Group Warns About Move To Cut Funding for National Parks

Can we afford to cut funding to protect places such as this beach at Gulf Islands National Seashore? NPS photo.

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?

Comments

Let's be honest, the tax payer is tapped out. Horrible economy, persistent high unemployment, and the specter of higher taxes in a variety of forms is the new reality.

1) Having said that, the national parks need to be run like self contained businesses (as most governmental agencies should). Parks should be allowed to keep their own fees that they collect, and charge the appropriate amount of fees for the services they are providing. Parks should come up with innovative ways to make more money - such as guided tours with various experts - as just one example.

2) Parks should rely on partner organizations associated with a particular park - such as the Great Smoky Mountains Association, and the Friends of the Smokies. These organizations raise funds through various channels and provide volunteers to perform various services. I know there are other parks that also have these partner associations, but I don't know how many. Although they both do a great job, I think the two orgs associated with the Smokies are missing a lot of innovative ways in which they could increase the money flowing into their coffers.

3) Where are the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts of yester-year that provided so much of the money that helped to purchase lands for the NPS? Why aren't people with names like Buffet, Soros or Gates stepping up with donations to help fund NPS? Or, for that matter, the Hollywood celebrities you alluded to? The little guy can't do this. The little guy has to keep food on the table and the electricity running....

- Smoky Mountain Hiker

It's time to bring back the CCC!

Actually, the "celebrities" are not from Hollywood. They are supposedly well-known climbers who wrote the letter referred to in the headline, and it was to England's government, not our's. That's all a celebrity is: a well-known person. Very misleading headline. As for the rest of Smoky Mtn Hiker's comments, he hit the nail on head.

Dottie,

The headline was intentional to attract readers. And to show things, at least budget-wise, aren't that different between England and the US.

As for where are today's philanthropists, they're certainly out there, but there are many more issues, and extended hands, today than there were a century ago.

Fees only go so far...and when you're talking about parks such as Great Smoky, well, it doesn't collect fees. Perhaps if it did -- and it would take an act of Congress and the buy-in from North Carolina and Tennessee -- there'd be a bit more to go around to other parks. As it is, parks that collect fees are allowed, I believe, to keep 80 percent; the rest goes to help parks that don't collect fees ... such as Great Smoky. Kind of ironic for a park with more than 9 million visitors a year, no?

Friends groups do provide a great measure of aid to their parks. Can they be more innovative? Always a good question to examine. But the economy of the past couple of years has really reduced the amount of donations these groups receive.

As for letting parks assess more fees, is that really what we want to do at a time when there is outcry about a lack of diversity in the parks and a flattening of visitation? Better to keep the fees where they are, or even reduce them, to allow the public a great place to visit at relatively low cost during these hard times and get Congress to be a bit more deliberative in how it spends tax dollars, no?

Its unfortunate That Smokey Mountain National Park cannot charge entrance fee by Law. They do not get that luxury that many other parks get and thus take money from the other parks to make up this gap.

One problem with treating Parks as self-contained units is that they belong to all Americans. No one ever knows where they'll be in the future and whether they'll have the chance to visit a particular park. If funding comes from visitation, it means that someone not be able to visit a park they want to in the future because it's closed, without their ever having had the chance contribute to it financially.

The best solution is to provide public funding at an adequate level. The money is there. It's a question of priorities.

I agree that a portion - large or small - of funding for parks should come from public coffers. However, I would argue that the people who want and use national parks should be expected to pay more - in the form of entrance fees, camping fees, or activity fees. Is it fair that someone who hates the outdoors should have to pay the same amount (in taxes) as someone who spends several weeks in national parks each year?

We pay taxes to put up arenas and stadiums all over the country, but the only people who get to use those places are the people that pony up the cash to buy a ticket. Personally, I think it's a horrible policy for cities to use tax dollars for such use.

In regards to Mike Painter's comment that "the money is there". Sorry, but that's just not true. Our politicians have spent...I would say like drunken sailors....but a drunken sailor stops spending when his money runs out. If you're in Congress you have a credit card you can use called the American tax payer. Right now, we as a country owe more than 13,758,000,000,000 - that's almost 14 trillion, or, almost $125,000 for each tax payer.

I have argued in the past that over-spending in general is to the detriment of parks. Sadly, national, state and local parks are usually the first to see cuts in spending when budgets grow too large. AZ and NY were forced to close a handfull of state parks this summer as a result of government over spending. Other states were forced to raise fees. I made a list of these problem areas in an article dated from April. I know that I 've read of a couple of other states with problems since then:

http://hikinginthesmokys.blogspot.com/2010/04/state-park-closures.html

IMHO, we need some thinking outside the box on this. There are ways that parks can become more self contained without compromising their mission.

Smoky Mountain Hiker

The big issue I have with treating the NPS like a business (as Smoky Mountain Hiker suggests) is the goal will then become "expanding visitorship to increase revenues as much as possible". The key goal of the NPS ... preservation ... flies in the face of this.

It's hard enough keeping the integrity of the NPS whole with Congress' interference. It will be nigh-on-impossible to do so with MBAs running the show.

Here is the ultimate problem, the government is like an alcoholic. They know that they must stop the spending, but in the end they are unwilling to actually do it. Hopefully they don't have to drive their car into a tree before they figure it out.

There are no easy answers, and I don't know the ins and outs of every budget line, but I am very certain that there are invisible places to cut the budget in the NPS, just like there is in nearly every department of the federal government. The age of the $1 million dollar hammer is not completely gone. (though it is better). There is a huge amount of redundancy in personnel among various agencies. And then there is the old red tape.... several years of planning, and design, then public input, then more planning. then more design, then finally ready to build, and there is no money available. Well, what about all of that wasted money in the several year process for a project that might never even get done.

I'll admit that there are no simple answers. There is a logical justification for every little thing that you do. The question is can we actually live without it. (ie a 2016 celebration would be great, but do we really need it?)

Here is my last point. Where will be be in 10 years IF they get spending under control? So much money is spent servicing the debt, imagine if we were able to spend that money wasted on debt service on the parks, or even some of it. Ultimately we are on an unsustainable course, and we MUST change it. The decisions that will need to be made get more painful every day that we wait.

For what it's worth, here's a look at some of the legislation that was introduced in the past week:

* H.R. 6405 (Thompson, D-MS) – To authorize the Secretary of the Interior to conduct a special resource study of the Medgar Evers House, located in Jackson, Mississippi, and for other purposes.

* S. 3952 (Cochran, R-MS) – A bill to authorize the acquisition of core battlefield land at Champion Hill, Port Gibson, and Raymond for addition to Vicksburg National Military Park.

* H.R. 6426 (Kind, D-WI) – To authorize the Secretary of the Interior to carry out programs and activities for connecting children and families with the outdoors.

* H.R. 6445 (Spratt, R-SC) – To establish the Carolinas Revolutionary Road National Heritage Area in the States of North Carolina and South Carolina, and for other purposes.

It's too early for any cost estimates to be attached to these measures, but they won't be free. Studies such as the one proposed by H.R. 6405 seem to run $200,000-$250,000. Land acquisition can be significantly more, depending on whether it's an outright purchase or donation, or mix of the two.

These are just some examples of how the NPS winds up with more on its plate to administer and forced to figure out how to pay for the additions. Kind of like if you went to a restaurant, and when you finished your entree the waiter brought another and billed you for it, even though you never ordered it.

The question is, is the fiscal impact of any of these too small to consider, or is any extra spending too much in light of the deficit? Should we take the attitude that these are vital elements that should be obtained for the NPS rather than risk they'll be lost and damn the cost?

I have always paid my share of taxes with no complaints, as have most others. Always glad to help fund and support worthwhile endouvers such as our national parks. But, I am one of a group of people that would say " cut funding to the National Park System ". They want or need more funding? Don't ask for my help. They don't want me to use the Park I go to most, UNLESS, I only access it where, when and how AS and DOW say. Let AS and DOW fund it, they're running it. No sir, they can go broke as far as I'm concerned. Very sad to feel that way, but thats the way it is. My message to my Representatives -- cut-cut-cut.

Ron (obxguys)

Interesting, it is not just taxes that some special interest groups don't want to pay to support the NPS budget they are also curtailing their volunteer work.

In Cape Hatteras National Seashore when the special interest ORV/Fishing groups didn't get their way as it pertained to ORV access they stopped some of their organized volunteer programs. One particular program (the fish with the ranger program) was extremely popular and the local ORV organization (Cape Hatteras Anglers Club) did a great job with the program until they stopped in retaliation to ORV restrictions. The visitors that attended this program were primarily families with children and had little knowledge of the entire controversy.

I wonder if they intend to stop their organized beach cleanup sessions on the open ORV beaches too?

When Smokie Mt Hiker says the taxpayer is tapped out, I think SMH illustrates one of the strangest perceptions going on by most Americans today.

This is the idea that they are in the same boat as the richest Americans.

Two or three years after 9-11, the BONUSES (not the salaries or commissions, this is extra money) paid to people working in finance in New York -- Wall Street -- hit $17 BILLION. Then, it climbed. When "we" "all" hit the financial meltdown arguably created by these guys, the bounses that year barely hit a bump. And since then, they continue to rise. Plus, many CEO's of many companies that are doing less business than before, have not gone down at all. These people and rich corporations claim they in the US are paying higher taxes than elsewhere in the world, but the truth is the tax rate may be as high, but because of tax deductions designed only for the rich, they escape many BILLIONS of dollars each year, and pay among the lowest actual taxes of any of their kind in the world

As many know, money from these sources today, even from banks bailed out by the United States, is just sitting there, not being invested. Any taxes these people pay would be ON THEIR INCOME, not on the Trillions just sitting there. These people are not tapped out.

In fact, it is the driving concern of the Senator McConnell, as he said just the other day, to extend further tax cuts to these people who are swimming in money. Since it is clear that these people and corporations will not invest the money in expanding the American economy, McConnell's point is either just to give more money to his sponsors, or to do anything he can to cut and cripple the US government agencies who might need to regulate the tremendous power of these tremendously wealthy people and corporations. Cutting taxes on these people will not help the economy. Raising their taxes and spending it on things like national parks will immediately put the money into circulation into the economy, and improve the strength of the American economy.

The amazing thing is that people like Smokie Mt Hiker think that ALL taxpayers are tapped out, and seems to think the rich are just like he is. And, the divide between the very rich and everyone else is just getting wider and wider. Almost no average Americans ever has the chance of getting rich. Without getting a leg up when young, with the best education and the best social and corporate contacts, almost no one in America gets rich. Protecting the money of the rich in the hope that someday you will be rich too, is the silliest of all delusions. You would be protecting the money of people who already demonstrated that they will screw America if they get a chance, and you can bet will do so again.

But I agree with Smokie Mt Hiker with this: there is no better hiking on earth than in the Great Smokie Mountains. There are no mountains more beautiful, and no place in America that feels more like coming home, than being in the Smokies.

To Ada

To my knowledge, the four annual OBRs (Operation Beach Respect) put on by the North Carolina Beach Buggy Association will continue. As you probably know, these involve beach and roadside clean up and encouraging beach visitors to help keep it clean as well as abide by regulations. It is something that my wife and I enjoy and take much pride in participating in. Very honestly, I would much like to contribute financially and personally help with programs such as the one you mentioned but, at this time all our financial support will be going to the legal fund. I trust you understand. A shame, isn't it. And if I may, my feeling is that your reference to "when the special interest ORV/Fishing groups didn't get their way ", it could be more accurately stated that "their WAY got taken away from them". Sorry if I offended you with that but had to say it.
I feel from your writing that you are a very nice person. So I wish you the best and hope you harbor no ill feelings toward me resulting from this. Unlike with the lawyers, it is a very personal thing with us.

Ron (obxguys)

Unbelieveable! Can anyone really believe national parks can exist without public funding? Name an area that is natural, cultural, or historical that can operate purely on fees and/or private funding. Better examples are Disneyland, Elvis Presleys Graceland, and a variety of locally known mansions or tour homes. But none of these can really be considered a "national treasure" because if they were congress would already made them a national park. Congress knows full well that National parks are economic engines. They generate $$A$ by bringing visitors/tourists to an area where people spend lots of money on gas, food, lodging, and gifts.

But lets be realistic. It costs much more than we could ever realize to keep these areas open to the public. If you want a good example look at Isle Royale National Park in Michigan. They only average 20,000 visitors a year. That's twenty thousand. The budget for Isle Royale in 2009 was 4.3 million dollars. Four point three million dollars just for operations, not major repairs. Just day to day operations. That's $215 for every person visiting the park. Keep in mind the NPS counts visitors on a daily basis so that's $215 per day for every visitor. http://home.nps.gov/applications/budgetweb/FY2010/sbtoc.htm

Who is willing to pay $215/day for visiting a national park when you still have to pay for your transportation, lodging/camping, food etc.

Its just not that simple to cut costs at national parks. If you really want to cut costs you need to consider closing or selling the national parks. Do you really want to lock them up and keep people out? Think about it.

D-2 is absolutely right. There is a segment of the American population that is far from tapped out, and they've done a real number convincing many of our fellow citizens that their interests are the same as ours when that couldn't be farther from the truth.

The question of priorities is a crucial one. Do we prioritize the protection of a legacy of public lands that all Americans share, or do we prioritize the bank accounts of a very few super-wealthy Americans? It's the same battle the NPS fought back in the 20s in many ways.

Folks like Ron (obxguy) would do well to remember that, as the ORV/fishing groups seem to be nostalgic for a Outer Banks that never really existed. If it hadn't been for the creation of the Nat'l Seashore, those beaches would all be private property, entirely off limits to them, and the "way of life" they love to go on about would have been strangled in the crib. It's not too much to ask that other forms of recreation that don't require massive SUVs get a place to enjoy too.

Frankly, the idea that any ORV group would curtail their volunteer initiatives for families to throw a pity party about having to share is disappointing but not surprising. It was always fairly clear where their real priorities lay. It opens a void for the NPS to fill, however, should they want to re-establish themselves as protectors of the beach.

Hey Nate
Man, you really have us figured out. I admire your abilities. You know exactly whats in our hearts and minds and just how self serving we really are. Love your adjectives, says alot about you.
Remember when you refer to the orv groups, you are referring not to massive chunks of steel, but to a group of fine Ladies and Gentlemen. You might find it difficult to convince anyone that you have done more for the benefit of the obx and its natural inhabitants than many of these same people.
As to the "pity party", Come on, What is that all about. Those that don't understand why some attitudes are less than desirable simply don't understand what is going on at CAHA. We don't expect everyone to understand. however, we also don't expect them to attempt to explain our motives or actions until they do.
Thanks for the education on the history of the obx and what would have happened if it had not been turned into a national park. You really know your stuff. If you know what would have been, maybe you can tell us the future. That would really be helpful.
Please understand that many of us feel as though the beach is becoming privately owned and run by AS & DOW. They seem to be dictating the policy. One difference between the pro access groups and them, we care about the people and the natural inhabitants but, AS & DOW do not care about us. They would prefer to eliminate us completely.
Have a good day.

Ron (obxguys)
ncbba life
obpa