Reducing The Federal Deficit Is Essential, But Are the National Parks A Logical Place to Cut Spending?

Logan Pass, Glacier National Park. Kurt Repanshek photo

What price do you place on this setting? NPT file photo of Logan Pass, Glacier National Park, by Kurt Repanshek.

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.”

Comments

Everyone has to tighten their belts in these, as you put it,"dire"times. There can't be any favoritism to any one group. Now more than ever we need to stop the waste and pork barrel politics by politicians who fight for votes so they can sell our future to lobbyists and insure they get extra generous pensions and benefits that we pay for and can only dream of having. Only after cleaning house can we afford the necessities for our parks.

Our government is a dysfunctional mess right now, something must be done. Time to take a look beyond just the NPS and fix the big-picture mess.

Of course, these plans for budget freezes won't fly because the BoCs (Buddies of Congress) won't want to see their own pet project (like wool research ... huh??) de-funded.

The NPS needs to find BoCs of its own to survive. Doesn't sound like it has very many.

Another reason to turn the NPS into some type of NGO.

===================================

My travels through the National Park System: americaincontext.com

captcha fails this post = 2


People are not paying attention or they're
just paying attention to politicians when they're promised lower taxes.

Friends groups and National Park Foundations do an admirable job
of raising money for parks but National Parks should not be dependent on that
money

Danny Bernstein
www.hikertohiker.com

This is the WORST time to cut funds to parks. Federal funds to parks in fact should be significantly increased, and inducements offered to matching funding from other sources.

Now, when the economy is down, is a critical time to buy land. It will never be this cheap again, and if critical lands inside park boundaries are not purchased, the government runs a big risk that new development going in will cut corners and compromise park integrity.

Also, the funding that goes to parks is an insignificant part of the over all budget. You could increase the total by more than eight times, and it still would be less than a rounding error of the entire budget.

It never can happen that all funding freezes are across the board, and uniformly affects EVERY discretionary program. Some programs always rise to the top because of critical national priorities.

Don't be diverted by this or that stupid pork project -- they are insignificant parts of the larger budget. Parks are always key during times of national stress. Now is an important time to emphasize what is best about America for the sake of our national pride, and parks are one thing best about America. Also, we have seen by the big increase in visitors coming to parks this past year, over the previous year, parks still can have important economic effects on communities across America by keeping tourism dollars at home.

You can save all the money you could possibly find trying to cut the National Park Service budget, and it would make no difference to the national budget situation. On the other hand, money spent now on parks has a tremendous positive effect. Remember when they shut down the government in the 1990's, the newsprograms always depicted the situation by showing a locked national park gate, even though the overwhelming amount of government business is on other activities. People notice the parks because they represent the best of America. America's pride cannot afford having its symbols of excellence look shabby. This is the time for expansion.

Some key programs, despite widespread cutting, will grow. National Parks must be one of them.

May I offer a "modest proposal" to our NPS funding issues?

We need to allow drug companies, big banks, and insurance crooks more outlets to screw up our nation.

They already control the votes of every politician, and still have funds in their bulging bribe bags begging to be "invested."

So lets offer them short term leases on a waterfall, trail, lighthouse, island, vista, battle ground - any priceless place the NPS controls in the Parks the People own.

Let them have Outer Island in the Apostles for twenty years. Of course they will be required to improve access to the island, bring the lighthouse and quarters to show-house standards, do or not do all the right things to all flora & fauna. And everything they do follows NPS standards, done by NPS approved contractors and by NPS employees paid by them.

At the end of the lease, XYZ Health Insurance, gets to put their name on a bronze sign at the Outer Island dock for two years or until the first Lake Superior storm takes it away.

Just one hitch for XYZ Health Insurance. During the life of the lease XYZ Health Insurance agrees not to bribe any politician. If they should be caught doing so, both the politician and the head of XYZ Health Insurance will be sent to a location in Cuba for life

So within 20 years all the crooks in office - and all the company heads that bribe them - will be in Cuba.

And both politics and parks will be better.

For a month or so . . .

Cut the Space Program. Cut the NPS funds. Neither of these contribute to welfare programs. That is the reason they are being cut.

Cut the Space Program. Cut the NPS funds. Neither of these contribute to welfare programs. That is the reason they are being cut. -Dottie

Actually, parks and other natural area contribute a lot to the welfare of our country. Please see the following links for just a small taste of the publications and journal articles that support this idea.

"Populations that are exposed to the greenest environments also have lowest levels of health inequality related to income deprivation. Physical environments that promote good health might be important to reduce socioeconomic health inequalities." (Mitchell & Popham, 2008)

"Unstructured outdoor play time is important for children’s overall well-being." (children's health and nature)

"The natural environment – everything from parks and open countryside to gardens and other green spaces –can play
an important part in promoting and maintaining good health and well-being. It can also aid patient recovery. As
part of the NHS’s commitment to sustainable development, healthcare organisations can incorporate elements of the
natural environment into the design of buildings and estates in ways that will contribute to a healthy community,
economy and environment." ( Sustainable Development Commission, UK)

Furthermore, as pointed out in the Traveler article there are additional important benefits to air and water quality that directly impacts our lives. And so, even people who never get to visit a National Park are benefited.

Finally, National Parks and other federally or state protected areas greatly impact our national morale. This was most recently pointed out in Ken Burns' "The National Parks: America's Best Idea", but has been supported elsewhere.

The list of welfare benefits goes on and on.

-Lee

This would probably be irresponsible (especially given the point I made in the above post) and very unpopular (read as political suicide) but what if major parks did have to cut back on what they could offer the public. For example, plowing roads in Glacier National Park is incredibly expensive. Why not wait for the Going to the Sun highway to melt off? Visitors would only have to wait for July or maybe August if it a good snow year to get to Logan Pass. That would save money but infuriate the public (not to mention impact future park funding). That would bring about a great deal of public outcry and maybe support for less of a decrease in funding.

Maybe Yellowstone could trim back on plowing too. And does yellowstone really need that many visitor service areas? One in the north and one in the south could be sufficient. Cleaning restrooms is a place where budgets could be trimmed.... Maybe close down or trim access to Lake Mead or Lake Powell's boat ramps. Managing visitation and environmental impacts takes funds. Or parks could implement a carrying capacity based on current budgets and current visitation. If they have the budget of last year they will only be able to maintain the visitor experience and impacts levels from last year's visitation levels. Maybe we'll start hearing this when we enter a National Park "We're sorry, the park is full today! Please try again later!" or "Welcome to Yellowstone, Do you have a reservation?"

In all honesty I think the above ideas would be reckless and harm the public's perception of these national resources. Basically, it would mean the Park Service would be seen as holding the parks hostage. I am not against working to save money. But park budgets are already stretched thin.

Perhaps, we'll end up seeing another increase in entrance fees... maybe a repeal of the Golden Age Passport!

-Lee

4 CAPTCHA attempts! I guess I'm not quite human today.

Well, since most of the wealth in this country is held by the "golden agers", why don't we do away with that Golden Age Passport welfare program!

Why does the NPS 'backlog' only get larger no matter how much money Congress provides?

Anon, the backlog isn't being wiped out because, according to NPCA, the Park Service's annual budgets fall about $600 million of what the agency needs each year.

Lee, I believe you misunderstood my sarcasm. I did not mean the welfare OF people. I meant welfare PROGRAMS. I sincerely believe the parks were so designated for people to enjoy them throughout - not just the north end or the south end. My goodness, even designated wilderness areas are allowed to have people wander through them. But then, hey, I don't have a BS, or MS, or Phd, so what do I know?

I'm sorry, but if one decides that they have to lose weight, the most impact will nto come from trimming their fingernails, no matter how pretty those nails may be.

On the local level we're hearing of cutbacks in health programs and library hours, but no real impact on the bloat. It is the same way with the federal budget.

Horsey [see the cartoon in the article above] is right.

Hello:

"And it wouldn't hurt, either, if the president were given the line-item veto ...". I think that one should be very careful about what one asks for. It might be an interesting exercise to consider how the line-item veto would have been used, particularly with respect to the National Park System, starting with the Reagan administration ( nothing for/against Reagan: first time I voted in a Presidential election ).

Cheers
M

Dottie, I did miss the sarcasm. lol. It just doesn't seem to translate well online. I guess that's why emoticons were created! I suppose I should have had one on my post too! :)

I agree with you that parks were designated so we could continue to enjoy their natural wonders. But parks cannot survive the level of visitation they receive without a lot management. While there is truth to your comment about designated wilderness, I would add something. While wilderness areas have a smaller management budget, if you look at the per visit costs of parks vs wilderness, I wouldn't be surprised to see wilderness area visits nearly as expensive as NP visits. However, I should admit I've never seen those numbers and wouldn't be surprised to find out my hunch is wrong.

-Lee

I dearly love the parks, else I wouldn't be here. But we're never going to get out of this mess if everyone doesn't share the pain. Most are in favor of smaller, leaner, government until the cuts affect their piece of the pie or what's near and dear to their heart. I cringe at inadequate park funding, at turning over our manned space travel to the Russians, and at many other trends developing or already in full flower. I doubt the administration or congress has the backbone to withstand the onslaught of political pressure that will come when a proposed budget freeze approaches reality. This will only work if applied evenly across the board, and every special interest group sucks it up and keeps their collective mouths shut.

Never gonna happen. We'll just keep selling our soul to the Chinese and running up the deficit.

I wholeheartedly agree with Lee that

Actually, parks and other natural area contribute a lot to the welfare of our country.
The truth of the matter is that they don't necessarily have to be run by the federal government.

Do any of you really think that most visitors would give a hoot if on their visit to the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone the rangers were employed by someone other than the Dept. of Interior? I don't think they would. Each park is important intrinsically as a stand alone entity and must not be held hostage to the fortunes of the sinking ship that is the U.S. Federal government.

How foolish it is for all of you to think that a group of gangsters in Washington that spends multi-billions to prop up corrupt Wall Street banks and insurance companies, wage savage war in central Asia and the Middle East (on a Chinese credit card, by the way), counterfeit more trillions out of thin air and are now proposing that the debt ceiling be lifted another 1.9 trillion are going to be responsible stewards of the parks!

Ya'll are definitely living in la-la land if you think the situation is eventually going to turn out well for the parks if the only container you're willing to put them in is one run by the U.S. government. As I said before that ship is going down folks and the sooner the parks are off board and in more capable and loving hands the better.

Love of country is NOT love of the government, nor should a love of the parks be mixed up in the same convoluted way. They are special beyond the NPS brand identity and nothing can take that away from them, ever.

I also agree with Barky: it is high time to seriously consider NGO's.

The NPS budget brief is out at:
http://www.doi.gov/budget/2011/11Hilites/BH067.pdf

The bottom line is $6.8M reduction.

I see cuts to congressionally-directed (line-item) construction and Save American Treasures & Preserve America grants to states and others for roughly $90M, and ramping up spending of the funds from the recreational fee program of ~$11M. Core operations increase $35M: $13M visitor services, $2.2M protection, $6.1M resource stewardship, accounting changes moving GSA space ($1.2M) and software licensing ($9.1M) to external admin costs means the $3.6M reduction in park support is actually a $6M increase. Land acquisition & state assistance increases $30M. External admin costs increases $15.1M, but more than $10M of that is the accounting change for software & GSA office space..

Kurt,

I'm not sure I accept the math. In 2003 the backlog was $5 billlion. Since then Congress has allocated about $.7 billion a year to reduce the backlog. So the backlog should be about gone, no?
Instead, it has increased by 75%.

If you are right, all the emphasis Congress has placed on reducing that backlog has accomplished nothing. Nada.
As if it never existed.

Simply take the 2003 figure and add to that the annual underfunding of .6 billion over 7 years and we are at the 8 billion says the backlog is today.

But NPS got billions over those years to fix this very problem!

I'm all for national parks. Great stuff. But maybe the park service either needs to fix the problem or stop trying to maintain so much. Hard times are ahead and their management of this problem is not impressive.

Anon,

Not sure where you came up with Congress appropriating $700 million a year to address the backlog. Can you find a paper trail that reflects that? I haven't seen one.

As for the annual underfunding, according to NPCA it just recently came down to @$600 million, that it had been upwards of $800-$850 million. So if we split the difference, say the arrears has been $700 million annually, times seven years equals $4.9 billion, which added to the $5 billion 2003 figure you cite, and we're at $9.9 billion in backlog, no? So even if Congress did give the NPS $700 million above and beyond its annual budget, which has been hanging around $2 billion/year, the $5 billion from '03 would still be there, no?

Check out this Seattle PI editorial cartoon - it sums it up better than any remark I can make:

http://www.seattlepi.com/horsey/viewbydate.asp?id=2037

Beamis,

Interesting post.

While your question was probably rhetorical, in the spirit discussion, I'll respond.

Do any of you really think that most visitors would give a hoot if on their visit to the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone the rangers were employed by someone other than the Dept. of Interior?

At face value, mostly no. Thus I mostly agree with you. But I don't agree that is a good reason for an NGO to take over. There are things that I think our government does well and things they couldn't do if our lives depended on it. In my opinion they do parks well. It is something on which (Democrats, Republicans, and Independents find agreement (for the most part).

Would an NGO be willing to operate the way parks do today? Even with a tremendously expensive backlog but still expanding and still accepting more visitors, more environmental responsibilities, managing more impacts, monitoring more species, etc. Or would an NGO begin to cut back? I think the federal government would be less likely to hold the parks hostage than an NGO guided by a business model based on profit.

But if the unlikely event you predict becomes true (the fall of the US Gov't), the government's ability to regulate an NGO would also fall. Someone has to be there reminding them why parks were created. Otherwise they could loose what has made them such a great idea (access and preservation). Do we just hand them a copy of the Organic Act as care instructions and hope they follow the rules as they have been hammered out over the past 90+ years? I just cannot foresee that working.

So no, I don't think most visitors know the difference between a NPS ranger in uniform and a NGO, a nonprofit, a Forest Service ranger, an Arizona highway patrol officer, or just about any other uniformed individual. And while I acknowledge that the NPS is not perfect, it is still the best, the most experience, and the best bankrolled (even if it is heavily leveraged) system that we have. So I disagree that this is the time to start considering transiting to an NGO.

And maybe you think I am living in la-la land but I think that parks and the parks service will make it through this rough patch. They have survived harsher times. Honestly, I think the whole situation has been blown out of proportions by alarmists (headlines about chaos, sinking boats, and train wrecks are a noisy part of our mediacrazy society).

I dunno, but it sure seems to me that I can tell the difference between most NPS employees and most Xanterra employees. It is the difference between owndership and identity versus driving by to make a buck.

I want the parks in the hands of the people who bleed brown and green, the people who have truly drunk the kool-aid of the Organic Act, and the people who look at a mountain, a tree, or a lagoon and get inspired.

I'm known to mix a little bit of idealism in with my baseline cynicism.

Honestly, I think the whole situation has been blown out of proportion by alarmists (headlines about chaos, sinking boats, and train wrecks are a noisy part of our media crazy society).

The national government is broke. There is no other way to put it. Their largest creditor, China knows it, as does every other nation in the world. China is doing its best to pull away and gently uncouple from the largest debtor in world history without also losing its shirt in the process, so it will take a little more time before the harsh reality sets in for good.

The reign of the welfare/warfare state is in its final stage of disintegration in America. The time is well nigh to begin contemplating what will become of these parks before they become lost in the shuffle of the greatest fire sale this continent has ever seen.

I'll say it again: The American Empire is done and everybody else on the planet knows it. Wake up NPT readers. Don't be like lobsters in the boiling pot. There are other viable ways to run and support the parks. The USA is going the way of the USSR and ya'll better be ready when it finally comes to fruition.

Once again a thread is hijacked by the Ayn Rand Fan Club. Moderators, please consider removing these unenlightened and repetitive posts. Thank you.

Though I am a day late in adding thoughts to this string, I feel compelled to provide some "color" to the issue of the backlog for all of you that read Kurt's excellent blog. Two issues are at play here that change the character of the problem in fundamental ways: 1) as with many problems, the more sophisticated the agency gets about understanding and properly cataloging its asset base, the more problems are uncovered. This reality is not very much different from the This Old House problem... you decide it's time to fix that sticky window, begin the minor work and find the sash and frame is rotten and the underlying wall is being eaten by termites. Suddenly, that $100 fix becomes $1,500. 2) the backlog is deferred maintenance needs is dynamic, not static. This means that if you stand in place and let time pass by the problem gets worse, it does not stay the same. So, every year that passes the problem becomes more severe... to the tune of something like 2% or 2.5% "erosion" per year. Doing the math, that means that this year's $9 billion backlog becomes more expensive to deal with by about $200 million, and that's without actually adding anything to the list of deteriorating assets.

Moderators, please consider removing these unenlightened and repetitive posts.

Nothing like the desire to march in ideological lockstep to the beat of totalitarian uniformity.

Ayn Rand I'm not but Thomas Jefferson would certainly be appalled by Anon's sentiments.

An unquestioning faith in the intentions of the central government is always easier than challenging it. My hope is that this website will not stoop to the censorship and Stalinist impulses that is this particular contributors wish to see put in place in NPT.

I'm not really worried Kurt, but was a bit stunned at the desire of this person to stifle free expression. It's probably not unusual with many in this group but still rather shocking upon actual exposure.

Look, folks, I disagree with almost everything Beamis says, but he has a right to express his opinions on NPT as long as he plays by the rules--no personal attacks, no profanity, etc. We are all accorded the same privilege. I appreciate it.

Rick Smith

Kurt,
If you look at NPS press releases over the last decade, they reflect considerable attention to the backlog. For example: "The President committed to spend $4.9 billion over 5 years to address known problems while NPS conducted inventory and condition assessments to determine the magnitude of deferred maintenance of NPS assets and the preventive requirements to protect the investments being made. Between FY 2002 and FY 2004, a total of $2.8 billion has been appropriated to specifically address the deferred maintenance issue. The FY 2005 budget proposes $1.1 billion, including $310 million as part of the President’s Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century reauthorization proposal. This request reflects an increase of $77 million over the FY 2004 level for reducing the maintenance backlog."

On top of that, the park service now apparently keeps all the gate fees instead of placing them in the Treasury. They're supposed to spend this money on the backlog too. At 20 dollars a pop to get in Grand Canyon that has to add up.
And, it turns out, park roads are maintained by the highway admin not park money!

Now, maybe George Bush took the money from one park pocket and required it be spent on backlog. I don't know. But I do know that the Park Service is always whining about funding but never, ever, seems to fix anything.

As to the annual $600 Million 'underfunding' adding to the backlog, I doubt that's all maintenance. I expect the Park service wants more park police, rangers and scientists too.

Again, I'm all for well maintained and funded parks. But if I've grown suspicious of some of these problems that never seem to get solved.

Returning to the theme of this post, hard times are coming in federal budgets. Every function will have to make hard choices. It just seems to me the backlog saga means the parks are ill prepared to manage well.

Anon, I do recall President Bush saying he was going to wipe out the backlog, then estimated at about $4.9 billion, during his first term, but I never saw the appropriations you mention. I'll make some inquiries. Don't forget, though, that what presidents propose Congress needs to endorse, and that doesn't always happen. As to the gate fees, that's another story we're looking at. Thanks for keeping the issue alive.

There was a lot of budget trickery going on here (as there always is). Much of what the Bush Administration touted as "reducing the backlog" was money that had been previously distributed to parks as repair and rehab or cyclic maintenance. So it was not "new money", but "old money" repackaged. It did little to reduce the burden of deferred maintenance but merely continued existing programs with a new name.

Parks that collect fees when I worked did not retain all the money collected but 80% of it. The remaining 20% was distributed for projects in parks that did not collect fees. The funds from fee collection were subject to many limitations as to the purposes for which the money could be used.

Rick Smith

If the NPS gets a funding freeze, does the big government workers get a pay freeze as well

I think the Maintenance funds were doubled under Bush the Second, but that was in the millions, not the billions he promised to address. Rick Smith is right about the trickery. I do not believe Bush the Second was the only culprit, but the House subcommittee on appropriations had a major role in redirecting funding from non-appropriated sources to fund the committee's facility priorities.

In other words, away from preservation and visitor services, and toward maintenance.

To this extent, the whole "Backlog" thing has always been a con game, since it was invented by Secretary of the Interior James Watt in the early 1980's. That's when Cheney picked up the tactic. It is an effort to focus all the attention on facilities, and away from preservation, land conservation, or new parks.

It was a deliberate effort to find a way to divide the field rangers from the environmentalists and resource managers in the Service. Part of the way the game was played was always to underfund the Blacklog after having made a big deal of it. Somewhat clueless liberals like the New York Times would then constantly focus on how the President did not keep his Backlog commitment; that blotted out the sun when it came to the other issues. What a perfect scam: get all the environmentalists to argue over inadequate facilities !

So keep in mind: what are the most important things to you about parks? Preserving open space? Top quality science and natural resource studies to identify and deal with threats to parks? Fixing roads, visitor centers and trails? Ranger services, like great Interpretive programs, recreation programs and Education outreach to schools? Installing and maintaining sewer systems in support of park concessions? Top quality administrative skills and training, so park staff are professional and effective? Law enforcement facilities, equipment, staff? Preservation of Historic Structures?

Of course to some extent, all of these are important, including maintenance of facilities and sewers, etc.

But there is no doubt that while we all were diverted toward Backlog, away from buying and protecting land or new parks, and the loss of great visitor services and seasoned employees. The game is to pretend there is an essential choice between money spent on one thing, that then needs to be taken away from the other. It was designed to split the service and foment constant bickering, to cause highly-motivated people to leave in frustration, and eventually lead to a loss in support by the American people, because of deterioration of the parks and the quality of the park people.

This sounds weird, I know, but I actually heard people planning for this in the early 1980's, people who were allies of the inholders associations, gun associations and elected officials burned by the creation of new parks in Alaska against the wishes of that congressional delegation.

Plenty of right-wing zealots have for years spoken of "starving the beast" (undermining government) through just these tactics.

It did not do to have a motivated group of federal employees, in the NPS, who were not working for the money, doing an outstanding job of providing services to the public, who were trusted and believed when they spoke in favor of preservation, in favor of unhunted wildlife, in favor of restricted motorized access, in favor of Public Service. The two top service agencies (after the US Post Office was destroyed): the US Coast Guard and the US National Park Service have thus been subsumed; the poor coast guard now just a cog in the Homeland Security monster.

Fortunately, the excesses of the Bush administration, in trying to rewrite the NPS management polices, in trying to permit massive use of snowmachines in de facto NPS wilderness, in failing to oppose high-profile developments in national parks (such as the plans for Valley Forge) caused some people and Media to wake up and realize they had taken their eye off the Main Event. The smarter right-wingers, starting with Sen. Stevens and Ronald Reagan, have always known you NEVER attack environmental policies head on, you just cut the budget, and say we really just cannot afford it. And watch people fight each other like dogs over the scraps.

Rick Smith is right - lots of budget trickery during the Bush administration. In his first campaign Bush promised to eliminate the then $4.9 billion maintenance backlog. While budgets under his watch did increase some of the project funds for maintenance (repair/rehab, cyclic maintenance, etc.) they were increases in the low millions - very hard to get to $4.9 billion that way. It was internal policy that direceted much of the entrance fee dollars to addressing the backlog but still that wasn't going to be enough to make good on Bush's pledge. So what did we do? We expanded the definition of what backlog maintencne was so that activities that were not once counted as addressing the backlog now counted. Park operational budgets in maintenance were split into different accounts - half counting as routine maintenance and half counting as backlog maintenance - lots of smoke and mirrors. Operational maintence funds seldom address backlog issues - it's project funding for the most part that allows a park to deal with the backlog. The intent was clear enough; the new money was never really going to come in adequate amounts to eliminate the original backlog so we needed to cook the books a bit to make it loook like Bush had followed through on his campaign pledge. It appeared that a lot of money was being spent on the backlog but many of those dollars were being spent on routine operations - doing the things you need to do to prevent an asset from becoming part of the backlog - and not dealing with a majority of the projects that made up the original backlog of $4.9 billion.

At the same time the NPS was fully implementing FMSS - the Facility Management Software System - which required complete inventories of all constructed assets from trails to roads to buildings to housing to storage sheds, etc. After the inventory and prioritization of the assets came comprehensive condition assessments of each and documentation of all known deficiencies - this process caused the estimated backlog to grow exponentially. The $4.9 billion backlog was always a squishy number at best - based on quick calculations, e.g., we knew the roads at Yellowstone were fallling apart and we could estimate the costs in dollars per mile of road, but we really didn't have good hard supporting documentation. FMSS has provided that - it's not a homegrown program, it's based on industry standards for asset management and uses the RS Means cost estimating guides which is likely the most accepted cost estimating tool used in private industry. FMSS has been a huge burden on park staffs - at times it can feel like you're just feeding the beast instead of out doing "real" work - but the benefit is that now the NPS can sustantiate just what makes up the backlog and provide costed-out work orders to prove it.

Dear Budget Guy:

1. Why is it 'smoke and mirrors' for the NPS to direct some of the money toward routine maintenance? I thought, when the essential fraud of doing all large and pending Backlog projects through CONSTRUCTION dollars - while continuing to cut back on the day-to-day maintenance staff was becoming obvious to all, the politicos realized they were about to be really embarrassed, suddenly support of on-going maintenance was permitted. The real smoke and mirrors would be to keep expanding a deteriorated facilities list with one hand, while pretending to address problems by huge contracts. That is like deciding to put no anti-freeze or oil in a car, run it into the ground, and then: call it maintenance when you have to buy a whole new engine.

2. What exactly do you MEAN when you say "IT WAS AN INTERNAL POLICY THAT DIRECTED" much of the entrance fee dollars to address the Backlog? Are you actually trying to maintain this policy was not in any way directed by the House subcommittee on appropriations majority staffer, or by the Asst. Secretary for Policy and Budget (people absolutely shillers for the White House and OMB)? I remember one senior Republican appropriations staffer told me that of course the Committee should have control over priority uses for funds raised by the NPS through entrance fees or even independent fundraising, because the Congress permitted the NPS to raise funds from those sources in the first place.

Either the Asst. Secretary or the house committee staffer could instead have permitted or encouraged the NPS to seek a straight-up maintenance appropriation increase, and of course the staffer could have organized a maintenance funding increase through the Congress. If the OMB examiner objected -- as he always did because rather than being concerned that funds were being well-spent, he was preoccupied with cutting back on all expenditures regardless of merit -- OMB could have been rolled by the Secretary and/or the Director by appealing the case to the President. President Bush had a history of supporting new initiatives: he for example vetoed no bills on national parks even if they violated the "policy" developed by his subordinates, if the bills actually got to him. But there was no appeal over OMB. As a matter of fact, (in an inconsistent OMB moment from my statement above) one time even the OMB examiner told me he had allowed increased funding in the Passback in a category important to the professional NPS people, but the political leadership of the NPS and the Department of the Interior then took those new dollars out in their response.

So, I am eager to learn this new definition of the word 'internal!'

Finally, doesn't your benighted FMSS now permit detailed intervention by these same politicos in the Department, OMB, and unelected congressional staff to now change the maintenance priorities by the NPS professionals? Are you unaware that since the "Backlog" scam was being pushed by the house committee staff and their stooges in the Department -- even in the Clinton Administration -- for the first time EVER we have seen changes in the priorities for individual maintenace projects? So, do you think that is just a coincidence?

I suppose you think it is purely an accident that now we have all the NPS staff chasing their tails in frustration just to get data to the Politicos, so the politicos then can undermine the professional park priority list without the NPS, and at the same time prevent the career employees from attending to the real work, while everything gets done by the private sector on contract?

So, you think all this was an 'internal' decision? So, do you have a new definition of the word 'internal?'

So, where can I get some of this cool aid?

Here, I had thought that the reason the Congress passed the Act of 1916 creating the National Park Service, was because it wanted a professional service -- not the politicos -- to run, operate and maintain the parks. And now these same Politicos are using the clause in the Act of 1916, intended only to permit park concessions for commercial services for visitors, to be used as a justification for the wholesale running of the parks by the private sector on contract, and turning 'park professionals' into contract officers. Silly me.

d-2,

1. Perhaps my statement was not clear - the "smoke and mirrors" had to do with re-labeling existing money as something it was not - it was not new money - it had not been redirected from anywhere - we just split out existing accounts and the existing amounts and attributed parts of them to backlog maintenance by name. If that's not smoke and mirrors I don't know what is. I'm not sure you have a very sound knowledge or understanding of the NPS appropriations process - construction dollars come in a completely seperate allocation from operational dollars.

2. Read the Public Law that established the original Fee Demonstration Program - laws are just that - law. Policies and regulations are how agencies implement the laws passed by Congress. Neither the law, nor the implementing regulations for Fee Demo mandated any certain percentage of those dollars to the backlog. It was indeed POLICY that did so - policy must be consistent with the regulations and the law but it is done at agency discretion. And I would never suppose for even one minute that politics are not involved every step of the way - not did I imply that they weren't - that's the society that we live in. Yes, both the House and Senate committees include reports attavched to appropriations bills and to many ofther public laws and agencies certainly pay attention to those reports as they express the concerns and the thinking of those who hold the purse strings but the simple fact is that the reports are NOT public law.

My goodness, budget guy! The Fee Demonstration Program was written in the House Subcommittee of Interior Appropriations: not the authorized National Parks Subcommittee. The Appropriations subcommittee staffer not only wrote the bill, but micro-managed its implementation. Yes, it is the law, but it was high-handed and violated previous agreements by the appropriators with the authorizing committee not to legislate through the appropriations bill. [Yes, the authorizing committees were tardy in acting on NPS retaining revenue, and a special group of superintendent pals of the committee staffer's had advised her that most parks would never focus on collecting fees in the circumstances that at that time were the existing law.]

By "directed" I did not mean the funds were reallocated by the commttee. I meant that the committee staffers were involved in the decision to redescribe those existing funds as backlog, to serve the political objective of the committee, and the White House. Again, this was not "an internal decision" no matter how evasively you redescribe it. I think everybody, even the rest of us who know so much less than you, understood those were not new appropriations. The point is, this action together with the entire program, was micromanaged.

I'm pretty familiar with the text of the fee demo law, and know there is a large gap between the text of the law itself, and toward what purposes parks were told the 80% money would go. You may not know this, but at every stage of consideration, the WASO directorate would clear their plan with the unelected house subcommittee staffer. All the normal Executive Branch flexibility in interpreting the law, and developing agency policy, was preempted. Of course it was 'consistent' but many other alternative ways, or policies, on how to spend the money would also have been consistent.

Regarding committee reports, are you familiar with committee reports for other federal agencies? For example, take a look at GSA. Check it out. Compare words of committee intervention to dollars appropriated on an agency-by-agency basis.

GSA as an example is an agency that spends many orders of magnitude more than the NPS, but usually gets no more than a 10 page committee report. The house subcommittee, when it was under Republican control, typically ran well over 100 pages.

You think this is typical politics in 'the society that we live in'? This is NOT typical of other federal agencies, and historically it is NOT typical of the NPS experience either. NO ONE changed NPS maintenance project priorities prior to the time that John Berry and later Lynn Scarlett were Assistant Secretary's working with that house subcommittee staff.

Of course committee reports are not law, de jure. President Obama recently fulminated against how outrageously the appropriations committee oversteps. He did not do this because there was no problem, Budget Guy. Because de facto, the NPS comptroller's office was extremely thorough in enforcing these reports, to the point that they seemed to be arms of the committee.

As all this was going on, the NPS never once took their case to the entire congress. While this was going on, the NPS only spoke to about a half-dozen committee staffers, and pretty well denied access to the Divison Chiefs to any one in Congress. This is not typical of the NPS history: traditionally the NPS senior staff had ongoing subject matter discussions with hundreds of congressional offices. During this time, the appropriations subcommittee aggregated both authorizing and appropriations legislation to itself, micro managed even NPS fundraising that should have NOTHING to do with its jurisdiction, thus allowing a few NPS budget officers to aggregate all communication on all those matters -- well beyond its professional competence -- with Congress. Perhaps as a Budget Guy this troubles you not at all, but believe me from extensive personal experience, this is NOT just a function of our 'society' as you so easily put it.

The previous nine postings on this thread not only make an excellent case to support the abolition of continued political control of the parks but almost reads like the arcane twists and turns one would expect to find in the pages of a Franz Kafka novel. Aldous Huxley or Kurt Vonnegut couldn't have written satirical diaologue this whacky or sci-fi technocratic in their heydays.

the "smoke and mirrors" had to do with re-labeling existing money as something it was not - it was not new money - it had not been redirected from anywhere - we just split out existing accounts and the existing amounts and attributed parts of them to backlog maintenance by name.

If the OMB examiner objected -- as he always did because rather than being concerned that funds were being well-spent, he was preoccupied with cutting back on all expenditures regardless of merit -- OMB could have been rolled by the Secretary and/or the Director by appealing the case to the President.

At the same time the NPS was fully implementing FMSS - the Facility Management Software System - which required complete inventories of all constructed assets from trails to roads to buildings to housing to storage sheds, etc. After the inventory and prioritization of the assets came comprehensive condition assessments of each and documentation of all known deficiencies - this process caused the estimated backlog to grow exponentially.

By "directed" I did not mean the funds were reallocated by the committee. I meant that the committee staffers were involved in the decision to re-describe those existing funds as backlog, to serve the political objective of the committee, and the White House. Again, this was not "an internal decision" no matter how evasively you re-describe it. I think everybody, even the rest of us who know so much less than you, understood those were not new appropriations. The point is, this action together with the entire program, was micromanaged.

"By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired."
------Franz Kafka

d-2,

I'm likely beating a dead horse here - and it's not that I disagree with you on many points - but perhaps we each see the realities just a bit different.

That the original fee demo law came from a different committee makes little difference in the big picture - other than perhaps having a desire to have some kind of "pure" legislative process - and we don't, we haven't for decades and we likely never will again. Do I like that? No - but that's how it works. The NPS receives huge dollars from committess that do not have anything to do with parks, e.g., the transportation bills that fund federal highways. We get mandates (via public law) that have little or nothing to do with the NPS - case in point in two weeks we will welcome firearms into parks via a bill to control the credit card industry. As an agency we do not have the lattitude to pick and choose between laws we like or those that we don't - we must swallow it all and implement those laws - regardless of how they came into being or via what committee or what staffer had what influence. And just to clarify - our annual appropriations come via the Appropriations Committee and more specifically the subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies - that's where all NPS appropriations originate. The House Committee on Natural Resources with it's associated subcommittee on National Parks, National Forests and Public Lands does not deal with the appropriations process.

I don't argue for a second that congressional staffers have to much say in the process - but for some reason as a nation we keep electing both Representatives and Senators that not only have little to do in the actual crafting of legislation but likewise have seldom read the full bills that they are voting on.

That as an agency the NPS can be very ineffective with Congress is a given - we've not had a Director since George Hartzog that truly devoted the time to develop a good working relationship with Congress - and yes, I've been around that long.

How would you as the NPS Director done things differently during the Lynn Scarlett years?

And just to clarify - our annual appropriations come via the Appropriations Committee and more specifically the subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies - that's where all NPS appropriations originate. The House Committee on Natural Resources with it's associated subcommittee on National Parks, National Forests and Public Lands does not deal with the appropriations process.

And on it goes......

"A bad book is as much of a labor to write as a good one, it comes as sincerely from the author's soul."
------Aldous Huxley

A good look at the current state of the NPS, brought to us by agency insiders, can be gleaned from checking out another NPT thread, that is still unwinding furiously, concerning the abrupt departure of Park Commissar Mike Snyder from the hallowed halls of the IMR. It makes for enlightening reading:

IM Regional Director, Mike Snyder is the epitome of the contemporary NPS manager: no credible field training or experience, weak leadership skills, managed with the power of position (command influence), rather than the strength of his ideas, ethics and honorable vision. Everything was political, rarely was he motivated by mission, science, tradition, history and agency legacy...

The evidence continues to mount, from many of the people who are in the know, that this is no longer a credible or effective agency when it comes to running the parks or supporting the front line people charged with their care.

The Mike Snyder thread dovetails nicely with this one in demonstrating what a political organization in deep disarray looks like.

I have spent the last five years in this region being afraid and doing my job without drawing any attention or offering any ideas or suggestions. I suppose I became a drone to survive.

This case is illuminating, and I must say, not reassuring in regards to Director Jarvis. Mr. Snyder was not a good RD, but to end a career by FAX is another example of what is wrong with NPS leadership. It is weak, unethical and fosters a work environment of distrust.

NPS employees have tolerated these heavy-handed personnel actions for a long time, and it has to stop. Otherwise, if tolerated, you are looking at your own future. How many times have we seen the NPS run over employees and managers they didn't like, managers who took a stand for resource values, or mission driven whistle blowers. It is amazing what NPS management is able to get away with.

Look at how NPS management routinely sweeps poor conduct issues under the rug for those favored in the "Superintendents Club," like the recent case in Gettysburg. It is appalling how far the NPS has fallen in such a short time and Mr. Snyder is a poster child for this era of poor NPS leadership, management and supervision.

And on it goes.....

Fired by a fax? And I had been thinking things couldn't possibly get any weirder or any sadder.

Just you wait sugar, just you wait.

Re: Rick B
Sorry, but this really creeps me out...

"I want the parks in the hands of the people who bleed brown and green, the people who have truly drunk the kool-aid of the Organic Act,"

Do you know what they did to the people who didn't drink the Kool-Aid?

Also, I have met many concession employees who loved and appreciated the parks more than some NPS employees.

Bemis--

I've worked in the private sector; I've worked in academia; I now work for NPS. Moving to NPS was a huge improvement in management from my previous university, worth taking a substantial pay cut for. The part of NPS I am in runs better than any corporation I've worked for. Pretty much everyone works way more than their 40 hours because they believe in the job. Most of the professionals could earn much more money working in the private sector or even at other agencies (there's a 1 - 2 GS level penalty for NPS scientists versus USGS or NOAA fisheries). The folks in the parks that I deal with are as motivated and hard working, if not always as well trained: they care about their parks and know the issues, if not always the possible solutions.

I say let's fix the political and administrative problems at the top, but let's not privatize or outsource and lose the dedicated folks in the ranks.

ps: From what I see, private companies and even non-profits have major issues at the top, too.

I say let's fix the political and administrative problems at the top, but let's not privatize or outsource and lose the dedicated folks in the ranks.

Privatizing or an NGO or something in between (quasi-governmental) would not necessarily mean that dedicated folks with merit would lose their jobs. Quite the opposite might very well occur. They might become the next leaders and thrive under different organizational structure.

private companies and even non-profits have major issues at the top, too.

Persistent major issues in the private sector and you lose your customers and your capital and you go under. Same with non-profits. Government just keeps borrowing, printing and taxing to keep itself in permanence and comfort. It's why the NPS can still be as bad at the top and still exist in its current form and why the U.S. still has air force bases in Germany and Japan nearly 70 years after official hostilities ended there.

Once the camel's nose is in the tent it's next to impossible to pull him out.

The original question of the thread was not "just how sucky can we picture the NPS management", but rather "if we have to cut federal budget, is the NPS the right place to start".

I defy anyone here to pick out an organization that one couldn't throw stones at. Don't bother, because as soon as you put your own idealized organization up on that pedestal, someone else will come along and prove you wrong. It's easy to pick apart a group by individual examples.

My opinion is that the money you realize by pruning the NPS budget is miniscule compared to other larger boondoggles in the federal budget, AND pulling small amounts from the NPS budget can do large amounts of harm to our preservation of the national resources entrusted to NPS.

The whole point I was making was that the budgetary process is part and parcel of a way of running these parks that has probably run its course. Not only is the way they are funded abysmal but the entire structure of the organization is outmoded, bureaucratic and non-reformable. It's obvious to me, and others, that it's time for a new paradigm.

For as long as I've been interested in national parks (I grew up next door to one) the issue of underfunding and the attendant wringing of hands, surprised indignation and moral outrage of park supporters (and NPS employees) has become an old and tiresome spectacle. It seems that no matter what party is in power these parks are NEVER going to get the proper care and funding that its supporters think is their due. I've been hearing this for over 40 years.

It has become an exceedingly boring and predictable annual debate that less and less people are willing to listen to. Add in an agency that is in professional free fall as the level of politics contained in vital decision making and the erosion of professional standards continues unabated.

the money you realize by pruning the NPS budget is miniscule compared to other larger boondoggles in the federal budget

Rick B. readily admits that the NPS is just another cog in a boondoggle filled process. Doesn't this speak volumes about where the parks stand in the hierarchy of importance to its Washington masters?

It's definitely time for a change. The present system is a joke and the mandarins in DC love to kick this football around every year, just to limber up for the bigger boondoggles yet to come on their dance card.

Is this any way to manage our national treasures?

Hehehehe. Such adulation!

"Rick B. readily admits that the NPS is just another cog in a boondoggle filled process. Doesn't this speak volumes about where the parks stand in the hierarchy of importance to its Washington masters?"

Son, I speak no volumes. I'm just like you, a guy with a keyboard and an opinion. I have never spoken for the NPS. I am not in any hierarchy.

Aren't there any other forums out there on other topics that could use a persistent gadfly?

[[[ half a dozen captcha tries tonight...]]]

"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, ..." Kurt.

I suggest that there was a 3rd major contributor to the meltdown of the economy; the price of oil. Oil related events leading to significant price increases were primary causes of at least four other U.S. recessions before the one in which we are now mired. When the price of oil more than doubled in a single year it started the unwinding of already tippy real estate and financial markets. Energy in general and oil in particular underpins the national and global economies. Although the price of oil dropped dramatically with the onset of the recession, it is still well above its cost just three years ago. A number of economists anticipate that an economic recovery leading to increased oil consumption will restart the price rocket for oil and likely set off another round of economic decline. This seems to be a built in self destruct mechanism. Global oil production has been on a undulating plateau since 2005, and an increasing number of oil experts are joining the "peak oil" crowd which believes we have or will soon arrive at a point when it will not be possible to maintain the current level of oil production. If this is true, all government agencies, including the NPS, will be required to make far greater adjustments in the coming years.