NPCA "Infographic" Lays Out Financial Bind Of The National Park Service

A handy new graphic from the National Parks Conservation Association shows just how much help the National Park Service needs to manage the park system.

National Parks Need Help - NPCA Infographic


The 7 day entry fee for our National Parks is still one of the best bargains in travel. I have advocated for many years that this fee should be raised, yet still being a bargain for a carload for a week.

It's hard for me to believe the NPS 'poor-boy' budget propaganda when they are as secretive as the KGB .

I'm guessing close to half the NPS annual appropriation never makes it past the DC & Regional Offices or the Denver Service Center to the park level. It's hard to know, though, since Park Service management seems to feel that how they spend money is none of the public's business.

Bill, its a bargain if you are going for seven days. I've been to many a national park and never spent 7 days. More typically its a single day or maybe two. Perhaps a per day fee would be more appropriate.

Tahoma, I am with you on the transparency. lets see the operating statements of the parks.

Traveler readers might want to know that the person who wrote the article linked in Tahoma's post had a long-running battle with the former superintendent of Mesa Verde NP. Whatever his opinion of that superintendent was, he is using a pretty broad brush to categorize all superintendents and other regional and national leaders as autocrats who operate without supervision and guidance. I know from my career in the NPS that I received plenty of both.

2009 was a long time ago. I hope he has found subsequent seasonal assignments more rewarding.


Traveler readers might also want to know that I had an experience here at Mount Rainier much like Mr Schundler describes. Repeated calls, e-mails, and a letter requesting a breakdown of the park's budget by department and a simple organization chart (names redacted OK) were ignored. Six months after contacting FOIA in DC, I received a photocopied page from a table with a one-line total figure, which I already knew from news articles. The majority of my request was ignored.

I know several people who have had even worse experiences asking questions about concessioner favoritism and the climbing fee program here. If stalling doesn't work, they can redact most of the information or charge you for the search time. If you don't believe the NPS tends to be the opposite of honest and transparent, try requesting similar information from your local park or Regional Office.

Back on topic, I might be more convinced if the NPCA included a chart showing the bureaucratic overhead of the NPS. Here's a bit more heresy:

Rick, you were a highly respected manager. Perhaps you can tell us approximately what percentage of the NPS appropriations went to DC & Regional Offices, Harpers, DSC, etc., compared to 'the field'?

tahoma, I do not know the budget breakdowns at the Regional and Washington levels, but do support Rick Smith's position that generally speaking there is a pretty high standard for Park Superintendents, at least in my own experience. That is not to say that in any large organization, bad apples do not exist. One needs to only read "The Soul Of Yosemite", Barbara Moritsch; "The Case of the Indian Trader". Paul Berkowitz; "Worth Fighting For", Robert Danno, to know that we can and must do better. But, like most issues, to broad a brush is not creditable, at least in my view.

Tahoma--Like Mackie, I don't know that information right off hand. I suspect that if one were to go to the "Green Book", add the costs of Regional Offices, the Washington HQ, Harper's Ferry, and the Denver Service Center and divide that number by the operation of the National Park budget, you would know the percentage. I am not interested enough to do it.

I am sorry that you were not satisfied with Rainier's response to your questions. Since I am not familiar with the questions you asked other than what you have said you were looking for, it seems to me that you could have gotten that kind of information from your division chief. I can't imagine that a FOIA request would be necessary.

I always shared my budget information with my employees, the local chambers of commerce, and the political leadership in nearby towns. I felt it was a way to build confidence in those with whom I was working or interacting. I will repeat what I have said on this forum once before: the three main goals of any park are to 1.) preserve and protect resources; 2) provide high quality visitor services; and 3.) maintain productive relationships with the various groups with which the park deals, including its employees. You can't do that without honesty and transparency.


Should a greater percentage of the NPS budget make it to the "worker bee" level in parks? I'd agree that would be desirable. That said, some of the reasons for central and regional office staffs are externally driven, including the need for subject-matter specialists to deal with the same regulatory requirements that private industry complains about, and to handle congressionally-mandated programs that are not central to the original NPS mission.

There's another factor in NPS budget dollars being "siphoned off" at higher levels, and it's based on the way Congress requires the agency to operate.

In general, the NPS is not allowed to carry over unspent money from one fiscal year to the next in order to maintain contingency reserves for emergencies. Based on averages from previous years, prudent park managers set aside some dollars each year for overtime and other costs for emergencies, but where does the money come from when a park, especially a small or medium-sized one, experiences a major search and rescue incident, fire, or flood, or has to bring in extra staff to help with a major special event, or is hit with a lawsuit for a visitor injury or death?

For those situations, a superintendent can never count on, and certainly can't wait for, special funding from Congress. The answer has been for the Washington and Regional offices to hold back a percentage of each year's budget for such contingencies, and then parcel out those dollars to parks as needed.

At the end of the budget year, if there's any of that "contingency" money left, it can't be carried over to the next year, so it has to be spent by the end of September. If it's not, some congressional bean counter will be quick to claim that the NPS had more money than it needed, and suggest a budget cut for the following year.

And that's one reason for the "end of year government spending sprees" pundits love to criticize. My own observation at the park level wasn't of wasteful year-end spending; this was often the only opportunity to replace worn-out equipment.

My primary concern about this flashy graphic is: Where in the NPS Organic Act does it say national parks are supposed to be economic engines?

Rick, thanks for your reply. That's great you were such an open manager; wish I'd had even one like you before retiring! My Division Chiefs would have considered questions about budget details from a WL-05 insubordination. What I asked Rainier management for three years ago was the spending by department and the nature of those departments (organization chart). A phone list with the names and numbers redacted would have satisfied me on the latter point. What I received from the park almost a year later, after my FOIA request, was a single page copied from the Green Book with Rainier's annual appropriation for that year.

Jim, I especially appreciate your perspective and insight into how the NPS bureaucracy operates. I'd love to see your skillful writing applied to an NPT article or two on the apparently byzantine budget process. For example, it appears to me that about the only way fee money can be spent is on improvements (development).

That guess of near 50% budget 'overhead' was based on 5% each for the Service Centers & Regional Offices, and 10% for the NPS DC offices. I realize my distinction is artificial, and much of Regional Office & Service Center work benefits the 'field'. Maybe the NPS wouldn't need so many compliance people if new construction and flashy projects were not a higher management priority than maintaining what they already have? $15 million for a bike trail at Rocky Mountain? $7 million for a bridge to nowhere at Katmai that only the 1% could afford to use? $23 million (ten times the initial press release) for a new visitor center at Rainier that is open less than half the year and required a dishonest six-month closure of the entire park to complete? It seems to me that NPS upper management protects a cadre of development specialists from much fiscal restraint, while cutting hours & services, locking gates and laying off front line employees when the gravy train slows down.

Ron, thanks also for your contributions! I agree that the books you cited provide glimpses of the dark side of the NPS, but I think for every publicized story like those, there are probably several more that are successfully suppressed. Maybe I was just unlucky to work for so many 'bad apples', but those persistent low scores for NPS management in national annual employee satisfaction surveys suggest otherwise. The Park Service has numerous outstanding employees, but I also saw plenty of nepotism, cronyism, waste, petty corruption, and ruthless retaliation against whistleblowers during my career. The last straw for me was the scandal where our crooked former superintendent was protected and promoted by the current NPS Director:

As for improved transparency, perhaps Kurt could run a 'Reader Participation' article solicting folk's experiences requesting managerial information from the NPS? Another measure might be how many NPS unit's websites contain meaningful budget details? I'll start the ball rolling for WA; there is zero website budget information for Rainier and Olympic. North Cascades has a page "Your Dollars At Work", but it deals only with fee projects.

Barbara - You make a very good point when you ask, "Where in the NPS Organic Act does it say national parks are supposed to be economic engines?"

I'd suggest that's a response to the current political environment, and the fierce competition for appropriated funds. There are some who see spending on parks as justified only if it contributes to growth in the economy.

re: earlier comments on the lack of "transparency" about park budgets, and why that information isn't readily available in places like a park website. That isn't necessarily due to managerial secrecy, but perhaps because park budgets are such a moving target ... and that's largely due to congressional ineptitude and political wrangling.

Way back in 1976, in response to Congress' recurring failure to have budgets ready by the start of the fiscal year on July 1st, that start date was pushed back to October 1 to give the politicians time to do their job. We've seen how well that's worked out. This year looks like more of the same, and Congress is, of course, currently on a 5-week vacation, with no progress on a budget in sight.

The result: In most recent years, the NPS has to operate on a "temporary" authorization that may last months into the fiscal year. Once a budget number is finally given to the agency, then the money has to run the gauntlet through the Washington and regional offices down to the park level; even then, the final total is sometimes adjusted multiple times later in the year. Sometimes those changes part-way through the year are significant, as in this year's "sequester" idocy.

So... the park starts off with a "temporary" number in the fall, which changes one or more times during the year, and the park management team then has to sort out how to divide the money among each division. These days, I suspect an erasable white board rather than paper and ink are the appropriate medium for a park budget and organization chart.

As to keeping that information posted—and up to date in places like the park website—it's helpful to know that few if any parks have someone dedicated to keeping that site up to date. It's just one more of those "other duties as assigned," which accounts for the variation in the accuracy and freshness of the information on those sites from park to park.


Even if "budgets" are moving targets - last years actual revenues and spending aren't And if someone isn't already keeping track of those, there are more things wrong than anyone has suggested here to date. There is absolutely no excuse for parking P&Ls not to be available to the public and it will be hard to convince the public that their money is being well spent when there is that lack of transparency.

Tahoma -- your comment on Aug 12 at 12:21 is completely at variance with the facts. The truth is the NPS leadership is dead set against new contruction. The priority system in fact is weighted so that a new building not directly essential to resource protection or health and safety has no priority at all. The projects that have the priority are the ones involving maintenance of primary resources, such as historic structures. It is nearly impossible to get any authorization for new housing, and if the 'feather your own nest' portrayal were accurate, NPS would be building flashy new housing all the time but is not. Even though to some extent housing is self-financing, it basically has a negative priority. Plan after plan in the past 3 years sent to Washington by Regions with any substantial vistor center-type structures are kicked back essentially unread, and the Regions are told to rethink the idea with interpretation via electronic media not visitor structures. It has got to the point that Regions simply purge all plans of such facilities in advance, and Washington does not even see such proposals anymore.

Some projects have been prioritized by former Secretary Salazar and formerly by the Congress that the NPS internally did not ask for, and maybe those are what you speak about.

I also checked out your source of Mesa Verde information and found the charges without context and over-broad, as well as his fundamental misunderstanding in his comments about other parks, as well as other questions about his disinterestedness. One minute he says 'chain of command' is an inappropriate system (even though 'chain of command' despite its faults does have explicit accountability), the next he says there is no accountability. Within nearly every paragraph i saw flaws and muddle too numerous to take seriously.

Like you, I have not been able to get to the facts of the Mt Rainier case. I was frustrated by that, but i do know that certain personel records are off the record, the NPS states the individual's actual misdeeds whatever they actually might have been, WERE dealt with appropriately. Despite the doubts in the Media, the NPS narrative is in fact entirely possible that he received correct punishment, and has responded properly, and could have been the best person for the job. You and I do not know. I choose to accept Jon Jarvis' interpretation because fundamentally his career shows great concern for accountability. When he was Regional Director he had the most exacting and progressive superintentent accountability system of ANY of the NPS regions, and he was ahead of the other regions in installing his system. Several mediocre performers have been moved out the door under Jarvis, as well. He has pushed all manner of mechanisms and public collaborations to try to involve the public without huge investments in infrastructure, all of which makes me give him the benefit of the doubt.

From my experience, this image of widespread waste or self serving focus is just not the way it is. Yes, it happens, but my experience is highly devoted and and effective people. There are networks of people within the NPS, but the way I have seen them used is just the opposite of cronyism, the informal information networks, like the best parallels in the US military, serve to identify good people who are devoted to the NPS Mission.

In the meantime, i think prudent accountability must continue to keep the standards and models of excellence high, but as a still higher priority i think for anyone who really loves the parks, the most important thing at this moment is to support the parks the people who work in them with all the resources and flexibility we can find. Parks and the central offices too are dealing with a lot of diversionary problems created, not within the parks or the NPS, but from our larger political environment. If people who love parks don't give these challenged managers the benefit of the doubt and all the support we can find, there are real reasons to be concerned for the survival of the parks.

The truth is the NPS leadership is dead set against new contruction.

This $23 million project must have been done in secret.

Oh, and this one too:

which includes the creation of a: "a comprehensive interpretation, education, and orientation plaza" ... "The interpretive plaza – a destination in itself that will be similar in scale and character to the current visitor complex"

Looks to me that Tahoma's comments are right in line with the facts.

No, ecbuck, you prove my point.

Neither of these projects are funded by the park service. the articles you forward do say that $9 m of the Santa Monica project are federal dollars, but the source is not the NPS line item construction account. It is the stimulus bill. The rest, the article says, are non NPS dollars. Ditto, on the second document you provide. It says the "plaza" is the same size as the obsolete visitor center, and that the construction dollars and trail renovation dollars are all to be donated, except it looks like the NPS will contribute maintenance money to the renovation. I don't know the specifics in this budget but it is certainly not hard to find out, so I could; but on its face for both projects, none of the visitor center construction dollars are coming from the NPS. Demonstrating, at least for these projects, that tomaha's points are not in line with the facts.

By the way, beyond the other sillyness about secrecy, partnership construction project on this scale all must be submitted to the Congress, and so are available from them as well.

Speaking of Congress, sillyness and imbalanced perspectives, I wonder how much ink ecbuck and tahoma have spent on the visitor center constructed for the US Capitol, or museums built on the Mall, or built with public money elsewhere?

The Capitol VC is $500 m, i believe all federal dollars, unlike the two ecbuck quotes here. I don't believe any new museum, such as those being built or recently built on the Mall, in the US have been less than $100 m. No, apparently you focus fire on an agency that is given public information and visitor centers, just as a means to rip down down the park service.

Again, if you want the priorities of the NPS, look at the line item construstion budget. This is a public document, and reprinted in the appropriation laws each year by congress. These project are not in there. (it is true that an astonishing one-third of the budget were not NPS priorities at all, but imposed by Secretary Salazar).

So powerful is the public's sense that the interpretive and preservation mission of the park service is important, that people donate. But the two projects you cite are not the funding priorities of the leadership of the NPS.

Really, D-2? NPT has run all these stories, just in 2013. No doubt there were at least as many similar ones that did not make Kurt's cut.

Even though we disagree, this former grunt appreciates your perspective from the other end of the bureaucratic food chain, so thanks for your obvious passion for the parks! Perhaps it's partly semantics? You refer to "new construction", but I used the term "development", which to my mind also includes widening and straightening roads, improvements, upgrades, and infrastructure enhancements of any type.

Rehabilitation & 'rejuvenation' are not maintenance, they are what needs to be done when maintenance is underperformed or ignored for decades and/or the facility/resource is not monitored. These type projects have often been used as trojan horses for my definition of development, and still are, judging by the Merced River Plan, for example. All infrastructure reaches the end of its service life eventually and needs reconstruction, but the NPS almost invariably doubles-down with a much more elaborate facility. Maintenance is changing the oil & checking the tire pressure. What the NPS usually did in my experience was run their Chevy into the ground and trade up to a Caddy.

My point was not whether this development comes from the NPS budget or other funding sources, but that MORE was a far higher priority for NPS management than maintenance (or resource management) during my career, and still appears strongly so. I'll believe otherwise when they change course and start to fund some of Barbara Moritsch's suggestions in Soul Of Yosemite.

source is not the NPS line item construction account. It is the stimulus bill.

So what, its money that the NPS chooses to spend. That stimulus money (and the other 14 mil) could have been directed towards maintenance instead. And the same could be said for Tahoma's follow on list.

Some good points made by all - and I appreciate the civil discussion of the topic despite varying viewpoints.

Tahoma's comment that some of the differences are based on semanics is correct, and the line between "maintenance" and "construction" is sometimes a bit blurry. I'd describe repaving a road as maintenance, but there's room for debate about how to classify widening a road that may have been adequate in the 1930s but is probably marginal to unsafe for today's larger vehicles. If an aging visitor center is to be "redone" or even replaced with a new structure, should the footprint for the new facility be no larger than the original? The answer probably varies on a case by case basis.

As to whether the NPS had complete control over how stimulus money was spent (i.e. "mainenance vs. new construction), I don't know. I certainly suspect there was considerable "input" from the Department and politicians as to which projects were funded, and the emphasis of the program was, after all, to "stimulate" the economy by doing the work with private, not NPS, labor ... and to spend the money as quickly as possible.

Do those criteria tend to favor new construction vs. basic maintenance...and did some in the NPS see stimulus money as a chance to fund new construction that would proably never be funded through "normal" channels? In some cases, perhaps so.

A couple more points. Even if private contractors do these congressionally micromanaged development projects without 'line-item' funding, surely the NPS has considerable expense from design, compliance, project management, completion reports, etc...all the way down to the press release (taxpayer funded spin) in Kurt's inbox.

It might sound as though I oppose any form of improving the parks. Not so! No doubt most of the above projects address real needs; I might have approved some, or even many, of them myself, had I that authority. A little more is fine, IF you can sustain what you've already got. It's just that NPS management's priorities seem so bass-ackwards. Sometimes the NPS seems like a slowly chugging steam train with a huge gang of politicians, bureaucrats, NGOs, civil servants and volunteers frantically building track and new stations ahead, while the line crumbles behind them. Helluva way to run a railroad.

Finally, even though the comment is four years old, here's some food for thought:

Submitted by Chris Zinda (not verified) on May 7, 2009.

"Having been a manager in several national park sites in administration, budgeting and strategic planning, I can assure you that the big parks are NOT underfunded. My last stint was with Yosemite and they have so much money that they cannot perform the necessary EIS planning to spend it - leaving tens of millions on the table every year.

Recreation Fee monies are quickly becoming a bane to the big parks. There's only so much money you can spend, only so many development / redevelopment projects to undertake, only so many employees to rationalize the spending through planning efforts.

In any case, you cannot spend your way out of a finite resource (or damage created by recreational overuse).

Rationing is the future."