.

For instance, at Dinosaur National Monument the superintendent decided to cut two of the three positions in her paleontological department, at an annual savings of roughly $200,000 in salaries and benefits, so she could, in part, afford more law enforcement staff. Elsewhere in the Intermountain Region, officials at Canyonlands National Park did away with a deputy superintendent's position when the incumbent retired to save $122,000, and Rocky Mountain National Park officials filled a deputy superintendent's job with a division chief, and then left that position vacant to make ends meet.

In a letter (attached below) sent to his regional directors November 20, NPS Director Jarvis said the agency has better tools -- such as its Budget Cost Projection model and the NPS Scorecard -- for seeing that budgets are prudently crafted.

"As director I want to emphasize use of management tools that empower managers with unbiased data and analysis to make informed decisions, improve the justification and presentation of our budgets, and improvement the management of our financial resources. Based on extensive feedback I have received from field managers I believe that the Core Operations process fails to meet these requirements," he wrote.

At the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, Bill Wade praised Director Jarvis's action.

"I am very pleased to see that Director Jarvis has ended this debacle. It was an absolutely stupid process - born out of the minds of those who placed a higher value on efficiency (saving money) than on effectiveness," said Mr. Wade, who chairs the council's executive committee. "We never heard of a single case where the process ended up with a result that improved the capability of meeting the mission of the park involved, much less being worth the time and money invested in carrying out the process."

The Traveler has asked the Intermountain Regional office for reports assessing the impact of the core ops process, and for Regional Director Snyder's reaction to the directive.


Being a CPA, I constantly advise people under budget constraints that is not how much you make it is how much you spend. What I see in businesses and government is that we have way too many chiefs and not enough indians to use a popular metaphor with no intent to deride my native indian friends. Part of being a superintendent is setting priorities. Overhead in any organization should be addressed first to see if any "non-productive" expenses can be cut first-not the person producing the "widgets". One of my biggest gripes with our government is that we waste billions on non-essential activities and giving billions to countries that hate or do not support us where we could be using those same billions to improve our National Park System-our gift to ourselves. Unfortunately, the superintendents have to make those hard choices, just as we do in our personal and business lives. I have a novel idea--let's start with the "core ops" in the Washington DC office of the Interior Department before we move to the Parks themselves. I will bet you I could find additional funds for our parks!

Leland 22--

Let me give you another take on Core Ops, this one from the point of view of an NPS retiree who still has lots of contacts in the NPS. Core Ops was primarily applied in the Intermountain Region (IMR) of the NPS, the one that stretches from Montana to the Mexican border. The Regional Director, Mike Snyder, is the brains behind Core Ops. This is how I see it:

Core Operations was Mike Snyder's own personal reign of terror over the parks and park employees ironically entrusted to his care as a National Park Service Regional Director. The hatching and execution of Core Operations underscored Snyder's career-long total lack of park experience and blatant ignorance of day-to-day park operations.

Core Ops was short sighted and didn't allow park managers to leverage various fund sources and annual predictable lapse funds which enable parks to flex around tighter budgets. Managers need to be fiscally responsible and should be held accountable for their management or mismanagement. Core Ops missed the mark on every count. It homogenized parks and took away the authority of superintendents to manage their parks, their budgets and lead their employees. Millions of dollars were spent by Snyder and his Core Ops team on countless trips to IMR parks to jump park staffs through the hoops of Core Ops workshops. The outcomes were already decided by Snyder and yet park after park and employee after employee were made to go through convoluted exercises to achieve a pre-determined outcome. Work plans, performance plans and many documents for the years hence have had to reference a park's Core Operations report no matter how irrelevant or useless the document was to a park.

Snyder and others of his team willingly sacrificed dedicated NPS employees for job abolishment to receive high marks from Department officials of the previous Administration. I imagine he received significant Senior Executive Service bonuses under the former Administration based on his development and execution of Core Operations. In the last year or so, the IM regional office has gone on a hiring spree of epic proportions. And many of these are newly created positions. It has not gone unnoticed in the parks.

Present and former employees of the IMR, including those who were "Core Oped" will rejoice as this news becomes known.The biggest difference between Mike Snyder and Jon Jarvis is that Jarvis has both a brain and a heart. Jarvis also spent most of his career in parks - and it shows!

Rick Smith

Rick Smith could not hit the nail any better than this.

As one who has worked for the NPS for over 30 years I can honestly say that the Core Ops process was flawed from the very beginning and only got worse through time as Snyder and his hit squad, very few of whom had any recent park experience (if indeed any at all), continued to raid park after park. It was the single most devastating event on employee morale that I've ever witnessed. That it was supossedly park based was ludicous - some decisions had been made before the workshops even began and if the so-called participatory process at the park didn't achieve the hoped for results well then it was just back to the closed door brokerage sessions between Superintendents and the so-called experts from region in order to arrive at the preordained lean and mean park structure. There was virtually no concept of a National Park System - only individual units and what their particular legislation did or didn't say.

Of course the Bush Administration embraced the concept - it treated park operations in the Intermountain Region much like Bush treated all of his cronies - get rid of a bunch of the "little people" out there on the ground doing real work with real park resources and park visitors and bring in all sorts of high-graded underqualified people to the regional office... you're right Rick - nobody in the field has not noticed the hiring spree in Denver.

Core Ops may have been based on a good concept but how it was implemented was a disaster. You don't start at the field level to eliminate waste, you start at the top. There was very little acknowledgement of the endless hours that park staffs spend responding to mindless tasks required by the central offices, most of which have very little value if any to the day-to-day operations at the park level. Far too much emphasis was/is placed on process rather than progress and once the deciders have decided it's career suicide to challenge or question their infinite wisdom.

If this is the only thing Jon Jarvis accomplishes in his tenure as NPS Director he'll still go down in history as the best Director since George Hartzog. Thank-you Jon Jarvis for giving the field one of the best Christmas gifts imaginable.

I'm fairly new in the govt and couldn't agree more!! You just made my day by sharing this because, at the park level, we havn't even seen this memo yet!

Thanks for the insight Rick. And, thanks for digging into these little-reported stories Kurt.

Executive Director,
Crater Lake Institute
Robert Mutch Photography

The controversy about Core Ops has raised lots of questions about how some of our national parks have been setting budget priorities and spending money. At Mesa Verde National Park, for instance---one of the parks within the Intermountain Region---a number of important and necessary positions had been left vacant for over a year while the park's original estimated travel budget for fiscal year 2009 was as high as $421,000----later reduced to just over $285,000. There was something wrong here---not only in how the park had done its budgeting, but in whether there had been any oversight or auditing of the park's budget. (In the interest of "full disclose" I should add that this past summer I did begin asking about this, eventually filed a formal FOIA request, and a lot has happened since them---see )

Travel and entertainment expenses have been problems for years. Among small business owners they are the focus of frequent audits by the IRS, within corporations they are among the most scrutinized expenditures, and among tax accountants and attorneys they are the subject of endless debates. They are problematic because sometimes they are used as legitimate incentives and rewards for hardworking and deserving employees, and sometimes they are related to justifiable marketing and sales activities, to necessary and appropriate educational programs, and/or to valid meetings of management groups with outside vendors and regulators, and distant employees and customers. Unfortunately, travel and entertainment expenses also can be used inappropriately, illegally, and as no more than a thinly disguised effort to characterize personal expenses and activities as tax deductible business expenses, or to have the deep pockets of a business enterprise pay for trips and activities which have no real business purpose. To be sure, a lot of what is characterized as business related travel and entertainment expense is very legitimate.....but there is a lot that is not. Agents of the Internal Revenue Service know this, business owners and managers know this, and corporate shareholders know it. Consequently, in the private sector there are many checks and balances, and frequent auditing of expense accounts and a higher degree of due diligence when expenses related to travel and entertainment are concerned.

Perhaps it’s time to become more careful and deliberate in how we view travel and entertainment expenses within the National Park Service. Perhaps it’s time to audit travel expenses more carefully, and to ask again and again: what are legitimate travel expenses for National Park Service employees? What kind of travel is justifiable? How much travel is necessary? And when should the Park Service be willing to pay for the travel and expenses related to education and training?

There is no doubt that employees of the National Park Service are dedicated. Many work for the Park Service because it’s special, it’s different, and it’s loved. Nevertheless, for some, working for the Park Service also can be difficult. Stationed far away from towns and communities, virtually isolated in remote and inaccessible sites, and/or spending days and months leading the same tours, responding to the same questions, and following the same routines again, and again, and again......eventually some begin to look for reasons to spend more time outside the parks.

There are stories of superintendents who seldom are in the park. And there are rumors of people who take courses in subjects they will never use, of people who repeat the same off-site courses year after year, and of those who get overly involved in each and every trade association, special interest group, or interagency or intra-agency function. And the need to collaborate, coordinate, and interact with organizations, committees, and groups both within the Park Service and outside the Park Service often seems to have no limits.

Of course, the problem with excessive travel is not just the expense of the traveling itself, but also the lost time involved when someone is not in the park and not focusing on the primary requirements of their position description, and the consequential need for others to do what the traveling person should have been doing.

I have only worked for three seasons as a seasonal....and I have loved each and every day. I love working with visitors and with being a part of the National Park Service; and I love the many opportunities we have to help people, to increase their appreciation of the parks, and to broaden their horizons. But I have also seen problems.

Simply stated, I think money being spent on unnecessary travel is a serious problem within the National Park Service as a whole, and within some particular parks and regions in particular. There needs to be more oversight, better controls, and more frequent audits. It’s time to begin looking at travel the way many businesses do: asking questions, seeking justifications, and scrutinizing any and all expenses for travel and entertainment.

For instance, we should be looking more carefully at any plans to travel and asking: Is this trip or meeting really necessary? Will it measurably enhance our visitor services and the experience of visitors? Is a meeting at a distant location or at the regional offices really necessary, or could it be replaced by a carefully organized conference call? And will having this person attend a particular training event or take a particular off-site course save the park money, significantly improve something the park or staff was missing, or have real benefit to the park, or will it simply add to one person’s resume, or increase one person’s list of courses taken or add to their life experiences?

There are times when making decisions about travel can be difficult. How do you draw the line between what’s really necessary and what’s not? For instance, it would be nice if the Director of the NPS or regional directors could attend the funeral of every park employee, or the retirement events of every long-term employee, but can that be justified? Do we really want the Director or regional leadership spending all their time going to funerals and retirement parties? Getting involved on on-going Interpretive Development Programs can be helpful, but what does it mean if that results in the Chief of Interpretation or the interpretive Supervisors not having enough time to work with their own staff, or enough time to teach those interpretive skills regularly and conscientiously to their own interpretive rangers? And so admittedly, the process of deciding which travel is necessary and justifiable is not easy, but it can be done, it should be done, and in the private sector, it’s often done every day and for every trip.

Of course, sometimes the best way to control spending on travel is simply to make travel budgets and expenditures very open and transparent. Knowing that your co-workers and the public know where you are going and that they will know how you are spending your time and spending taxpayer money often is the best incentive for self-regulation and self-control.

On the day of his inauguration, President Obama wrote: “A democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency.” Maybe it is time for National Park Service travel expenses to become very accessible and very transparent. Maybe it’s time for some changes.

Thank goodness!! Its about time Mike Snyder reign of terror ends, especially this pet project of his. Rick Smith could nto be more right. Its to bad that so much damage has already been done.

I could not agree more with Rick Smith.

Core Ops was an utter failure.

RD Snyder continues to lead the IMR region into chaos. Morale continues to fall.

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