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2017 State Of The National Parks

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What is the state of the national parks, and what will the coming years bring them?/Blue Ridge Parkway photo via NPS

The arrival of 2017 has opened a new chapter for the National Park Service and the National Park System, one that in the first days of the Trump administration and the Republican-controlled Congress is fraught with concern over both the stability of the agency and the health of the parks. 

  • The administration wants to reduce the size of the federal workforce.
  • Nominees for key agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Energy could support initiatives detrimental to natural resources.
  • Republicans in Congress are pushing to limit, if not entirely do away with, use of the Antiquities Act by presidents to designate national monuments.
  • Budget increases for the Park Service, feeble during the past eight years, could be even more meager.

It's too early to say how these will play out, but they all bear watching. Also unknown is how the Trump administration's view toward climate change could impact the National Park System, from the Park Service's policy approach to climate change to how parks are physically prepared to react to it. Will President Trump's energy policies directly impact parks, either from increased drilling within units of the park system where exploration and production is at least legislatively permitted if not actually underway, or from exploration and production allowed right up to a park's boundary?

Will the administration's approach to illegal immigration, and that of some Republicans in Congress, lead to impacts on natural resources within parks such as Big Bend National Park in Texas and Glacier National Park in Montana as decisions are made to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and give the U.S. Border Patrol greater rein that could exempt the Patrol from such laws and regulations as the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Park Service Organic Act, the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, the Antiquities Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and others.

Of course, the Trump administration inherits a National Park Service and National Park System with more than a few warts and problems. Employee morale is low, sexual harassment and other forms of bullying have grabbed headlines and left both field staff and their supervisors on edge, recently retired Park Service Director Jon Jarvis ignored the Interior Department's Ethics Office, a regional director was investigated for padding his travel expenses by almost $18,000, and an investigation into descration of the landscape at Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa came to the conclusion that the National Park Service is dysfunctional when it comes to cultural resources management.

The National Park Service's centennial celebration in 2016 brought record crowds out to parks to see such landscapes as Avalanche Creek in Glacier National Park/Rebecca Latson

But celebration of the National Park Service's centennial last year generated a huge upwelling in interest and support in the national parks, visible in both the record crowds that headed into the National Park System and the highly successful fundraising campaign orchestrated by the National Park Foundation that should infuse upwards of $350 million into the parks.

Going forward, what remains to be seen is not only whether that embracing of the parks and related charitable giving continues but if the National Park Service is given the tools and resources to "conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." 

To gauge the state of the national parks from one year to the next, and over the course of a White House administration or Congress, we've creating a baseline of sorts for the Park Service and its system as of January 20, 2017:

  • National Park System Units: 417
  • Workforce: 22,914 FTEs (authorized full-time equivalents) as of Fiscal 2015; 24,239 request for Fiscal 2017
  • Position vacancies: 1,731
  • Budget: $3.4 billion appropriated for Fiscal 2015
  • Maintenance backlog: $11.9 billion
  • National Park Service ranking in Best Places To Work In Federal Government: 262 out of 305 agencies

The change in White House administrations, and the GOP's control of both chambers of Congress, has park advocates deeply concerned.

“I think that given we’ve just come off of the centennial, we’ve had a lot of really positive happenings for parks, from the legislation that will provide a little more funding and at least start an endowment and provide some funds for the Centennial Challenge so that we can start to see more funds being matched by the private sector with public dollars," said Theresa Pierno, president the chief executive officer of the National Parks Conservation Association, when asked to assess the state of the parks. "I think that’s good. And, of course, the fact that the past administration had a very strong hand in helping to diversify the system and represent broader stories of America and Americans and provided some really important protections and stories that I think are not told."

But she pointed out the struggles with Congress to substantively increase the Park Service's budget for both daily operations and to chip away at the maintenance backlog. The Trump administration's determination to reduce the size of the federal workforce won't be good for the Park Service, she added, especially if one impact is a significant delay in hiring, or reduction of, the seasonal workforce.

"That’s one thing that this hiring freeze will have a tremendous impact on," she said. "If they’re not able to hire seasonals, start that process soon, we’re going to find ourselves in real trouble with all the additional people that are now coming to the parks.

"... So now you’ve got that issue, along with the fact that they’re underfunded to begin with, and now there’s even more stress on them.”

Dinosaur National Monument in Utah and Colorado saw 2016 visitation climb 4.3 percent over 2015/NPS

At the Coalition to Protect America's National Parks, Phil Francis, who retired in 2013 as superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway after a 41-year Park Service career, noted that the agency still struggles with the impact of the 2013 sequestration cut its budget and staffing.

"When I retired," he said, "we had some substantial losses in staff. We had lost half of our field maintenance jobs on the Blue Ridge Parkway, we had lost a number of administrative positions. Altogether I think we had lost 60 permanent jobs in 2013. And of course our seasonal positions had been lessened, but we were able to compensate for some of that with donated funds.

"And so what’s happened since 2013? Well, I think there’s been a small bump up.”

To gain a little appreciation for the impact Congress has had on the Park Service's maintenance backlog, the agency's budget line for that work has dropped from $1.2 billion in 2009, when it was bolstered by $750 million through the American Recovery and Reinestment Act, to $240 million (post-sequestration) in 2013. Last year, it rebounded a bit to $444.1 million.

Though some say it's too early to judge how the Trump administration might treat the parks and the Park Service, as the president has only been in office for nine days, Ms. Pierno looks at his cabinet nominees and worries just the same.

“I think that at least you have insight into the nominees that they picked to head these various departments. And what gives us really some concern is when you put somebody in the lead at EPA who really has spent their career at trying to dismantle the EPA and has challenged them on various issues, whether it’s regional haze or clean water, and has really been an enemy to the Environmental Protection Agency," she said.

"That’s very frightening and I think that makes a very strong statement. So, we can't have healthy parks if we don’t have protections for them for air and water, if we’re not addressing climate change. These are all critical factors to having really clean, healthy national parks. ... We’re quite concerned with what we’re hearing."

U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, President Trump's nominee to lead the Interior Department, hopefully will turn out to be a champion for national parks, the NPCA leader said.

“There have been some encouraging signs, what we’re seeing and hearing. He has committed to addressing the $12 billion infrastructure backlog, and he also has expressed support for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and has said he opposes selling off public lands. All that’s good news," Ms. Pierno said.

Yet both Ms. Pierno and Mr. Francis expressed concern that budget and personnel factors could lead to changes in operating hours and even seasonal openings for some parks.

“I think anytime you have major budget cuts, you’re going to have to set some priorities. You’re just going to have to say, more so now than ever, some things that we’re accustomed to doing, we’re not going to be able to do," said Mr. Francis. " We need to take care of our staff. We need to make sure they’re as productive as possible. And we shouldn’t have unrealistic expectations of them, and it may mean maybe restricting vistiation. Closing the parks. It’s going to adversely affect communities. We just can’t keep piling on the backs of our employees.

“I woudn’t be surprised if we didn’t shorten our hours. Maybe not open the same time we open in the spring or close in the fall," he added. "I just don’t see how we can avoid that if we start losing two vacancies for every three vacancies that we have, especially for an aging workforce.”

“What’s really frightening," said Ms. Pierno, "you have a large number of (NPS) staff that qualify for retirement, so they could retire. My worry is if the climate that they’re working under is more strained, it becomes more negative, it’s going to push more people to make that decision to retire rather than hang in there.

“So the combination of that and potential discussions about cutting back the federal workforce, if we see additional cuts or they’re not able to fill positions, you could look at kind of catastrophic kinds of impacts where parks would potentially have to reduce hours or potentially close. From a safety standpoint, they have to be able to have rangers in the parks in order to keep the doors open.”

Might national parks, such as Acadia in Maine, be forced to reduce their operating hours or seasons without better funding and more personnel?/Colleen Miniuk-Sperry

Noting that the Park Service budget has shrunk from one-eighth of 1 percent of the overall federal budget to one-16th of 1 percent, Mr. Francis shuddered to think what will happen if that trend isn't reversed.

"It makes me concerned about our ability to maintain those sites that we’ve been given," he said. "I certainly vote for more funding and for more support for things that are sort of like apple pie and motherhood. Our country’s history, our country’s natural places, some of the most beautiful places in America.

"It’s our heritage, very important in a lot of many different ways, and it seems to me, for something that costs so little, it’s a great investment."

What is the state of the parks, he asked? 

"Morale is low, it’s going to be adversely affected again if our budget is cut. The condition of our assets is going to decline. Fewer (NPS) people at a time when the average age has never been higher," said Mr. Francis. "It’s a time when we should be bringing new people in and transferring the institutional knowledge to a new group of people. It’s a time where we’re beginning our second 100 years, a time where it could be a proud day for America with regard to our national parks.

"But it seems to me that we’re at risk ... heading in the wrong direction.”

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Comments

Your article is spot on Kurt. The next few months and years will be difficult for the National Parks and National Park Service. We cannot count on additional money and staff. The country is running huge deficits and there are many other needs and priorities. So what can we do? I suggest that now is the time to do the following. 

1. We need to be realistic and admit that we have too many parks. Not all parks are equal and some can be transferred to state and local communities. We need a commission to examine all of our national parks to determine which ones can be transferred. Criteria to determine this should be national significance, suitability and feasibility as well as the cost for each visitor. Let us husband our resources and place them in the more visited and significant areas.

2. We need to institute a policy of zero based funding for all nps programs. We have too many marginal programs that can be cut or eliminated. If a program does not produce a significant product that will enhance the experience of our park visitors then perhaps it can be eliminated and the money transferred to another area. 

3. All positions should be channeled to our parks and critical positions supporting our parks. We have too many people in our Washington and Regional offices. In times of shortage let's send the people to the places where they will do the most good.

4. We need to educate our workforce. Yes, as older employees retire the level of knowledge of our employees is reduced. I would start be giving every employee four or five critical books that will enhance their understanding of the National Park Service and its history.

5. We need to beef up the history programs of the National park Service. Every park should have a recent park administrative history. Every park should have current interpretive planning and management planning documents.

6. Yes, our management has been dysfunctional at best. We need to hire the best managers we can attract. We have a huge maintenance backlog but with creative management we can begin to make a dent in this backlog.

7. An finally we need to set the highest examples for our employees. If a regional director steals $17,000 he should be fired and not just transferred to the Washington office. Either we have standards or we do not. 

 

There are other actions that can be taken but I would start with the seven outlined above. The National Park Service has been neglected and mismanaged during the past administration. Now is the time to change. There is much we can do to reverse this situation.


The Park Service needs an overhaul because they don't really know what they are doing at the most basic level which is evalutation of their mission.

Their mission is to "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

I have questioned the NPS on what standards they use to evaluate how they are doing on performance of their mission. I think that a point in time would be the standard, such as for example 1951, when Grand Teton Park became a National Park in the case of Grand Teton. I questioned Grand Teton Park's information people about what standard and  I was told in an email by some anonymous Park employee that the standard was not a point in time. So what metric or benchmark or standard is used to evaluate conservation and unimpairment? I only receive circular answers to this question when I have asked Park employees and other experts on the Parks, Apparently, there is no standard and what the Park is doing is arbitrary? So it appears that the Parks are operated in an arbitrary manner and that Park management has no science behind their decision making. So let's begin an overhaul of the NPS by really defining the standards to be used in measuring the efforts of the NPS to fulfill its mission in order to have a sensible and efficient NPS.


The very best part of the new administration is that the cabinet picks are all people with real world experience in the private sector where steadily increasing budgets and staffing are not expected. A $11 billion dollar maintenance hole is a monument to mismanagement and can only happen in a culture that believes that they will be bailed out if they let things decline enough. National Parks are not too big to fail 


Hogwash! NPS hires excellent people who carry the workload of more than one... As the population increases we need more open space not less. More Parks and less fighter jets. You're entitled to your opion of course but many millions of people disagree with you. For sure.


Hogwash to your world view too. Just wait and see what these corporate types do to the park service and this country. We will all be sorry when it's done, including most who voted them in. The first week has created suffering and chaos. More to come for sure. Let's keep our wits about us and remember what we value. If you're reading this site you must value open space and parks. Wait and see what happens with these "real" world leaders at the helm. 


Bill B - is that two different userid's that you're posting from? Sounds like the same guy.


Bill Baehr--

I have both science and management replies to your post.  Sorry to be so long-winded.

Alas, while a specific point in time as a resource management objective works for a museum or primarily historic park, it doesn't work for natural resource parks, or even parks like Gettysburg.

Gettysburg is a rather trivial example to explain and understand.  Clearly the conditions of July 1863 are the management goal.  But, forests in the battlefield don't stay in suspended animation.  Individual trees grow larger and older, die, and are replaced by new trees, often of other species, that were able to get a head start in the shady understory (forest succession).  You simply can't keep the forests the way they were during the battle unless you replace them all with plastic Disney trees.  [Then you don't get the wildlife right.]

For "pure" natural National Parks, choice of a date is less obvious, but at all dates the ecosystems are dynamic and non-steady state.  Park ecosystems at the date of dedication as a park, or 1916, or 1790, or 1492 (for pre-European "discovery"), were all as dynamic as the forests of Gettysburg in 1863.  I don't know Grand Teton enough to state their management issues off the top of my head, but certainly wildlife in GRTE in 1951 was not in a state that could be maintained.  It is likely that some of the forests had been logged, and other impacts have recovered or been restored since then.   [Lodgepole pine has a large patch size fire replacement cycle, with steady state no more possible than the forests of Gettysburg.]  Teton Glacier has shrunk by >25% since 1951, so clearly 1951 glacier conditions is an unattainable and irrelevant definition of "unimpaired".

Going back further, while we don't have a way-back machine to get comprehensive data on what park ecosystems were like in 1790 or 1500, there's pretty good evidence that with 5-10M more beaver in 1790 than today, most of those scenic steep mountain streams burbling over rocks in western parks had a whole lot of beaver dams and slack water from pool to pool all the way down.  Even before (re)introduction of horses from European explorers, Native Americans clearly used fire to manage their landscapes not only in the great plains, but also throughout the southeast, and perhaps in eastern deciduous forests.  National Parks were founded with the idea that they were uninhabited wild lands, but nearly all were lived in and modified by Native Americans, certainly before the wave of old world disease decimated Native American populations.  [There's a literature on the dispossession of Native Americans from National Parks that I wish I had time to read and learn from.]

Even if we could define a steady-state as the management goal for a scorecard for "unimpaired", almost none of the parks are large enough to make that possible.  "Natural" fire cycles in the midwest and southeast, less so in the west, had low rates of natural ignition, but very large extent of the resulting fires, leading to frequent low-intensity burns.  There's obviously too much development and fragmentation to recreate that.  Similarly, animal migrations don't fit into parks: not bison and pronghorns in and out of Yellowstone, not many smaller animal movements in and out of smaller parks.  [Parks in Alaska are the notable exception.]  Scientists knew a lot less about these larger scale ecological processes in 1916, and the folks writing the Organic act weren't scientists.  We also now have nitrogen and acid deposition from Asia affecting high elevation lakes in Olympic, North Cascades, and Mt. Rainier NPs and foests in Great Smoky Mountains, ocean acidification, and other global scale changes no park superintendent can stop.

You claim that lack of a defined target date for defining unimpaired means that parks are operated in an arbitrary manner, and that park management has no science behind their decision making.  There are many park operations decisions I cannot understand or defend, and very few park superintendents come from science or natural resource backgrounds.  However, what I think you are asking for in terms of park management and accountability is legally mandated and rolling out slowly.  NPS is seriously grappling with what "unimpaired" means; even Jarvis understood that defining "unimpaired" in the face of external stressors and global change is a complex but important question.  

Each Park either has or is developing a "Foundation Document" that identifies their important natural and cultural resources (usually named in the enabling legislation or presidential proclamation for that park).  Next, parks are required to develop explicit "Resource Stewardship Strategies". These RSSes define the park's important resources and values, define desired conditions of each of those resources, identify stressors or factors potentially degrading the condition of those resources, and (maybe, ideally) define explicit strategies to mitigate the degradation and maintain or improve the conditions.  That's a non-trivial question and a complex process even without public participation.  The RSS team from Park Planning and Water Resources Division that helps parks with the process is very small.  Also, the park staff have all of their operational duties to keep up with.  The original process took 2-3 years per park, with only 1-2 parks RSS completed per year.  Based on lessons learned with the first few, they've somewhat streamlined the process.  See https://nature.nps.gov/water/planning/resourcestewardshipstrategies.cfm

[Yes, I'm often frustrated that some of the folks running that planning process don't have hard core science backgrounds in the long term dynamics of the park communities and ecosystems.  In my day job I work to collect relevant empirical data, then use science based on that data to inform park resource management.  I'm not at all a part of the RSS or any other planning process.]  

These desired conditions and strategies tend to be resource by resource, not "whole park" conditions such as a target date might support.  For parks that have these documents, they form part of the management history of that park that Harry rightfully thinks every park employee should read to understand their park. 

Finally, this is not some whim of WASO top management, but rather the law passed by Congress.  1998 NPS Omnibus Act (16 US Code Chapter 79, since re-organized into title 54 of public law) has a section:

Sec. 206. Integration of Study Results into Management Decisions.

- The Secretary shall take such measures as are necessary to assure the full and proper utilization of the results of scientific study for park management decisions.

- In each case in which an action undertaken by the National Park Service may cause a significant adverse effect on a park resource, the administrative record shall reflect the manner in which unit resource studies have been considered.

- The trend in the condition of resouces of the National Park System shall be a significant factor in the annual performance evaluation of each superintendent of a unit of the National Park System.

This level of planning is necessary for accountability and informed (as well as defensible) decision-making.  But, it is still management overhead.  Any optimal allocation of limited resources (time & money) will allocate almost all to direct resource management and a small portion to this overhead.  Further, compared to keeping the restrooms clean, the trash cans empty, and leading hikes & nature programs, even natural and cultural resource management can be though of as overhead, or at least not as immediate of a connection to visitors.  [I hope that there aren't any interp rangers reading that to hold it against me someday!]


Harry--

As an exercise I went down your list of 7 points.  Here's my perspective:

I disagree with your #1, except in the trivial case of most presidential boyhood homes (since perhaps Lincoln).  There's a lot of our cultural heritage that I think should be preserved for the enjoyment and education of future generations.  I don't think that history stopped in 1945 (or maybe 1954?).  I think that NPS visitors in 2116 will agree with me.

I disagree with your #2 zero-based funding.  Some programs are not one year programs.  One of the greatest inefficiencies for small parks is the inability to carry over rec fee funds across multiple years to fund larger projects like restrooms or visitor centers.  You don't start or stop stabilizing and preserving cultural resources, you don't stop collecting scientific data: those are longer-term committments to unborn future visitors.  I agree that programs should be periodically reviewed (every 5-10 years for a comprehensive review) and marginal programs modified or discontinued.  But again, that program review is overhead: time and effort not spent on meeting park and visitor needs.  Smart, effective leadership can do this program review and budget reallocation with less effort than every program re-justifying itself every year via massive paper trails.  [Hey, I can dream on the next leadership, can't I?]

I agree with your #3, although I see many positions that should be shared across parks because parks each only need a fractional FTE of it.  Putting those shared positions in WASO or regional offices doesn't work, but parks as empires or at least personal fiefdoms prevents a lot of sharing of park-based expertise with neighboring parks.  A good solution requires a cultural change among superintendents that Jarvis at least gave lip service to, but I don't see anyone on top willing to impose that change.

I entirely agree with educating and developing the workforce.  I would add some basic ecology, geology, etc., to your list of history & management history readings.

I see your #5 as 2 distinct items.  Yes, there's a lot of improvement needed in history programs in NPS, but as far as that goes also science programs.  Separately, yes, every park should have a foundation document, complete park administraive history, resource stewardship plan, then operational plans for facilities, interpretation, natural resources, and cultural resources (and LE and other divisions I fogot).  But planning is overhead, taking away from operations.  There's diminishing returns on investment in planning, and thus an optimal allocation, neither "No Plan, No Clue" nor "Planning Paralysis", but something in between.  No, I don't see upper management even considering what the optimal allocation to planning and accountability is.

On #6, I suspect I could swap dysfunctional stories with you all night until the beer runs out or the cows come home.  As for creative management, I could eliminate perhaps 1/4th of the maintenance backlog by closing the lowest traffic roads in parks, as half of the deferred maintenance is roads.  I could slightly reduce the rate of needed maintenance by eliminating private vehicles from more park roads by providing free, frequent, and functional shuttles like at Zion.  In order to make them work for more folks needs they'd have to have things to make car camping in Yosemite Valley possible without the car.  [Think stacking 5'x3x2' crates on the back of the bus or tram for visitor gear that quickly slide onto wheels and can be easily wheeled to individual campsites.  Also free emergency rides out of the campground to the outside parking area, etc., if something comes up.  Most of the reasons people think they need their car in the valley can be addressed, but that takes a lot of listening and thinking.]  Both closing roads and increasing alternative transportation would have huge positive impacts on natural resources, too.   _Maybe_ I could get enough feedback from visitors and other stakeholders to improve implementation of those ideas and get buy-in, but I'd certainly ruffle a lot of feathers in the process, and most likely would fail anyway.  Clearly, there are limits to management creativity that can be allowed, or that is helpful or possible.  Also, clearly, I have no future in management.

7.  Ditto.  And half a dozen other cases I can think of.

 

My challenge to you, Harry, is to suggest things that _we_, as in you and I and readers of NPT, can do to reverse the situation and make parks better.  Your 7 points are all about management changes imposed from above.  I think your web sites of books & resources on NPS History are a great contribution, so I'm certainly not accusing you of not doing anything.  But what other ideas do you have for what we can do from below, inside & outside of NPS?

 


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