Visitors who go to Nevada's Great Basin National Park to tour limestone caves and gawk at wind-twisted bristlecone pines may not notice anything different this summer.
Campground gates and visitors' center doors are open as usual.
Rangers lead hikes to Alpine Lake each morning, and lecture campers
in the evenings about everything from bats to
But behind the scenes, budget
shortfalls have forced officials to cut corners.
Five of 26 full-time positions are vacant, and seasonal staffers
are more scarce than usual. Road and campground maintenance has
dropped to a bare minimum, while science and resource monitoring
programs are collecting dust. Chief ranger Joe Fowler says, "We
have a real backlog of work that's not accomplished. Eventually
that will be felt by the visitors."
have forced park officials to "get creative," says Fowler. The park
has made cooperative agreements with other agencies to share the
costs of ambulance services and fighting fires, and volunteers are
picking up some of the slack by maintaining trails and
"It's a whole new
way of doing business," says the ranger.
Basin is not the only park feeling the budget squeeze. Since 1992,
funding for the National Park Service has hit a plateau, leveling
off at about $1.4 billion. Meanwhile, says parks spokeswoman Elaine
Sevy, the agency's workload has piled up so much that it now faces
a $4.5 billion backlog in routine maintenance. As a result,
visitors to many parks are finding closed campgrounds and museums,
potholes big enough to swallow Winnebagos, and fewer nature
Parks officials have little hope that
they will be bailed out by a Republican Congress that wonders
whether some national parks deserve any funding at all. While the
House approved a bill that would raise parks funding by $50 million
next year, the increase would barely cover congressionally mandated
pay raises for park employees.
remedies, ranging from new fee programs to corporate sponsorships,
have drawn fire from critics who say they allow Congress to shirk
its responsibility to fund the parks.
bills on the fast track in the House and Senate would allow
corporations to become "official sponsors' of the parks (H.R. 3819
and S. 1703). The bills' authors, Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska,
and Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, say sponsorships could raise $100
million each year.
Some critics, however, fear
that sponsorship will lead to crass commercialization. An early
version of the bill was "really bad," says National Parks and
Conservation Association spokeswoman Kathy Westra, though added
safeguards would prevent sponsors from advertising within the
parks. Still, Westra predicts there will be "a whole lot of
pressure on the parks to accommodate these corporations."
Hedrick Belin, a spokesman for the National
Parks Foundation, insists that the bill insulates the parks from
corporate pressures. The foundation, created by Congress in 1967 to
funnel private contributions to the parks, would act as an agent in
pursuing sponsors. Belin points out that the Interior secretary
would have the final say on all sponsorships, and once accepted,
donors would become official sponsors of the parks system, rather
than a particular park. Also, corporations could not claim the
backing of the parks - no one could tout the "official burger" of
the National Park Service.
Even with these
buffers, the growing reliance on corporate money represents a
"dangerous trend," says Don Striker, budget officer for Yellowstone
National Park. Westra agrees: "Even if they do raise $100 million,
it's going to be a drop in the bucket. Congress should not expect
corporate America to do their job for them."
Yet corporate money is nothing new to the national parks. Early
parks such as Yellowstone and Glacier were built by the railroads.
Corporations maintain a presence by running restaurants, hotels and
gas stations as concessionaires.
operate under a 1965 law that allows them 10- to 30-year contracts
and preferential treatment at renewal time. In return, they pay a
scant 2.7 percent of their proceeds to the U.S.
While concessions-reform bills passed
by overwhelming margins late in the last Congress, Republican Sen.
Richard Shelby from Alabama put the bills on hold just long enough
to miss President Clinton's signature.
of concessions-reform bills have been introduced in Congress this
session, but neither has made any headway. Kansas Rep. Jan Meyers
and Utah Sen. Robert Bennett, both Republicans, introduced bills
calling for open competition for shorter contracts and higher
concessionaire fees to be kept within the parks (H.R. 773 and S.
Hansen and Murkowski, the congressmen
behind corporate sponsorship, have introduced bills that would
continue to discourage competition among concessionaires and return
a meager percentage of revenue to the federal government (H.R. 2028
and S. 1144). Concessionaires, which enjoy monopolies within the
parks, would also be free to set prices with no oversight from the
Park Service. Westra says their proposal "would make (the
concessionaires') sweetheart deals even sweeter."
Park entrance fees may offer another remedy for
ailing budgets. Traditionally, all but a small percentage of these
fees have been shuffled off to federal coffers. Now Congress is
hoping to quiet cries of poverty by letting parks keep more of the
money collected at entrance gates.
delights some park officials and politicians who have been pushing
to raise entrance fees (HCN, 5/27/96). Yellowstone Superintendent
Mike Finley says if fees stayed within the parks, the public would
be willing to pay more to visit.
But a pilot
program signed into law last spring has proven to be a
disappointment. Congressional sponsors touted the program as the
answer to financial woes, because it would allow parks to retain 80
percent of gate fees. Actually, it allows selected parks to keep 80
percent of revenue above the 1995 level.
points out that even if Yellowstone kept all of its revenue,
congressional funding would not be rendered obsolete. He estimates
that Yellowstone would have to charge $70 per carload to run the
park solely on entrance fees.
The Park Service's
Elaine Sevy adds that the parks will be "devastated" if Congress
uses money from corporate sponsors, concessionaires and entrance
fees to justify cutting the parks budget even further. "If
(Congress) takes away our appropriations, they'll kill us."
Greg Hanscom is an HCN