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

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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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Comments

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.


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.


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.


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.


Just you wait sugar, just you wait.


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


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.....


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


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