DURANGO, Colo. - "Hi! Where are you now?"
"Well, hi! Where are you at now?" Such greetings are typical at the fourth, joint annual meeting of the Association of National Park Rangers and the Association of National Park Maintenance Employees.
They are typical because Park Service people routinely move from park to park. The transfers demonstrate loyalty to an agency that has always considered itself uniquely qualified to manage what most, at least until recently, considered the world's finest system of parks, monuments and historic sites.
The 550 men and women attending this fall meeting are a dedicated group, even for the Park Service. They have paid their way here and taken several days off from work to go to the meeting.
Attendance is always high, but this year especially, there is good reason for the sacrifice. According to one leader of the ranger association, a proposed massive reorganization now wending its way toward Congress has demoralized staff and imperiled the agency's mission.
The meeting was addressed by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, Park Service head Roger Kennedy, and Assistant Secretary of Interior George T. Frampton Jr. But the main point of the program, organizers said, were the sessions devoted to the "reorganization." They are a first. There has been much talk within the Park Service but until this meeting, no public forums.
In some ways, it's a stealth reorganization. The Park Service has yet to issue a press statement about the proposal or to freely release drafts of the plan. And although the Park Service loves to give lofty names to its projects, the reorganization is unchristened, though the process is being called Operation Future.
The proposed changes were spurred by Vice President Al Gore's National Performance Review, an effort to make the federal government "work better and cost less." It mandates downsizing of federal agencies; the Park Service's contribution calls for the agency to reduce 19,000 full time equivalent positions by 1,325 over two-and-one-half years. The Park Service plan, which must be approved by Congress, is still being formulated. But one version calls for most of the reduction to come out of the Washington, D.C., office, with 1,100 employees dropping to 200.
Change won't be cheap. Downsizing and reorganization would cost an estimated, and variable, $18 million to $38 million over the next two years to move people out of Washington, D.C., and rent space for the new offices the plan calls for.
The costs are already being felt. More than 425 Park Service employees have accepted "buyouts" as of this fall, so money budgeted for parks will move instead into departing employees' early retirement funds.
Former Wilderness Society chief Frampton, now Interior's assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, spearheads the change. He says it will put more staff in the parks and force the agency to deal with environmental questions that lie outside park boundaries but which affect the parks. Instead of top-down directives out of a heavily staffed Washington, D.C., headquarters, superintendents will develop park policy in concert with communities and local and state governments.
Opposing Frampton are long-time employees, especially within the ranger and maintenance organizations meeting in Durango. They say the changes will weaken accountability while failing to address employee morale and the parks' environmental and infrastructure problems.
These two sets of employees are often at odds. Rangers worry about natural resources while maintenance employees are responsible for roads, buildings and sewage treatment plants. The competition plays out in Congress and in the agency's D.C. and regional offices, where the two groups compete for funds and clout.
Doubts about the plan
But rangers and maintenance employees also see that both sides have been losing as parks deteriorate, and they put aside their differences each year to hold this joint meeting. At this latest meeting not too many miles from Mesa Verde National Park, they seemed united in their doubts about Frampton's plan.
One Park Service employee told me bluntly, "We live in employee housing that is a national disgrace. We have 366 separate park system sites, and we host 273 million visitors per year. You tell me how we can do more with less."
In theory, these mostly on-the-ground employees should favor a reorganization whose purpose is to increase resources on the ground (see accompanying story). But Ken Mabery, a vice president of the ranger association, said employees have two kinds of worries.
First, they are concerned about the plan's immediate effect on their pet projects and on the parks they work at. But more generally, they worry about the fact that the present 10 regional offices that now supervise the parks will turn into 26 offices above the parks. While these 26 new offices will be more lightly staffed initially, Mabery said employees fear those offices will grow and again take resources from the ground.
The plan will probably be altered when it gets to the Congress. But the intention is to reduce supervision from above - from the regional offices and from Washington, D.C., - and to expand a park superintendent's power to make decisions without sending it up through a chain of command. However, that on-the-ground power may also increase a park's vulnerability to local political forces.
As a result, others besides Park Service employees are worried. In a letter to director Roger Kennedy, Paul Pritchard, president of the citizen watchdog group National Parks and Conservation Association in Washington, D.C., expressed concern about delegating decision-making to lower levels.
Pritchard fears the plan could skew or limit citizen involvement and oversight: "Most local economic pressures are aligned for exploitation of parks and visitors and against resource protection. This often pits the superintendent against those local interests and members of the congressional delegation." On-the-ground consensus, Pritchard fears, could turn into capitulation.
The rangers and maintenance staffs at the meeting were aware of NPCA's objections. In discussions, some wondered if the NPCA's support for the status quo is really in the parks' best interest. They said that as long as income from park admission and franchise fees disappears into the U.S. Treasury, leaving the Park Service dependent on Congress for money, then groups like NPCA will remain powerful because of their influence over the appropriations process.
Certainly the current appropriations process and the agency's centralized approach has flaws. According to reports by the Interior Department's Inspector General, the Park Service is unable to document more than $7 billion in its accounts.
And although federal law requires the agency to review concession fees every five years, in practice, most are renewed without review. In 1992, park concessionaires earned $650 million and paid only 2.6 percent of that to the government in franchise fees.
These and other problems cry out for new approaches, but a recent attempt at change failed when the National Park Concessions Policy Reform Act died in Congress. According to ABC reporter John Martin, it was killed by two U.S. senators who used a Senate rule to kill the bill while remaining anonymous. It would have raised concession fees and returned as much as $60 million annually to the parks rather than to the federal Treasury, as is now the case.
Could it be time, some rangers wondered, to look for new allies in new places? As it turned out, the meeting's first speaker, Karl Hess, came loaded with such suggestions.
Critic wins over staffers
He was a curious choice for a keynote speaker to a group of Park Service employees. His recent book, Rocky Times in Rocky Mountain National Park, has earned him a reputation as a kinder, gentler Alston Chase, a critic who routinely lambasts the agency.
Hess wasn't invited because the associations agreed with his stance - almost to a person, they are loyal to the agency - but because they wanted to be stimulated by one of their critics. Hess received a polite but none-too-warm welcome. However, by the time he left a day later, after attending a series of seminars, he seemed to have impressed many of those at the meeting.
The Park Service's real problems, he said in his speech, start with the bureaucracy's incentive system, which is skewed toward maximizing visitor numbers while neglecting environmental problems. Hess charged that the agency's ultimate customer is not the parks' resources but the pork-providing, log-rolling local congressional delegation.
Frampton's attempt to decentralize agency decision-making and push resources to the parks is consistent with Hess' general ideas. But according to Hess, Frampton's plan does not go far enough.
Instead, Hess said, the Park Service should sever its ties with a federal funding system controlled by a Congress that will always cut its ecological mission short even as it keeps parks on starvation budgets.
For reorganization to be meaningful, Hess continued, the agency must choose between two values: the natural beauty and heritage of parks versus increasing numbers of visitors and concessions that threaten the parks' beauty and heritage.
The reorganization plan, he said, not only fails to choose between those values, but doesn't address the agency's two most pressing problems: the need for stable, long-term funding and the reliance on a biological theory known as "natural regulation." The latter, he and Alston Chase and some scientists argue, has led to a number of disasters, including the devastation of parts of Rocky Mountain National Park and Yellowstone by large, and unnatural, elk herds (HCN, 5/30/94).
Hess urged his audience to take a fresh look at an organization they may take as a given. He told his astonished listeners there is no compelling reason for a centralized, federally funded National Park Service. Why not decentralize the parks along ecological lines? And why not substitute university-style collegiality for hierarchy? The United States has the world's finest university system, but it has never centralized education or the funding of education, he pointed out.
Instead of cutting employees, Hess said the parks could hire more staff to maintain and restore the ecological integrity of their natural wonders - if they collected appropriate admission fees.
"What we value most we practically give away," he said, referring to the parks' natural resources. And referring to the parks' concessions, he said, "What we value least, we charge for."
He told of a recent busy weekend at Yosemite. In anticipation of overwhelming crowds, the superintendent put out the word to the media that visitors should stay away. They did - with the result that Yosemite's lodging facilities filled first, while motels and restaurants in gateway towns went begging.
"Gateway communities make money only when the park is full," Hess explained, "so of course they pressure the Park Service to maximize visitation. They blew up at the superintendent, who now keeps his mouth shut." The result: Yosemite's crowding problem continues to worsen.
Hess said Congress uses the parks to hand out political pork in a wide variety of ways. For example, people over 62 who can pay a one-time $10 fee for a lifetime pass, and can afford to travel to Yellowstone, Grand Canyon or other parks, get in for free. They are an affluent part of society, Hess said, and are subsidized by poor people who can't afford to get to the parks.
One solution, according to Hess, is to make each park independent, allowing it to collect and keep entrance fees determined by what the market will bear. Presently, only 15 percent of the Park Service's budget comes from entrance fees. With concessions gone from the parks, and located in the gateway communities, the pressure for pulling more and more people into the park will decrease. Where pressure exists, he said, the parks will be able to resist because in order to charge relatively high fees, parks will have to satisfy visitors.
Hess also urged his listeners not to panic at the prospect of local involvement. Looking at the National Parks and Conservation Association's concerns about unseemly local influence on parks, Hess wondered why the only good citizens seem to be those who are far from the parks. Can it be true, he asked, that a local economic interest is evil just because it is both local and economic?
Did Hess win over his audience to free-market environmentalism? No, said the ranger association's Mabery. "But the mood of the meeting," he continued, "was that the agency is changing very fast without a good sense of how the changes will be implemented." In this unsettling atmosphere, Park Service employees were willing to listen to unusual ideas.
"We didn't agree with his conclusions," Mabery said, "but the logical steps he laid out made a lot of sense."
Tom Wolf writes in Westcliffe, Colorado. Ed Marston contributed to this report.
The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story: