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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.”

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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:

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

Danny Bernstein

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.


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!


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