With the federal budget in dire shape due to the sour economy, celebrities are coming forward to express their concern over the potential of sweeping budget cuts to national parks.
“The role of national parks has never been so vital. They bring pleasure and a much-needed escape from the stresses of everyday life to the millions who visit them every year. They are havens for many species and will make a major contribution to tackling climate change," said a letter signed by a group of well-known climbers and mountaineers. “Government grants are the parks’ biggest source of income. If they are cut radically, we will all be the poorer.”
Certainly, with the state of the budget in Washington and ongoing deliberations over how best to reduce the deficit, that message would certainly fit here in the United States. However, it was a plea made recently in England, where worries about how budget cuts could affect national parks in that country spurred the letter written by adventurer Ben Fogle, president of the Campaign for National Parks; mountaineer Sir Chris Bonington; Ramblers’ Association campaigner Janet Street-Porter; BBC presenter Nick Crane, and; climber Leo Houlding.
With presidential commissions and the Bipartisan Policy Center recently outlining their recommendations for taming the bloated deficit in the U.S. budget, similar concerns certainly could be voiced in the states.
The chairmen of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, for example, are calling for the National Park Service and the Smithsonian Institution combined to generate a combined $300 million for their 2015 budgets by raising fees.
The National Park Service (NPS) budget is projected to exceed $3 billion in 2015. The National Parks receive nearly 290 million visitors annually and an estimated 10 percent of total NPS spending goes toward visitor services. Under this option, $75 million in 2015, or about a quarter of the expected spending on visitor services, would be paid for by a small increase in visitor fees.
Where visitor fees have been instituted, they vary greatly and are often anywhere from $3 to $25 per week. Raising $75 million in visitor fees would average under $0.25 per visitor.
This option also requires that both the Smithsonian and National Park Service work through outstanding maintenance projects until the backlogs are below $1 billion for each agency before funding new projects.
Of course, the full commission's report to Congress isn't expected until December 1, so it's impossible to say whether this recommendation will be contained within it.
But if this recommendation remains, particularly the call for the Park Service to greatly reduce its backlog, it could have an extreme affect on the agency and the 393 units of the National Park System.
Part of the problem with cutting the backlog is that it's a moving target, one that currently stands somewhere between $8.6 billion and $9.6 billion and is growing at a rate of a "couple hundred million a year," according to David Barna, the Park Service's chief of communications.
But a larger problem revolves around the question of just how that backlog might be slashed?
Even if the backlog currently stands at the low end, at $8.6 billion, how feasible is it to trim that to less than $1 billion in five years? This year it was trimmed by $920 million courtesy of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, but that was a one-time infusion.
At the National Parks Conservation Association, John Garder, the group's budget and appropriations legislative representative, is waiting to see the full commission's recommendations before wading too deeply into how likely it is that the Park Service can significantly reduce the backlog in five years, saying simply that, "It's a tall order."
The chairmen's proposal would be a tough pill for the Park Service in its efforts to wipe out the backlog and ready the National Park System for the agency's centennial in 2016, particularly in light of the annual shortfall of some $600 million between what the agency's annual budget is and what it needs, according to an NPCA analysis.
“We’re very concerned about the operations shortfall in the Park Service budget. We’re concerned abut getting the parks back to fiscal health by the centennial of the Park Service," Mr. Garder said. "This obviously won’t get us there.”
To illustrate just how hard it is to reduce the backlog, and to show how quickly it can grow, when President George W. Bush took office in 2000, the backlog was estimated at somewhere between $4 billion and $5 billion. It did not shrink during his eight years in office, but grew above $8 billion.
An extra $75 million in higher visitor fees certainly won't make substantial inroads into the backlog, particularly if the thinking is that Congress could reduce the Park Service's appropriations by that much. And Park Service Director Jon Jarvis can't simply redirect monies from one part of his budget to another to address the backlog.
"The director has the ability to redirect dollars, but major changes require administration and congressional approval, since the funds come to us in specific accounts," explained Mr. Barna. "You can't just take construction dollars and move them to maintenance without lots of approvals."
Is it time to cue the U.S. celebrities?