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.
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.”
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.”
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.”