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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.


Core Ops and Mike Snyder taught me to be a cynic with regard to Interior and the NPS.

I am intimately familiar with Core Ops because I went through the whole process at the park I used to work at and ultimately became a victim of it. In my 20+ years as an NPS employee (resource mgmt) I never saw such an ill-conceived plan, or one that was so rife with corruption and petty politics. I believe that it was used by Snyder in concert with various park superintendents in a vindictive manner with largely preordained results; in other words, it targeted individuals as well as particular programs that either rubbed him the wrong way or didn't meet his personal vision of the NPS. At BEST it may have been used on some occasions to eliminate some "dead wood", and god knows there's plenty of that in the NPS (and much more so than in the private sector because the system protects the useless and incompetent, even promotes them). But using a process like Core Ops to eliminate dead wood is the most gutless way to deal with personnel issues. This process was just plain evil, hurt individuals and unquestionably set back some park's programs for decades to come.

As part of the money wasting process that some previous comments have alluded to, our park had a visit prior to the actual "Core workshop" by some gal who had the job of softening the terrain before the reign of terror began. The whole park spent an excruciating day learning about "Change" and what a wonderful thing it was and not to be fearful of it. They could have saved the taxpayers a fortune and just had the superintendents say, hey look, some of you have targets on your backs so prepare. Did other parks also go through this before the visitation from Core? I'd love to know how much money they spent on this sort of thing alone. Perhaps this was their touchy-feely way of trying to reassure themselves that one of their own wouldn't go postal, and worth the cost?

At my park they allowed all program managers in on the process, not just division chiefs. I suppose this was also to create the illusion (again, to themselves) that it was going to be a fair process. I still don't know if this was standard procedure at all parks. As a group we decided what the core missions were (which seemed to me to be pretty damned clear already from the park's name and legislation). We all got to produce evidence that we were providing the most cost effective way of fulfilling this mission and demonstrate how critical our positions were. Then top management went behind closed doors and virtually ignored all the information that had been provided by program managers and thumbed their noses at mission statements and enabling legislation. But the worst part was that BEFORE the process even began my division chief flat out told several of us that we were not necessary to the parks mission and could be dumped. And sure enough, we're now all gone.

Unfortunately, it's going to take a lot more than a new director or even a new science advisor to set things right. First, the likes of Snyder need to be dealt with at the Regional and park level. Top and mid-level leaders need to man up and get rid of those that can't lead or act against NPS mission and policy. This does not mean shuffling them off to another park or regional office either! The same needs to be done with those who acted in concert with Snyder, which means getting rid of various superintendents who trashed their own parks. As has been said by others, get rid of those who "know the cost of everything and the value of nothing".

Yes, I am now a cynic. After 20 years in the NPS and having watched a few administrations come and go, I firmly believe that NPS rhetoric is simply spin that changes to match the latest presidential appointee and economic climate. At its best, the Parks (and me personally) benefitted from "Professionalization", when that was the big buzzword and the parks just couldn't be managed properly without real professionals and in-house scientists and specialists to advise them on best practices and good science. That lasted just as long as the economic climate was good and we had a president who valued science. Then it became all about privatization and saving a buck. I was downsized and outsourced out of a job that went to the least competent and lowest bidder. Now I watch as folks on here speak gleefully about the latest new deal for the NPS and wonder how long that will last before the next jerk gets in the White House or occupies Interior or IMR director's office. There has been so much destruction done to Parks and people by Core and the NPS's own incompetent leadership that you'll pardon me if I don't celebrate just yet. The organization needs to clean up its own house from within, stop rewarding bad behavior, lousy leadership and toxic personalities.

Personally, I landed on my feet (no thanks to that lame workshop), but know others who did not fare so well. I hope I see some ACTION over the next couple of years to make me a believer in the NPS once again, but frankly do not hold much hope for that. Never mind me- I CHALLENGE the NPS to live up to its principles and earn the trust of the American public!

This news just made my day. Thanks for the present Director Jarvis.

I have had the pleasure of going through not one but three Core Ops exercises in my tenure. Each one was excruciating, time consuming, painful, wasteful, and counterproductive to park mission and goals (how does one manage a cultural site without cultural resource expertise on staff - sorry you can't fill your resource position because it is superfluous to the core mission of the park). The premise we were given on two of the three separate exercises was "imagine coming to a park out of the cold - what is the first thing you need to turn on the lights." There was no mention of adding resource professionals unless the park budget was "fat".
The process was all geared towards drawing down positions and no thought on identifying what was NEEDED to FULLY ACCOMPLISH park mission needs. There was no future planning, no identification of true needs and goals, and in no way shape of form does the Core Ops process identify appropriate pathways to meet desired outcomes based on GMP goals and objectives. Core Ops was a straight jacket and not a tool.

Regardless of motivations, this was a top down driven process with preordained goals (cut 1/3 of your operations or else). When I asked why 1/3 I was told that it was assumed that 1/3 of everything we do was wasted time anyway by the Core Ops instructors so just eliminate your wasted efforts. That was the philosophy we operated under to develop our Core Ops plan!

Our process went like this assign 1/3 of your work as “Core”, 1/3 of your work as “Supporting Core” and 1/3 of your work as “Does not support Core”. If you had three people in a division the work could then be done by two since a third of all work was not supporting Core. So get rid of one position. That was how we derived our results.

It’s a simple strategy that has been massaged and manipulated to develop a process so unbelievably convoluted. It took any creativity out of a manager’s hand and simply did not develop a strategy for opportunities for sustained growth nor did it reflect real needs as envisioned by a park's GMP.

Having been a direct recipient of Mike Snyder's "Reign of Terror," anything that Director Jarvis can do to mitigate Snyder's management and policies in the Intermountain Region will only help the Parks, the Superintendents, and the employees of that Region.

As a long-time employee of the Denver regional office, I offer these personal, unofficial comments: As the saying goes, "there are two sides to every story." The story of core operations and the budget difficulties experienced by parks has many facets, not just two. It is disheartening, therefore, to see comments on this blog scapegoating regional director Mike Snyder for his efforts in helping parks grapple with difficult budget realities. It is easy to forget, now that we have trillion dollar deficits and parks benefitting from stimulus money, that in the not-so-recent past, many parks were struggling with "budget erosion," receiving relatively flat allocations while costs continued to climb. It is not my place to refute the accusations made by others about core operations. But as an individual who has worked for Mr. Snyder for over a dozen years, I am saddened by the tone of some of these posts, both because they do not do justice to Mr. Snyder, whose accomplishments in defense of parks have not been well understood or recognized, and because they seem to ignore the difficulties inherent in addressing any complex problem, not the least of which is encountering resistance and denial. In my years of working with Mr. Snyder, I have known him to be a demanding boss who unceasingly sought to address chronic NPS management problems and issues. That kind of commitment to improving our organization is essential if our park system is to flourish in the 21st century.

“I am Spartacus” aka “I am Core Oped Man Walking”.

The analogy to Spartacus refers to a scene in the movie "Spartacus" starring Kirk Douglas as Spartacus. After the army of former Roman slaves led by Spartacus is defeated in battle by legions of the Roman army, a Roman general stands before the captured surviving members of the slave army and demands that they turn over Spartacus, or else all of the former slaves will be executed. Upon hearing this and not wanting his friends to be executed, Spartacus stands up and says "I am Spartacus." However, the loyalty of his friends is so great that each of them stands forward in succession, shouting "I am Spartacus!" until the shouts dissolve into a cacophony of thousands of former slaves each insisting "I am Spartacus!" Bewildered and still not knowing which of them is Spartacus, but impressed by the loyalty he inspires in his army, the Roman general has all of the slaves crucified in a miles-long display alongside the Appian Way leading back to Rome.

The analogy is this, all of us NPS rank and file in the IMR are the Roman slaves. Snyder is the Roman General. Core Ops is the execution. This blog on the Traveler has opened up a vein and the blood is flowing - as is the pain for those of us Core Oped as we relive the ugly days of Core Op workshops, with lie after lie, and Snyder’s own version of a final solution.

Since Snyder is such a blogger, albeit mostly thru his ghost staff writers, one can assume he is reading some of this blog. And thus I imagine he is as bewildered as the Roman General who couldn’t comprehend the shared agonies of his slaves yet alone the loyalties they feel for each other.

Ed: This comment has been edited. While we certainly realize the decision by Director Jarvis to end "core ops" is being welcomed by many in the Intermountain Region, including more than a few who lost their positions or program funding through it, we'd hope a measure of civility could be maintained in the comments. This is not the forum for personal attacks.

A big thanks to Rick Smith and many others here for saying what so many of us in the intermountain region have been feeling for so long. Snyder has ruined the parks of the intermountain region and brutally demoralized the employees. Dissenting viewpoints were not tolerated so we remained silent to protect our jobs. The question for Director Jarvis is how can the imr parks ever be fixed now that Snyder has broken them so badly.

How can the employees ever trust the senior leadership again? Core Ops was nothing more than smoke and mirrors to rid parks of people and disciplines that Snyder didn't like and to ingratiate himself to the politicals above him for his own personal gain. Compassion was not shown no matter how serious the hardship to the individuals who were “core oped” out of their jobs. All the while Snyder created his own expanded regional office bureaucracy to support these efforts as well as his ongoing pet projects. The travel expenditures by the Core Ops Team were shameful in a time of massive downsizing and job abolishment in the parks. The team’s air of smug self importance was obscene as they rained their IMR brand of hell down upon park after park.

The field saw through their B.S. right from the start but there was no one above them to slow down their destruction. Shame on them all ! Fortunately there were and are a number of superintendents who found ways to protect their staff and slow done the Core Ops train. A heartfelt thanks to them! They know who they are but can't be named here or they might suffer retribution.

Ed: This comment has been edited.

Leaving aside the personal comments about Mike Snyder, the core operations process had and has a purpose. At Karen notes, many parks had overcommitted their budgets. Not due to Mike Snyder's leadership, but due to inexperienced park superintendents hiring more permanent staff than they could afford. Too many inexperienced managers failed to account for pay raises, locality pay, and step increases that make every permanent employee more expensive each year and a budget that does not keep up with that increase. The Core Operations process was designed to save these parks from themselves. It did.

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