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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?

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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.


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:

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.

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