The national park popularity contest

An Oklahoma senator’s financial fix for our national treasures.

  • "Get your pork fix on Route 66," snarks the report, Parked!


Should the National Park Service take Sen. Tom Coburn's advice? In a 208-page report released Oct. 29, the Republican from Oklahoma blames the agency's financial troubles on lawmakers who designate pet parks to boost their popularity back home. If there's no money to fix water lines at Grand Canyon or toilets at Yosemite, Parked! asserts, it's because the Park Service has frittered it away on those "parochial concerns."

Coburn's report, timed to coincide with the Park Service's 2016 centennial preparations, is an interesting and occasionally entertaining read. Who knew that the feds spent $217,084 restoring neon signs along the Southwest's iconic Route 66? Or that 93 cattle reside at the Grant-Kohrs National Historic Site, a "living history" ranch on I-90 between Glacier and Yellowstone? The report evaluates parks by how much taxpayers spent per visitor, a peculiar but informative metric: The Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve in eastern Alaska comes in at a staggering $1,300 subsidy per visitor; Grant-Kohrs costs $85.

In fact, says the report, "more than 70 national park units attract fewer than 100 daily visitors." More Americans are struck by lightning every year than visit Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve in Alaska's Aleutian Range, and the Arkansas Post National Memorial reports that its few visitors got lost on the way to somewhere else. "When someone shows up at the Thomas Stone National Historic Park site in Maryland," Parked! reports, "the ranger says, 'I hope it's not UPS again.' "

"Of the 401 park units the NPS manages," Coburn concluded in a recent interview with Fox News, "a third aren't real treasures, and should never have been made parks in the first place."'

That kind of thinking is anathema to Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, of course, who considers it his personal mission "to break through the public perception that all the Park Service does is manage five big Western parks, and all their names start with Y."  The national parks system is supposed to "represent the history and environment of America," he recently told a group of journalists in Los Angeles. Even the lesser-known park units "are still of value in telling the story of this country."

Coburn – who has often fought federal land protection in the name of energy development – may not be the best person to argue with that. When, in early 2009, he threatened to filibuster the omnibus lands bill introduced by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D.-N.M., it wasn't out of concern for Yellowstone's sewers. It was because the bill protected land for parks and wilderness, land Coburn saw as containing "300 million barrels of proven oil that we are no longer going to take."

No one disputes that national park infrastructure needs upkeep; except for a decade-long respite that ended in 1966, the agency's "deferred maintenance backlog" has been an issue since the late 1930s, when New Deal construction programs expired and the country went to war.  In 1997, the backlog totaled an estimated $6.1 billion; in 2008, it was $9 billion. Now it's close to $12 billion – almost five times the agency's entire budget. Periodic attempts have been made to reduce it, but the $735 million in the 2009 stimulus was just enough to delay the backlog's growth for about a year.

Coburn's solution is simple: Put a moratorium on new parks until the backlog has been reduced to zero, and strip the president of the authority to create national monuments under the Antiquities Act – long a bête noire of conservative lawmakers. Meanwhile, Coburn recommends piecemeal solutions, such as doing away with the $289,000 Route 66 National Historic Highway Program and raising the price of senior citizens' lifetime passes from $10 to $80.

But it's "absolute fantasy" to think any of that would help, says Craig Obey, the senior vice president of government affairs at the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association. "If you want to address the backlog, you need to understand that backlog." Close to half of it involves crumbling roads, bridges and other transportation woes. Congress can address that, Obey says, in the Park Service's share of annual highway appropriations, as Jarvis has requested.

Oddly, Parked! buries that same point in a footnote, which makes the whole document seem like much ado over an agency whose entire annual expenditures amount to just 1/15 of 1 percent of the federal budget. Park Service appropriations have already been cut 6 percent over the last two years; another 6 percent went in the 2013 continuing resolution known as the sequester.

And that was all before the shutdown – a debacle that cost the Park Service $450,000 a day in lost revenue and inspired grand acts of civil disobedience: Frustrated visitors and their children defied the gates at Zion; "Occupy Yosemite" protesters staged sit-ins at Tuolumne Meadows. Jarvis considers those demonstrations patriotic. Obey, however, finds them ironic. "When the sequester began closing parks, you didn't have people breaking down barricades," he says. "The truth is there's been a slow-motion shutdown in progress for years." If Coburn wants to do something about it, he adds, "he'll have to do more than throw out opinions and numbers that don't add up."

Mike Evans
Mike Evans Subscriber
Nov 26, 2013 03:19 PM
Sounds like Dr. Coburn could use a vacation, a little peace & quiet, some time to unwind. He seems a little uptight over details surrounding his work. Maybe a few days in Yosemite Valley in the Ahwahnee, or relaxing at El Tovar on the South Rim would allow him to gain a better perspective and return to work a new man.
Kyle Gardner
Kyle Gardner Subscriber
Nov 26, 2013 07:38 PM
Too bad Doc Coburn didn't focus on a far more pressing financial problem such as:[…]/pentagons-bosses-thwart-accurate.html

Billions more at stake and most likely wasted on useless nonsense, combined with a willful effort to undercut the accounting process and revise the numbers. This is criminal by most definitions. Yet the NPS is the boogie man according to Doc Coburn. I would agree the "senator" needs a vacation...a permanent vacation!

Mary Wells
Mary Wells Subscriber
Nov 27, 2013 09:45 AM
As a fix income senior I appreciate senior discounts, however the ridiculous low
cost of a life time pass needs a second look. Ten dollars for a life time (30 more years) of National Park visits certainly doesn't make sense. Perhaps a sliding scale or a choice of fees levels would be more helpful to the parks, it is sad to see them decline, our jewels of nature need support to keep them available and safe for visitors and wildlife.
Tom Ribe
Tom Ribe Subscriber
Dec 01, 2013 07:57 PM
It's a little hypocritical of Senator Coburn to suggest that shrinking the national park system is needed in the face of low budgets. He's the one who has been cutting the NPS budget for years along with the help of other so called conservatives. The NPS needs a big increase to catch up with maintenance backlog and to have an adequate staff for protection, research and education. Even with a couple of billion more dollars, the NPS budget would be decimal dust.

The good news is that the right is no longer proposing to abolish the national parks as they were twenty years ago. The parks and the NPS are very popular. So they starve the NPS quietly and hope the public doesn't notice the lack of staff and the crumbling trails and buildings. Fund the parks.
Claudia Narcisco
Claudia Narcisco Subscriber
Jan 21, 2014 02:08 PM
The National Park System is loved by american and international visitors who spend billions of dollars each year, dollars that are important if not critical to many rural communities. Based on a compilation in Wikepedia, "NPS employs over 20,000 Americans with an additional 221,000 Volunteers-In-Parks who contribute about 6.4 million hours annually.[23] According to a 2011 Michigan State University report prepared for the NPS, for each $1 invested in the NPS, the American public receives $4 in economic value. In 2011, national parks generated $30.1 billion in economic activity and 252,000 jobs nationwide. Thirteen billion of that amount went directly into communities within 60 miles of a NPS unit.[24] Moreover, for every million dollars invested in park construction and maintenance, an additional 14 – 16 jobs are generated.[25]" Still, this fantastic american institution has been intentionally starved by the likes of the good Senator Coburn, who have seen fit to allocate a stagnant or declining budget to this beloved agency. Perhaps Coburn's argument, that the [park] system not be expanded until the backlog of repairs or maintenance is completed before any new ones are approved, would be better applied to existing pipelines, oil and gas wells, etc.