Did you feel the wind in the sails go slack?
Barely three months beyond the euphoria raised by Ken Burns’ documentary on the national parks, and just four weeks after 2009 delivered the strongest visitation to parks in a decade, President Obama wants to freeze funding levels of the National Park Service and those of just about every other domestic program. In a move triggered by the continued malaise that has settled over the nation’s economy, one brought on by over-exuberance in the housing sector and fueled by Wall Street’s self-exuberance, the president’s FY2011 budget proposes to freeze just about all domestic spending for the rest of his term.
Even before the budget was officially delivered some were ridiculing its position on the national parks.
Could the timing have been any worse?
With the centennial of the National Park Service just six years off, the rekindled love affair with national parks that was sparked by The National Parks: America’s Best Idea and the efforts by the administration to dust the rust off the system by first proposing a $100 million boost in the Park Service’s operations budget, adding another $100 million to attack the system's woeful backlog, and then through the infusion of $750 million through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the oft-neglected park system in 2009 received some much-needed love.
But if Congress accepts the president’s proposal, something that's never a sure bet, the Park Service could actually move backwards, not even hold steady, as inflation will continue to eat away at its budgets.
“The Park Service has done a good job, as has this administration, (in) reversing the course of the starvation diet that the parks have been on for some while,” says Phil Voorhees, who crunches the agency’s budget numbers for the National Parks Conservation Association. “It doesn’t seem to do a lot of good to anybody to return to digging the hole a little bit deeper in park operations.”
The National Park System, arguably the most-beloved of all federal government holdings, long has struggled financially. Largely that’s because Congress more often focuses on creating new units of the system than figuring out how to fund the needs that come with those units, let alone the existing needs. Just this past week alone we saw two proposals (this one and this one) introduced into Congress that would require more than $105 million to execute, and no language identifying how to pay those bills.
The Park Service’s needs long have been lamented. The maintenance backlog across the 392-unit system is estimated at $8 billion-9 billion, and the NPCA says the agency’s budget each year runs roughly $600 million shy of needs, thus increasing the backlog.
“The reason why the backlog exists is in large measure because (the) operations (budget) was falling short for years and years,” explained Mr. Voorhees. “That’s the legacy of shortfalls in park operations. We would absolutely hate to see that we’re going back to the old days.”
Make no mistake, the current administration has been a friend of the parks. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into needy projects across the park system, projects such as a new visitor center at Dinosaur National Monument to replace one that literally was cracking apart, such as mitigation projects to clear the way for removal of the Elwah Dam and restoration of the Elwha River basin at Olympic National Park in Washington, and such as rehabilitation of Independence Hall Tower at Independence National Historical Park.
What is being questioned now, in response to the president’s budgeting, is why retreat on the parks, whose budget is a minute percentage of the entire federal budget? And why in its story about the budget did the New York Times specifically reference the national parks among those agencies that would have their budgets frozen? Was it an intentional reference to see if the public would stand up, take notice, and object, or simply a passing mention of some of the programs that would be affected?
Do parks have a vocal base of supporters, or is it a silent majority? Already we’ve seen California and Arizona move to cut their state parks operations due to economic woes, and New York officials and those in some other states are debating the same.
Why are parks so vulnerable to budget cuts? Not only do they seem to have wide support, as evidenced by the 285.4 million who visited the National Park System last year along with the continuing efforts in Congress to add new units, but they offer so much in terms of education, physical and mental well-being, appreciation of nature, and, yes, even a grounding in nature. Beyond that, these public landscapes, along with those managed by the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management, play crucial roles in wildlife management, watershed health, and air filtration. Is it wise not to invest in their upkeep as best we can?
There is no question the federal deficit must be controlled, and that requires across-the-board participation. We also need to keep in mind that while the president proposes a budget, it is Congress that passes one. As such, park advocates need to increase the pressure on their elected representatives to truly be stewards of the park system, not to use the parks as political pawns. And it wouldn't hurt, either, if the president were given the line-item veto so he could cull some of the millions of dollars in questionable, if not downright ridiculous, earmarks Congress piles onto the budgets.
In these dire times, do we need to spend $750,000 for the Consortium for Plant Biotechnology; $150,000 for the privately owned St. Augustine Church in Austin, Nev.; $1,189,375 for the Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation’s Alternative Energy School of the Future in Clark County; $24,500,000 for the National Drug Intelligence Center, even though the Justice Department reportedly has called for its demise; or $206,000 for wool research in Montana, Texas, and Wyoming, three states that since 1995 have received $3,417,453 for ... wool research, according to Citizens Against Government Waste. You can find myriad other examples of questionable appropriations at CAGW’s website.
Beyond questionable earmarks, there remain plenty of loopholes that Congress could, if it truly wanted to, close and, along with trimming wasteful spending, reap the federal coffers billions of dollars.
If there is to be a funding freeze, and it seems inevitable, let those who best know the Park Service tighten the purse strings. Jon Jarvis is still getting comfortable in the director's office, and having come from the field, he more than likely knows what is a productive use of funds, and what is not. If there's a silver lining to a budget freeze, perhaps it lies in uncovering better, and more efficient, approaches to doing business in the parks.
“A three-year freeze, plus increases restricted to the rate of inflation thereafter, would certainly reduce the (Park Service) director's ability to grow the National Park System and to enable the service to fully accomplish the responsibilities assigned to it by the Congress,” said Rick Smith, a member of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. “On the other hand, it will give the NPS the time to take a close look at what it is doing and devise ways to be more effective in carrying out its program responsibilities.
“If the NPS is not in an expansion mode, the director might have time to dedicate to rebuilding employee morale and improving the training and education of the service's workforce. That would be a big plus,” he added. “None of this works, of course, if the administration decides how the freeze should be implemented. That must be decided by the secretaries and their bureau chiefs, with emphasis on the bureau chiefs.
“Let the people who know how their agencies work make the decisions. Otherwise, the decisions will be political, not programmatic, in nature, almost always a fatal flaw.”