Strapped parks look for money

  • Cartoon showing mountain and lake with sponsor's names

    Jack Ohman/The Oregonian

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 bovines.

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."

Hard times 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 campgrounds.

"It's a whole new way of doing business," says the ranger.

Great 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 programs.

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.

Possible 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.

Identical 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.

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. Treasury.

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.

Two sets 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. 309).

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.

The idea 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.

Finley 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 intern