Reader Participation Day: How Would You Cut the National Park Service's Budget?

Granted, the National Park Service's budget is little more than a rounding error when it comes to the entire federal budget. But as the deficit continues to swell, and Republicans promise better budgeting in the coming Congress, the Park Service can be expected to identify some savings. But where?

* Should fewer rangers be hired, with the agency instead relying more on volunteers?

* Should the agency rely less on the federal budget for its appropriation and more on park users via higher entrance fees, higher camping fees, and higher backcountry fees?

* Should the fees tied to the America the Beautiful passes be revisited? After all, should retirees who visit the parks be able to land a life-time pass for just $10, while a young couple or family just getting starting in life have to pay $80 a year?

* Should facility hours be scaled back to save on salaries and operating costs?

If you were the director of the National Park Service, or a park superintendent, where would you look to save some money? And would you decide some programs are just too important to cut? If so, which ones?

Comments

Take a look at the fees.

It costs money to run these parks, to keep the visitors safe, to protect & preserve (or even restore) the environment and historical buildings & artifacts, and to provide interpretation & guides.

Nothing is free. We need to acknowledge that fact and act responsibly by paying equitable fees to access these national treasures.

Note I did say "equitable", they should be in-line with other forms of entertainment. The law of diminishing return applies as well. Raise them too high and people will stop going altogether, obviously reducing revenues.

But to date, I haven't been to a park that had outlandish fees, and some that seemed far too cheap.

Agreed, I don't mind the fees. People pay $70/day per person for Disney World, a few bucks for a park shouldn't hurt most of us. If the parks had weekly free days, as many museums do, they'd remain open to those people for whom money is tight.

The senior pass is outrageously cheap, especially since seniors are the wealthiest segment of American society and among the heaviest park users.

Having some flat rate royalty on all park concessions (5%?) that goes to each park would be another good revenue source. Charging fees for other commercial uses like movie filming would also be appropriate.

I'd rather find revenue than cut spending.

Saying that it's inappropriate to reduce park entrance fees for seniors because seniors are "the wealthiest segment of American society" is a troublesome statement on several counts. For one thing, the incidence of poverty among the elderly is only slightly lower than in younger age groups. For another, the wealth measure for the elderly is cockeyed because it ascribes inordinately high value to non-household income factors (especially government-provided medical benefits and private health insurance).

(Purely as an aside, your blanket statement, taken at face value, is demonstrably untrue regardless of how you define wealth. The wealthiest segment of society consists of the super-rich. The 400 wealthiest Americans possess a combined net worth of at least $1.8 trillion. The two richest men in America -- Bill Gates and Warren Buffett -- have a combined net worth of nearly one-tenth of a trillion dollars. Now that's wealth!)

For raising fees to have any significant impact, the law regarding fee revenue utilization would need to be changed. Currently fee revenues can only be used to cover the costs related to collecting the fees and specific types of maintenance and resource projects. By law, fee revenue can not currently be used to cover day to day operational costs such as salaries of non-fee staff, utilities, supplies and materials, vehicle fleet costs, etc. which make up the vast majority of operational costs.

JLA is right. Currently NPS has to rely on donations and partners for "extra" revenue. Staff can help educate the public about the difference and encourage participation. But only if there is staff.

In many respects, the NPS' budget has already hit rock bottom. Perhaps a better question is not how to cut more, but at what point will further cuts warrant closing a park because reduced staff cannot provide the needed services to protect and preserve park resources? I look forward to a time of peace and a recovered economy.

I would start with charge backs for search and rescues.

Hate to say it but i little better marketing wouldnt hurt.. cant rely on pbs to do it all.

Find a loophole in the law or regulation or whatever it is that keeps the park service from charging entrance fees to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That alone would raise some significant money, and right a serious wrong, IMHO.

It's interesting that no one has come up with any suggestions for how to cut the budget, which is what the question asked.

I personally haven't encountered a lot of what I would consider waste in the Park Service's operations. I think that all of our land management agencies have been drastically underfunded for years, for the amount of work that they are required by law to do, and to look for budget reductions is a self-defeating proposition.

The Senior Pass is a giveaway, particularly with the Baby Boom generation retiring. Individuals in this group may retire earlier and live longer than any previous group of seniors. Senior discounts may have seemed like a good idea back when seniors were poorer than the rest of population, but I don't think that's the case now. Even if the income distribution among seniors is the same as younger adults, the ones who frequent National Parks certainly have the time and the means to visit anyway (if the RVs towing SUVs are any indication). They may come to collectively have an impact disproportionate to their contributions. I am not a fan of park fees--I think they should be abolished--but as long as we have them for sake of raising revenue, then the Senior Pass has to go.

Kurt mentioned volunteers in his discussion questions. I would point out two things: volunteers may not replace employees (according to NPS policy), and volunteers are not free. Even though they don't get paid, they still need recruitment, job descriptions, supervision, training, access to park facilities and computer networks, uniforms, housing, reimbursement, evaluations, rewards, etc. Supervisors may have to coordinate several individuals to perform the equivalent work of a full-time employee. This is highly inefficient if we're talking about using volunteers to make up staffing deficits.

As far as cuts, it's hard to say if there is a way to broadly cut programs across the whole system. The parks are a little too diverse for that. Each park needs to look at its legislation and eliminate activities that aren't consistent with that mission, or with that of the agency's mission. Though they've been doing this over the last few years anyway.

Where to cut the NPS budget? My spouse and I have almost 60 years of service in parks and central offices, so we have some basis for an opinion. Start with the Washington Office, then consider reducing the number of regional offices from seven to five. Some positions will need to go to the field in larger parks where they can support operations in smaller nearby parks. Unfortunately, the very nature of the bureaucracy acts to preserve central office positions while shorting the field in terms of positions, services and pay. Today's focus on regulation and process over product makes the situation even worse. I don't think you can find much fat to cut in the field anymore; it's bare bones in far too many parks. On the other hand, the central offices remain rich in opportunities to cut and reassign expensive positions.

In addition, it wouldn't hurt to redefine the core mission of the Service these days. It has expanded greatly over three decades, especially at the expense of park operations.

I think the fee to enter National Parks is already too high. I do not go unless I am with my retired parents.
Bureaucracy is the key I think having a central office in DC removed would help and let us return to local control of these parks. Cut administration, by giving them a job to do besides supervising. Every system in the U.S. government is top heavy in managers and admin we need workers that are self motivated, and self starters. Too bad our government and public education system doesnt teach these morals.

Since Ranger Careers was implemented, we have seen a steady rise in ranger pay as well as in the central offices. If we are serious about cutting budgets and reallocating funds to parks and projects that are truly in need, we need to consider a reduction in the pay rates to park service employees. Although it would be nice for someone straight out of college to fall into a 5/7/9 position, the National Park Service simply does not have the budget to allow for this type of pay. Annual entitlements - like COLA adjustments, TSP, and rising health care coverage - eat up a disproportional amount of any budget increase, with the net result being that we continually have to make due with a smaller pot of funds in relative terms.

If the Service was able to recruit the best and brightest for decades under the old system, it seems reasonable that we could so the same now. The median household income today in the United States is slightly more than $50k/year. A two income NPS family at the GS 9 level provides an income far in excess of this amount. The argument that I have heard in the past is that we were losing our best employees to other agencies that could provide better wages. Even with the incredible increase in employee pay we have seen in recent years, there continues to be a flow of qualified people to better paying jobs. I would suggest that this is always going to be the case - there will always be better paying jobs out there and there are always going be a certain group of employees that gravitate to better paying jobs and there is nothing we can do about it.

In a time of great suffering across the country, it seems reasonable that we shrink wages in order to provide an adequate level of protection to all of our parks.

How about turning the battlefield parks (Gettysburg, Cowpens, War in the Pacific, etc.) over to the Department of Defense, where many of them used to be anyway? Few politicians want to cut the Defense budget, the military has volunteer manpower (read: enlisted men and women) in easy access, and they have a tradition of service. I imagine the DoD could do a reputable job of maintaining these historic sites, while NPS funds could be shifted elsewhere.

I'd like to hear the pros and cons of this idea.

Each year the NPS comes up with a couple new programs in WASO or Region. For instance, do you know we have a Global Warming Liaison ? Global warming is a problem for Congress and the president to address. Eliminate the new programs that were created in the last 5 years. Cut all travel training that could be put on Tel-Net. Shorten the FLETC and Field Training time down to 3 months for new rangers. Retreat and man the Visitor Centers and cut most talks and walks out in the field. Unfortunately, cut staffing by attrition. Gone are the days of doing more with less. Its time to do less with less.

For the reader who proposed cutting pay: many of the NPS jobs are highly skilled jobs. There is a myth out there that goverment employees are way overpaid. Comparison of the average pay for a government employee v the average pay for a private sector employee is based on a serious flaw. Federal government jobs are more likely than not to be highly skilled jobs while the private sector has alot of low skilled jobs. Consider all the McDonalds and Wal-Mart employees v how many of such positions that the federal government employs. Rather, compare each profession, govt v private: how much does a doctor with the Veterans Admin make compared with a private practice doctor ? etc etc. Compared that way, federal employees make less than their private counterparts. Ranger are the most underpaid. Consider how much it would cost to employ a law enforcement officer, and then employ an EMT, and then employ a frefighter. Three positions, three salaries. One ranger combines all 3 of these positions into one salary. Its hard to find such a multi-skilled counterpart in the private sector. There are, Im sure, examples from the other divisions that could demonstrate this too.

File this one under "Never Gonna Happen" but I'd sure love to see Congress put some restraint on itself (ha!) and place a moratorium on establishing new park units. There are new parks established every five minutes, it seems, but when was the last time a park was abolished? The NPS timeline says 1981. Once a park is established, of course, it's near impossible to abolish. The more park units the NPS has to maintain, the more stretched the budget gets. Along with their supposed rejection of earmarks, members of Congress should also reject creating pet parks in their home districts.

I know Horace Albright was afraid of too many parks "diluting" the legacy of the Yellowstones, Yosemites, Sequoias, etc., and I think there are parks out there that clearly do not live up to the "national" name, or are duplicates of already existing parks. I think pruning the system (and avoiding new units unless truly nationally significant) would make for a healthier national park idea, and might save some money.

Charge an entrance fee at Great Smokey Mountains or consider giving maintenance, staffing and upkeep back to the state. Raise entrance fees at all parks. Time to trim parks not add parks, which could include Great Smokey if they do not submit to fees.

Under the terms of an agreement with the state of Tennessee, which funded construction of the park's main road (Hwy 441, Newfound Gap Rd.), the federal government cannot charge admission fees for Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The state of Tennessee insisted that motorists be able to drive on the state-funded Hwy 441 without charge.

We shouldn't be asking this question, because it further legitmates the narrative that the parks' budget should be cut. Instead, the narrative should be reframed to recognize the parks as inviolable--i.e. another "third rail" issue in American politics. There are plenty of other things that can and should be cut in the federal budget.

Maybe at Great Smokey N.P. you could make them buy a pass to be able to park or leave the hi-way in side the park. That way through motorist would not have to buy a permit.

A look at our local National Park (Redwood) shows outrageous expenditures for both facilities and staffing. This park is basically locked behind numerous gates. NPS has no campgrounds and very few trails to it's name here. In an unholy alliance with the State of California Parks this "Park" is the epitome of pork barrel projects and over staffing. So now we have NPS employees patrolling California State Parks and they are so numerous that they are falling over each other. One of the Taj Mahal facilities in Orick, California looks like a bad joke on the American Public and it is one of many. This building has enough office space so that each and every visitor actually on NPS land in the winter could have his own office. This park has such positions as Chief of Aviation Management (but no airplanes) and Chief of Interpretation (but no Interpretation facilities). This is the type of insanity in the NPS that should be cut to the bone! The USA can't afford to have near ten per cent of the population working for the Government! especially when you consider that there is probably another 10% working for the Government indirectly.