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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.


Managing positions is nothing more than a crony hiring club in the NPS; has too little to do with balancing and completing operations across the board.

Management in the NPS too often seeks to maximize the recruiting and hiring loopholes provided by OPM to employ and promote cronies and friend's - as if this was a small private business in each park. Positions are managed by personal preference with no semblance of balancing all operational needs across the board. This park is a CRM park, that a Maintenance park, that a LE park, and so on.

The largest crony system is that of appointing superintendents; too many have no operational field experience, and perhaps too many have educational and professional certifications that got them nowhere in the private sector - so here they are managing the NPS.

Like the NEA and teachers unions, once "Ranger Futures" trickled UP to upper management and they received their two grade increases, the NPS has become nothing more that a dual career feeding frenzy which panders to political delegations and non-for-profits (spending their entire careers focused on salary, personal positions, and retirement employment at huge salaries as executive directors or consultants).

Along the way, cronies get promoted in to positions they hardly ever "compete" for to create a buffer of "yes" staffers and long term idolizers for managers.

The NPS does not need Core Ops or a NPS Scorecard to save money and effectively manage operations; they need OMB, Justice and the DOI IG to do a top to bottom investigation on management actions over they past 40 years (so all the holier than thou retired managers can share in some of the credit too)...

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.

In the midst of the debate about how much money has been spent in different ways and at different levels of the Park Service, it's interesting to go to and just compare some numbers.

For instance, if you look at the salaries of all the employees of the Intermountain Regional Office and the Denver Service Center, it shows in fiscal year 2008 there were 543 employees .......and 24% earned more than $100,000 and 64% earned more than $75,000.

If you combine the numbers for Mesa Verde National Park and Yosemite National Park---one of our typical medium-sized parks and one of our larger parks---you end up with 993 employees....and of these only 1.5 % earned more than $100,000 and 6% earned more than $75,000. (Based on the web site's statistics: at Mesa Verde NP one person earned over $100,000 and 9 others earned between $75,000 and $100,000; and at Yosemite NP there were 819 employees with 14 earning over $100,000 and 36 earning between $75,000 and $100,000.)

These numbers include all employees---full time permanent and summer seasonals. If we try to eliminate the seasonal employees, then Mesa Verde NP had approximately 60 year-round employees and Yosemite NP had approximately 400. That results in a combined full time staff in the two parks of 460 people with 3% earning over $100,000 and 13% earning over $75,000.

Statistics like these obviously raise questions: How many people really are necessary to support our parks and to support the mission of the Park Service? And how much should they be paid?

Perhaps as Director Jarvis and others begin to look carefully at budgets, at the possibility of future budget restraints and challenges, and at where to devote time, money, and energy in the next decade, they should begin to ask: do we need so many people at the middle management levels of the Park Service? Do we need so many disproportionately well paid people? And what regional services really are necessary, and how much should be spent for those services in comparison to the programs, preservation activities and visitor services that are necessary in our parks?

Bruce Schundler

I am an employee of the National Park Service, Intermountain Region. Many people will never know how this process was abused by management at the park level. People with opposing views to management could find themselves "added" to the CORE OPS list. Friends ready to retire, that were not on the list, "hey, you want on?" Yes, it was that easy. ... Hey, thank God for people like "Rick Smith", and some of the others making very valid comments here. It is nice to see some people really care about their parks, even after retirement! Hat's off to you, and thank you!

This comment was edited to remove potentially libelous material. -- Ed.

I just received the following correspondence from a long-time employee of an NPS unit who recently received a "buy out" offer. An acceptance of this offer would have resulted in down-sizing of the park's interpretive staff to a single full-time person. Supposedly, a reduction-in-force in interpretive staff would be consistent with that park units' CORE OPS.

Evidently, after professional interpretive staff is downsized, the expectation is that the vacancy will be supplemented with less experienced volunteers. I'm posting this (with approval) because I suspect this experience may be shared among staffs of other NPS units.

"Hi Owen

I'm not taking the buyout - I refuse to abandon this position until I am reasonably assured that it won't be abolished the second I walk out the door. It is not excessive to have two field interpretive rangers, particularly as one's time is committed to managing our website, educational outreach and an increasing large (and sadly ineffective) VIP staff. Even the best VIPs do not have time in 2-3 months, 3-4 days a week, one season, to do good interpretation. This revolving door of trainees is criminal. It debases interpretation and the NPS. Not every visitor comes to the parks with so little knowlege that any harebrained statement by a "ranger" will be accepted.

Oh well...

Happy New Year!"

I have intentionally not included the name of my friend, nor the park unit in which this situation has occurred. I believe, however, that the act of refusing such a buy out demonstrates the career dedication and love of public service that is characteristic most NPS career professionals who are stationed in the field.

Owen Hoffman
Oak Ridge, TN 37830

To Ron Everhart --

I think you are right that this is not the only Region, and I know from direct experience, that the Washington Office Associate Director for Development & maintenance & planning was pushing this dangerous program in superintendent training sessions, all over the System.

I do think it is true that the Intermountain Region went further than others. But it was a part of several efforts, managed at the national level, and driven by Lynn Scarlett in the Secretary's Office, by committee Republican staff of the House Appropriations committee, and by OMB. It was strongly supported by the Director's Office, first by the Director who appointed Snyder, then by the second Director appointed by Bush (who was a crony (whose background was as an administrative examiner for a previous regional director) of Snyder's from the IMR).

I think you are wrong that this is just another initiative. This was a program to dismantle the Service, and was backing up the initiatives of the Office of Management and Budget NPS budget examiner's efforts at radical restructuring.

The program had the effect of letting Congress and the Administration off the hook when cuts to the Mission of the parks were managed by the parks. I agree with people who say real accountability programs are necessary, and endless expansions of budgets is harmful. But that is not the actual situation in the NPS. The actual situation is that critical functions have been sent down the shute. the worst thing about the program is that it was based on a lie, the lie being that the program would collect data to convince Congress that the NPS was 'accountable' and thus deserving appropriations. The truth is, no organized program was pursued by any of these people to get the additional funds to the parks that they needed.

I think you are wrong about the Managerial Grid. It was a training program, not a management system. It was designed to help managers understand how effective they were, because many managers rarely examine the actual effectiveness of their behaviors. The program gave a simple system for a supervisor to test if some behaviors work better than others. From my personal experience, I was able to apply the system to my entire career, even though I took the course in the 1970's It seems to me to be pretty gratuitous to call out Smith and Wade, in comparison to Core Ops. Unlike Core Ops, you were not required to take or use the self-examination techniques of Managerial Grid. Core Ops

I've always been interested in how people who participate in an historical episode see it differently afterwards. A salute, I suppose, to that old saw "What you see depends on where you sit" The above discussion seems a good example of that. As I consider my own time in the NPS, I am humbled by the recollection of the large number of poorly conceived management initiatives we all participated in. I even seem to recall that Rick Smith and Bill Wade, two very fine and thoughtful men, coordinated something called Management Grid during their Albright days. And for all the passion that evoked I doubt it had a lasting impact. Core Operations was the most recent of a long list of bad initiatives. The Natural Resource Challenge and Vanishing Treasures were perhaps notable exceptions, because they brought new money to operations..

As I sat in the audience at Grand Canyon when Mike Snyder introduced Core Ops to I was dismayed by two things. The first was the enormous amount of work that would be required of us, time and effort that would perhaps be better spent getting on with operating the park.

But what bothered me the most was the underlying assumption that park operating budgets would decline, would not even track with inflation. While it was stated as a realistic forcast of the future, it seemed to me an abject surrender. And predictably, if you show the Administration and Congress that the NPS can manage the parks with less money, they will take you at your word and you will get less.

As a parting comment: Mike Snyder is taking a lot of shots on this, but he wasn't alone in pushing it. My recollection is that he was the Deputy RD when he first developed and fielded Core Opts, and he had the support of the Regional Director, some WASO staff, the Director, OMB examiner, and of course Lynn Scarlett. A lot of the comments seem to use Core Opts as a lightning rod as a way to talk about Mike's management style.

Karen Breslin is the current Public Affairs Specialist for the NPS Intermountain Region.

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